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A Day Late
 and a Dollar Short

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, April 28, 2002


Readings

Joshua 24:19-27
 "You cannot serve the Lord"

Joshua said to the people, "You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good."

And the people said to Joshua, "No, we will serve the Lord!"

Then Joshua said to the people, "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him."

And they said, "We are witnesses."

He said, "Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel."

The people said to Joshua, "The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey."

So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem. Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God; and he took a large stone, and set it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. Joshua said to all the people, "See, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God."


Luke 16:1-13
 The parable of the shrewd manager

Then Jesus said to his disciples, "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, 'What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.'

"Then the manager said to himself, 'What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.'

"So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?'

"He answered, 'A hundred jars of olive oil.'

"He said to him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.'

"Then he asked another, 'And how much do you owe?'

"He replied, 'A hundred bushels of wheat.'

"He said to him, 'Take your bill and make it eighty.'

"And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into eternal homes.

"Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?

"No servant can serve two masters; for a servant will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money."


Arcana Coelestia #9211
Taking credit for our actions

When we do good things for the neighbor, it should come from the heart. We should believe that nothing we do from ourselves has any worth, but only what we do from the presence of the Lord within us. Only the Lord has worth, and only the Lord is righteous. When we believe this, we do not think we deserve any credit or reward for anything we do from ourselves; rather, we attribute everything good to the Lord. And since the Lord in his divine mercy is the one really doing the deeds, we attribute everything to pure mercy. When we are led by the Lord, the idea of reward doesn't even occur to us. And yet we still do good things for our neighbor, from the heart.


Sermon

Summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, "How much do you owe my master?" He answered, "A hundred jars of olive oil." He said to him, "Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty." Then he asked another, "And how much do you owe?" He replied, "A hundred bushels of wheat." He said to him, "Take your bill and make it eighty." (Luke 16:5-7)

Let's face it: there aren't any good guys in this parable--unless you count the whistle-blower who brought the manager's dishonesty to his master's attention in the first place. The manager was probably a slave or indentured servant of the master. Yet he was a trusted one, and the master had put the management of his property into his hands. Perhaps the master was an absentee landlord, as in another of Jesus' parables, and therefore did not know firsthand what his wrongly trusted servant was doing.

Though it is not plainly stated in the parable that the manager was in fact, squandering his master's property, we can assume that he was based on his actions. Instead of defending himself, which would have made sense if he were innocent, he immediately went into damage control mode. He knew the jig was up: he had lost his job. So the question was, what to do next? Perhaps he was an older man, or perhaps as property manager he was used to taking it easy and letting others do the work; at any rate, he apparently did not have the physical strength to do manual labor for a living. And to beg in the streets would be demeaning for a slave of his stature.

However, he hadn't been fired quite yet. He still had management of his master's books. So instead of preparing the accounting of his management that his master had demanded of him, he engaged in some creative accounting of his own. In collusion with his master's debtors, he cooked the books in their favor, so that they would not only be grateful to him, but would also be subject to blackmail should they not be quite grateful enough to provide him with room and board after his master had terminated his position. Clearly, this manager was a self-serving cheater, and nothing like a good guy.

The debtors, for their part, were quite willing to engage in falsifying their creditor's books in their favor. So much for "honesty is the best policy." No good guys here.

And what about the master? Apparently he found out very quickly what his manager had done. Did he take him to court and hand him over to the judge, and the judge to the officer so that he would be thrown into prison until he had paid the last penny? (Matthew 5:25, 26). No! Instead, he praised the manager for his shrewdness! Praised him for his clever, self-serving dishonesty! Apparently the slave was a character after his master's own heart. Which makes us wonder how the master got rich. No good guys here, either.

What can we make of this mess? How could Jesus tell us a parable filled with scoundrels, and then use it as the basis for several important lessons?

First, the Bible is specifically constructed to break us out of our complacency. It is possible to read the Bible without being shaken up and puzzled by it . . . . but only if we aren't paying attention--or are so used to the Bible stories that we no longer notice what they are really about. Sometimes reading them in a new translation helps us to get a fresh view of what the stories are really about. Once we do start paying attention, we find all kinds of things that, well, quite frankly, just don't make any sense, or seem downright wrong!

We are taught that God is good, and yet the Bible often uses metaphors for God that are anything but good. What about God as a thief coming in the night? (Matthew 24:42-44; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; Revelation 3:3, Revelation 16:15). Last time I checked, thievery was against the law, and considered evil by every human society. Yet with this vivid imagery the Lord tells us to be on guard, and make sure we are living right, because he will come to us like a thief in the night--and if we aren't ready, we'll be in trouble! The obvious reference is to our death: we do not know when it is coming, so we need to live today in such a way that we will be prepared for that final, spiritual accounting whenever it comes.

But death is not the only time we come to an accounting. This parable is about those times in life when we come to a time of accounting while we are still very much alive and kicking. It is less scary than the metaphor of the thief in the night, because in this case, if we have wasted our lives, we still have a chance to do something about it.

It reminds me of a time when I got a notice from my bank that a check had come in for which there were insufficient funds in my account. Most banks would have simply bounced the check. But mine called and said, "If you can get the funds into your account before the end of the business day, we'll negotiate this check instead of returning it." Now, truth be told, I had been neglecting to balance my checkbook each month. So when I made a mistake, I didn't catch it--and I had less money in my account than I thought I did. I drove to my bank (which is in another town) and made a deposit, and this time, I avoided the nuisance and embarrassment of a bounced check.

In the parable, the manager has obviously been engaged in activities a lot worse than not balancing the checkbook. He has, in fact, been wasting his master's property, probably embezzling funds and living it up while his master's "checkbook" suffered. And now he has come to his day of accounting.

Bounced checks aside, I suspect all of us have had this experience at least once in our lives. Perhaps it was when we were young, living it up as if we were immortal the way young people often do, taking excessive risks and burning our candle at both ends. And then something happened that brought us up short. Perhaps one of the buddies we were drinking with went out and got into an accident and was killed or severely injured. Perhaps one of our friends got pregnant and had her life turned upside down. Or perhaps we simply graduated from school and all of a sudden realized that Mom and Dad weren't supporting us anymore, and the fun was over!

This "accounting" can also come farther along in life. The so-called "mid-life crisis" that many people go through in their late forties or early fifties can be seen as such an accounting. We reach a certain point in our lives, and suddenly say to ourselves, "What in the world have I been doing all this time?" And looking back on our lives, we realize that we really haven't been doing much. That we have been running on a treadmill and getting nowhere. If this is part of a spiritual awakening, we realize that we have been living entirely for ourselves and our own family, and have not done much of anything for anyone else--and especially not for the Lord. We realize that we have wasted the gifts God gave us.

This is the accounting that the manager in the parable was facing. It had been fun while it lasted, but now he had to give an accounting of what he had been doing with his master's property. And one of the implicit lessons is that nothing we have is really ours. Everything we have is a gift from God, who created the universe and everything in it, and created each one of us, too. We can't claim credit for anything we have or anything we are. And yet, we have been treating the things of this world, and ourselves, too, as if it were all our personal property. Like the manager in the parable, we have taken what is our Master's, and have embezzled it for our own use--for our own pleasure and position.

When all of this is hitting us like a ton of bricks, it is anything but pleasant. Let's face it: that manager was scared! He was about to lose his cushy position where he didn't have to worry about anything. And it was so obviously his own fault that he didn't even bother trying to mount a defense. Just as Joshua had said to the people of Israel thirteen hundred years before, when they were beginning their new life in the Promised Land, this manager knew that "he could not serve his lord." In the words of Joshua: "You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God." When we are in this position, we realize just how far away we are from serving the Lord as we are commanded to do in the Bible. And we feel terrible. We feel scared. We think there is no hope left for us. And we are tempted to give up.

That is exactly where the story doesn't turn out the way it is "supposed to." In popular movies and novels, this is the point in the story where the bad guy gets his comeuppance. Either he gets shot dead in an exciting gun battle, or he gets nabbed by a daring constable or shrewd detective, to serve out the rest of his sorry life in a well-deserved prison cell.

But that's not what God has in mind for us when we realize that we have misused our lives. Instead, the Lord, in the person of the master in the parable, asks us to give an accounting of our lives. The Lord asks us to look over our lives, and see if we have used well or badly the gift of life that he has given us. And when we do, to use the words of the parable, we realize that we have gotten ourselves into a position that we cannot dig ourselves out of, and where begging for mercy would be useless. We've messed things up badly, and now it is time to take the consequences.

But wait! Maybe we can pull at least some shred of good out of this after all! We haven't been sentenced yet! We still have some time left! Hmm. Let's see what we can pull off. And so the shrewd manager gets busy. He goes to his master's debtors, and starts making deals with them. "You owe my master one hundred jars of oil? Quick, make it fifty! You owe my master one hundred bushels of wheat? Quick, make it eighty!" Let's use our last scrap of standing with the Master to try to bring at least some good out of this mess we're in, so that at least if we're rejected from the Lord's household, we'll have something to fall back on. After all, we've spent a lot of time and energy getting ourselves into this position, and it would be a shame to see it all go to waste.

In fact, when we find ourselves in a position where we know we have been wrong, and where we know that no amount of arguing or begging is going to get us out of it, it is time to start figuring out what we can gain from what we have been doing all this time. The hopeful message of the parable is that even though it looks as if our lives so far have been wasted, and we will have to throw it all away, in fact we have built up a lot of knowledge and experience that will be useful to us now that we have turned over a new leaf, and turned our lives over to the Lord.

The beautiful message of this parable is that the Lord never wants to condemn us, no matter how badly we have messed up our lives. The Lord is always looking for ways to bring good out of bad. And so, instead of condemning the shrewd manager, the master commended him for acting shrewdly--for having the will and the prudence to bring at least some good for himself out of the dishonest and unfaithful way that he had been living.

As we look back over our lives and realize that we have not been living up to the standards of the Lord and the church, we can do the same. It may look like we have been merely running on a treadmill and getting nowhere. But in fact, we have built up knowledge, experience, and positions in this life that can be good and useful if, instead of wasting them on the continual pursuit of money, possessions, and personal pleasure, we instead turn them toward doing the work of the Lord.

We do not have to give up our job, our possessions, our friends and family--unless they are dragging us down to a bad life. But the Lord does ask us to take everything we have acquired--our possessions, our knowledge, our positions in this world--and turn them toward doing the work of loving God and our neighbor instead of serving only ourselves.

This is the meaning of "making friends for ourselves by means of dishonest wealth." Everything we have done so far is not wasted. We may be spiritually a day late and a dollar short. But once we decide to stop serving money and start serving God, even the dishonest, wasteful, and downright stupid and destructive things we have done become part of the experience on which we can build a new life dedicated to the work of the Lord. Amen.

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Music: On A Distant Shore
1999 Bruce DeBoer

 

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