Damariscotta Baptist Church
Monday, May 21, 2018
Growing personal relationships with God and community

09/29/13 Sermon - Ed Wynne

DOCTORING UP THE BOOKS

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

I Timothy 2:1-7

Luke 16:1-13

 

We are about to wrestle with the most controversial story Jesus ever told.      Today's Gospel Lesson has got to be the most outrageous of Jesus' parables. Here we have this rich man who calls in his manager, accuses him of cheating him out of his money, and demands that he pay up right now what he owes him. The manager, thinking to himself what a real low life he really is, how unsuited he would be for any honest work, scurries out, doctors up the master's record books, talks the master's debtors into conspiring with him, and then presents his master with the money he owes, money which he has obtained through some hook and a lot of crook. And the master praises the dishonest manager!

This story has caused problems for the church ever since Jesus told it. Some have tried to deny that Jesus told it. Could something as sleazy as this come from the mouth of Jesus? Perhaps it was inserted into the New Testament by somebody else. Forget it. If we were inserting stuff into the Bible, do you think we would have inserted this? No, this parable's very outrageousness is proof of its authenticity.

Alright, then, whose side are we on? Who is the good guy here? This is church, remember! We are looking here for examples to follow, ways to live better lives, trying to be good.

As a pastor, I am supposed to be a moral example. I am, through my preaching and leadership, supposed to help uplift the moral level of those under my care. Who is the good guy in this story?


The rich man? No. He's rich. Enough said. He's the boss who lives in the big house overlooking the shanties behind his mill. While others slave over his looms, he sits beside his pool, moving stocks by cellular telephone. We're never on his side. Our sympathy is always with the little guy. In the good old days we all flocked off to the movies, or more recently we have downloaded or purchased a copy,  to watch Robin Hood fleece the rich in order to give to the poor. We love stories where the rich go down and the little guy goes up.

On September 3, 1991, one of the worst labor disasters in modern times occurred in the little town of Hamlet, North Carolina. Twenty-five poultry plant workers died in a fire, bodies trapped behind locked doors. Another 55 were injured. A member of the occupational safety commission said, This disaster was partly the fault of the workers themselves. The exit doors had to be locked because some of the workers stole chickens. How much is a chicken worth? Somebody's mother died because somebody on minimum wage stole a couple of Mr. Big's chickens?

If some little guy, some Robin Hood, wants to put one over on the boss, fine!

So I guess that means that, not being on the side of the rich man, we are on the side of the manager, the unjust manager. He has won our sympathy from the very first, when the boss calls him in and says, Give account of your stewardship or get out! Standing there, poor little thing, trembling in his boots before the man behind the big oak desk, we're on his side.


What am I to do? he says to himself. And now his character begins to emerge. He is accused of wasting his master's money. Wasting, diaskorpizein, the same Greek word used for what the Prodigal Son did with his dad's money out in the far country. He blew it. Wasted it. It isn't like this man has been using that money to feed his wife and children, to provide for the children's education, or to support his poor, sick mother. He wasted it. Now, he'll have to pay up or get out.

What am I to do? I am too lazy to do honest work like digging, and I am too proud to beg. He has been putting on airs, living high on the hog through his master's money for so long, the thought of falling backwards into poverty is more than he can bear. His master drives a Mercedes and he drives a fully loaded Buick Park Avenue. His master has a place in Palm Springs, and he has a condo at Myrtle Beach. He isn't about to give that up.

So he calls in those who owe his master. The swindle begins. Master, I'll be happy to turn in the books to you after a few. . .er. . .uh. . .adjustments.

He calls in one debtor who owes the master twenty thousand dollars. Change your bill, he tells him. Make it ten and give me five. Large amounts are being written off here.

This little Robin Hood whom we loved so much at the beginning of the story is turning out to be a Bernie Madoff. He's not robbing from the rich to help the poor; he's fleecing widows in order to maintain his heated dog house and mirrored-ceiling bedroom.

He is the Pentagon general or admiral who allows defense contractors to over-charge the government so, when he retires from government work, he can get a plush job as a consultant with that same contractor. This is Amelda Marcos stashing her people's money away in Swiss bank accounts for a rainy day, when shes not busy buying more shoes.

This is the person with whom we identified in the story? I am surprised at us. I thought we were all good people. Lazy, thieving, cheating, disloyal liar? We were on his side?


We love to see the rich get clobbered. We love getting even, yes. But lies? Cheating? Stealing? We said we liked Robin Hood. If we approve of that sort of stealing, I guess it isn't too far to this sort of stealing. But aren't we ashamed? And in church, too? And in one of Jesus' own parables to boot?

And the master commended the dishonest manager. End of story. The master has moved, in this story, from You crook, you! Turn over your books or get out! to You genius, you! A crooked genius, but still a genius.

We have now flipped-flopped through this parable like a ping-pong ball. First we were on the side of the manager against the master. Then, the more we got to know this sleazy manager, we were over with the master against the steward. And now, by the end of the story, after the master has praised the crookedness of the manager, we have had it with both of them. They are two birds of a feather.

That manager should have been fired or worse. Lies, deceit earn him his master's praise. We said we were on the side of the steward when we began this parable. Do we think cheating is OK? Well, now?! Well, only if it's with the IRS or in Algebra 101. What kind of person are we. Forget the manager and the master-- what kind of person are we?

At first we believed the rich man is bad-- after all, he's rich; the steward is good-- after all, he's like us. Then the steward upsets our moral order through his laziness and conniving, and we're back on the side of the master.

I can see what you've been putting up with all these years with this man. You should have fired him long ago! I can see it your way now!

Then, just when we get it all figured out, tied down-- the good separated from the bad, the wheat separated from the chaff, the saved from the damned, the in from the out-- this master goes and praises this crooked manager, for heaven's sake.


We grope through this parable, looking for Mr. Goodbar, groping around to find just one good person with whom we can identify-- one good person like us-- only to have this parable jump us from behind and nab us. What kind of people are we to approve, condone, justify, and identify with such folk? Who are we?

A parable is like a window. We encounter a parable like this one as if looking through a window, looking out at the world. What sort of a world do we see through this window? A world of cheats and scoundrels in high and low places, wheeling and dealing by rich and the poor?

Yet sometimes, looking through a window, there is that moment when the window becomes a mirror and we become conscious of our own reflection in the window. We see ourselves. Do any of us see ourselves in this parable?

We have come to church looking for labels to stick upon the good and the bad. By the end of the story, we all get stuck. We wanted to use Scripture as a knife to cut cleanly between the victims and the villains, and Scripture has become a two-edged sword. We assumed the rich man was a bad man, simply because he was rich and we are not. Now we're confused. And we don't like to be confused in church.

The kingdom is a time of accounting in this parable and in so many others, a time to settle accounts, to face facts, to look at the books. When we do, in the searching light of Bible honesty, we find we may be no worse, but we are certainly no better, than they. We condoned injustice. Doesn't the master clearly say the manager is dishonest? Alas, we are the master and the manager of deceit.


A recent study by the Lilly Foundation, after questioning hundreds of young adults, says that contemporary young adults are looking for a church with clear moral norms. Here this parable has cut us loose from our moral moorings, set us adrift in a sea of relativity where people don't act as we expect. The story dislocates, provides no answers, only accusing questions.

This parable has made us think-- something we don't like to do in church! It makes us think of other stories equally disruptive, stories about a wasteful son who, after wasting his father's inheritance, drags home in rags, smelling of booze, the cheap perfume of harlots, and pigs. And the father throws a party. Stories about a man bleeding in a ditch, passed by the good people, helped only by this morally suspect Samaritan.

Where are we in this story? I am the manager, managing my morals, wheeling and dealing, looking out for Number One, willing to cheat if it will help. I am the master, condoning immoral behavior, secretly admiring the shrewd scoundrel of this world. As a preacher, I can't afford to be too tough on your behavior, because mine is nothing to write home about.

We have met the scoundrel, and he is us. That's said with apologies to Pogo and to the English teachers present. Our face is all over this story. We really are a moral mess. We really do need someone to save us; someone who is not too respectable, for we certainly are not. We could use a crook like us. And he was. He broke the Sabbath. He consorted and partied with crooks and harlots. He died, a criminal on either side, as a crook himself.

A respectable savior could never have loved and saved a crowd of rogues like us. He became one of us in order to save us. He lowered moral standards and disrupted respectable moral order. He said he came to settle up accounts between us and God. So we got cleaned up, put on a coat and tie, and scrambled to the front pew at church in hopes of doctoring up our books. He looked, in the end, upon all our wheeling and dealing which so neatly nailed him to the cross, he looked upon us who deserved to be clobbered for our crookedness, high and low, and clobbered us with his grace, high and low, saying, Father, forgive.