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The Twice Defrauded Master

Rev. Dr. Warner M. Bailey
Isaiah 58.1-9a, Psalm 65.1-4; 9-13, 1 Timothy 6.6-12; 17-19, Luke 16.1-15

Who could blame the defrauded owner for firing his defrauding manager? Fire him. That was the only option open that had any chance of repairing the shame the owner was feeling. Here he had placed his assets in the hands of the manager, risked all he had in expectation that the manager would make him a profit. Instead, he is looking at a tremendous loss, not just through incompetence, but managerial malfeasance.

The owner will be the object of ridicule in the eyes of his peers for having put his trust in someone who stole right from under his eyes. In the eyes of the Roman occupiers of Palestine, he may not have enough money to pay his taxes, and they would take his entire estate away from him. Asleep at the wheel, he broke the first rule of ownership and let himself be hoodwinked by a sly squanderer. There is no way to save face but to show the lout the gate and see what he can do to salvage the mess.

For some reason, however, the defrauded owner gives the fired manager one more day to tot up the books and clean out his desk. I wouldn’t have done that. I don’t know why he did that; he could have sold him and his family into slavery on the spot. But this is not my story. This is Jesus’ story, and we’ve got to let him tell it like he wants to.

If the manager is getting fired because of incompetency, what he now does on his last day on the job is positively criminal. He “comes to himself” and quickly assesses his own situation. He has grown fat and lazy and is not physically fit to do hard labor, and he is too ashamed to beg. In a flash he hits upon a plan that is his only chance of giving him a soft landing when he gets kicked out.

What he does is to call into his office the owner’s largest accounts, the guys who deal big time in grain and oil, basic staples of everyone’s diet, and he unilaterally gives them deep discounts on what they owe his master. As far as the commodity dealers know, it is the owner who has given the manager authority to make these cuts. Now, with their windfall profit, the commodity dealers will owe the manager the favor of giving him a place to live in return for the favor he has given them of reducing their costs. What he did was out-and-out dishonest. We are shocked, scandalized, outraged. But I think Jesus struggles to keep a straight face when telling this story.

Just a moment ago, the owner had the manager down on his knees with his hands around his throat. But now, as Jesus tells it, the owner heaps praise on the fellow. “You rogue. Of all the impudent cheekiness; I’ll give it to you, you are clever. There’s something almost magnificent about you. I’d have done just as much if I’d been in your shoes.”

This is bizarre, ridiculous. What is so “cool” about stealing what is not yours? But to hear Jesus tell it, this weasel of a manager is wiry. This scumball of a steward is savvy. The fraudulent miscreant has foresight. The focus is all on how he weasels out of the consequences of his shameful actions.

You know the old adage: Once burned your fault. Twice burned my fault. Why, then, is the owner praising the man who has robbed him, not once but twice? Here’s the answer. The owner and the manager share the same view of what you are supposed to do with money. It is because Jesus agrees with their attitude toward money that this story is important enough for him to pass on to us. Remember his observation: For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. Money, children of light, is to be used to create community, not to be hoarded selfishly. It is as simple as that. The dishonest manager used money that was not his to create a community where favors were traded back and forth. Does that excuse what he did? No, but in Jesus’ hands, even a scumball can teach his disciples about the importance of creating and nurturing community. Call it your Rolodex, your distribution list, your Christmas card list, your network. Call it your church, your neighborhood, your family. In Jesus’ hands even a scumbag who knows the importance of community has a place around his table.

Just think of it, says Jesus. Imagine that the account holders whose bills were deeply discounted believe that the manager is really carrying out the benevolent wishes of the owner. The stature of the owner suddenly is injected with a surplus of good-will. Would the owner want to add to the shame of being defrauded the double shame of withdrawing the gift?

Imagine that all these commodity traders also appreciate the fact that the proper use of money is to create a good name by good works. Imagine that they, too, will pass on their savings by lowering what they charge to common people for their daily ration of grain and oil. Everybody comes out looking good.

In this short story, Jesus combines the theory of distributive economics with brand name capitalization and the gospel of the coming Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is about the business of bringing everybody into the tent, of lengthening and widening the table until all can get around it. Particularly the down-and-outers, the sinners, the foreigners. Jesus does not romanticize the manager; he does not validate fraud, nor does he believe that the end justifies the means. However, Jesus does take a shine to the manager who wants to survive by creating a soft landing in a community. There is a lesson for us in his life.

Jesus elevates the action of this dishonest manager to a principle for life in the Kingdom of God. “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal habitations….You cannot serve God and wealth.” The clear meaning of his principle is that practitioners of wealth, gotten honestly or dishonestly, better be using money to create friendship, community and welcome for all if they expect to be welcomed into the eternal habitations. But by making the dishonest manger the star example of this principle, Jesus blind-sides us. He jars our conventional grasp of how things ought to be. And to be on his wave-length, we have to think out of the box when it comes to the use of money.

Under the authority of the Kingdom of God, money’s power is to create the family table, to lengthen and extend the family table. In the words of our Old Testament Lesson: we are to use money’s power to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share bread with the hungry, to bring homeless poor into your house, to cover the naked. And our epistle lesson adds an Amen! “[We] are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for [our]selves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that [we]may take hold of the life that really is life.” Using money’s power for any other purpose makes you vulnerable to falling into the worship of money itself.

Is that way of looking at money so bizarre, ridiculous and unworthy of your consideration? Apparently it is for certain powerful religious types whom Jesus encountered. They put their love of money before their love of God. Our epistle lesson observes sharply, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, [making] those who want to be rich fall into temptations and [become] trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”

Some people would rather have seen the defrauding manager convicted and strung up for his crimes against the god of money than witness him being praised for doing with money what God meant money to do—even if it wasn’t his own money. They see the parable for what it is: a frontal attack on upright insiders who jealously guard their privileges. Jesus called these “lovers of money” an abomination before God. Unclean, not upright. They are sinners ranked down there with the scum ball of a dishonest manager.

Just imagine what life in the Kingdom could be like if these “lovers of money” would “come to themselves” and see that what’s really important to God is welcome, gathering, and care to all sinners. It doesn’t matter finally whom you sit next to at the family table. What matters is that this table is where your family is.

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