2 Timothy 2:1-7 and Luke 16:1-13
Dan Miller in his book No More Dreaded Mondays tells a delightful story about a farmer many years ago in a village in India who had the misfortune of owing a large sum of money to the village moneylender. The old and ugly moneylender fancied the farmer’s beautiful daughter, so he proposed a bargain. He would forgive the farmer’s debt if he could marry the farmer’s daughter.
Both the farmer and his daughter were horrified by the proposal, but the cunning moneylender suggested that they let providence decide the matter. He told them that he would put a black pebble and a white pebble into an empty money bag. The girl would have to reach in and pick one pebble from the bag. If she picked the black pebble, she would become his wife and her father’s debt would be forgiven. If she picked the white pebble, she need not marry him and her father’s debt would still be forgiven. If she refused to pick a pebble, her father would be thrown into jail until the debt was paid.
They were standing on a pebble-strewn path in the farmer’s field. As they talked, the moneylender bent over to pick up two pebbles. The sharp-eyed girl noticed that he had picked up two black pebbles and put them into the bag. He then asked the girl to pick a pebble. Now, imagine that you were the girl standing in the field. What would you have done? If you had to advise her, what would you have told her?
Careful analysis would produce three possibilities: (1) the girl could refuse to take a pebble, but her father would then be thrown into jail. (2) The girl could pick a black pebble and sacrifice herself in order to save her father from debt and imprisonment. Or (3) the girl could pull out both black pebbles in the bag, expose the moneylender as a cheat, and likely incite his immediate revenge. Here is what the girl did.
She put her hand into the money bag and drew out a pebble. Without looking at it, she fumbled and let it fall onto the pebble-strewn path, where it immediately became lost among all the other pebbles. “Oh, how clumsy of me,” she said. “But never mind, if you look into the bag for the one that is left, you will be able to tell which pebble I picked.”
Since the remaining pebble was black, it would have to be assumed that she had picked the white one. And since the moneylender dared not admit his dishonesty, the girl would have changed what seemed an impossible situation into an extremely advantageous one.
Don’t we all love stories where the good guy uses his or her wit and cunning to defeat a villain? It may disturb us when a villain uses that same wit and cunning. And yet Jesus once told his disciples a parable about a dishonest man who did just that.
The rich man called his manager in and confronted him about his dishonesty and fired him. The manager thought to himself that he wouldn’t be happy being poor and a beggar, so he called people who were in debt to the rich man in, and in Luke 16:5-6 we read, “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master? “Eight hundred gallons of olive oil, ‘he replied. “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly and make it four hundred.’ The manager called a second man in and tells him to reduce his bill from 1,000 bushels of wheat to 800.
Jesus then tells the disciples in verse 10, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” Then Jesus says in verse 13, “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
In today’s gospel text the unpopular parable of the dishonest manager is one that might strike a chord with some people, and it places a particularly shrewd person at its center. The dishonest manager, although he remains un-convicted of any charges during Jesus’ parable, is hardly a likeable character, for he comes across as shifty, shady, and self-serving. The reason this wily guy sets about adjusting the debt levels owed his master is to make the debtors beholden to him, owing him a favor.
First-century culture was organized and orchestrated by strict social rules. The rules of reciprocal hospitality were in no way optional. Rather they were the supporting ligaments that bound together status and honor, safeguarding roles and responsibilities through right relationships. The dishonest manager has no doubts that he will be able to collect on the favors owed him when the time comes.
Jesus doesn’t admire the manager’s situation. Neither does Jesus concern himself with the man’s self-serving character. What Jesus focuses on is the fruit that results from the manager’s shrewdness. Jesus sees a man unafraid to push the accepted limits in order to bring about a needed change. He sees in this shrewdness something that his disciples might learn from.
The commentary Jesus offers after this story is as central to this parable as the debt-dealing details. Jesus focuses on the effective and efficient use of worldly, dishonest wealth, not for money-making, but for relationship building and hospitality. The manager accepts a reduced return on investment for his boss in order to establish the right relationship with other people.
Jesus reminds his disciples, to whom he addresses this parable, that the kingdom isn’t about bean-counting, the kingdom is about recreating our relationship with God and recreating our relationships with each other. One hand washes the other and vice versa.
Henry Ford was known for both his frugality and his philanthropy. He was visiting his family’s ancestral village in Ireland when two trustees of the local hospital found out he was there, and they managed to get in to see him.
They talked him into giving the hospital $5,000 dollars (this was the 1930’s, so $5,000 dollars was a great deal of money). The next morning, at breakfast, he opened his newspaper to read the banner headline: “American Millionaire Gives Fifty Thousand to Local Hospital.”
Ford wasted no time in summoning the two hospital trustees. He waved the newspaper in their faces. “What does this mean?” he demanded. The trustees apologized profusely. “Dreadful error,” they said. They promised to get the editor to print a retraction the very next day, stating that the great Henry Ford hadn’t given $50,000, but only $5,000. Hearing that, Ford offered them the other $45,000, under one condition: that the trustees erect a marble arch at the entrance of the new hospital, with a plaque that read, “I walked among you and you took me in.” Henry Ford knew he had been ‘taken in’ by the hospital trustees.
Do you know the story of Arthur Barry? Arthur Barry is considered the greatest jewel thief of all time. He committed more than 150 robberies stealing millions of dollars-worth of jewelry. Interestingly, he only robbed people in high society. He wore a tuxedo while committing his crimes and was said to be so charming that on several occasions, when caught in the act of robbery, he talked his victims out of immediately reporting the crime.
However, the law finally caught up with Arthur Barry and he spent seventeen years in prison for his crimes. After his release he worked as a waiter at a restaurant on the East Coast, making fifty dollars a week.
A news reporter tracked him down and asked him about his life of crime. Here is how Arthur Barry summed up his life: “I’m not very good at having morals,” he said, “but when I was young, I had intelligence, charm, the ability to get along with people, and guts. I could have made something out of my life. You can tell them that Arthur Barry robbed Jessie Livermore, the Wall Street baron. And you can tell them that he robbed the cousin of the King of England. But don’t forget to tell them that, most of all, Arthur Barry robbed Arthur Barry.” *
Here is a question for each of us this day: Will we come to the end of our lives and conclude that we have robbed ourselves of the opportunity to make our lives count? Will we conclude that our lives have been largely wasted?
Our prayers for others count. Paul writes to the young preacher in 1 Timothy 2:1, “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone.” When Joe was in the hospital in Minneapolis and people were praying for him, we believe that God heard your prayers and that God healed him.
It was the Apostle Paul who took the gospel to the Gentiles. It was the Apostle Paul who gave us the most beautiful description of love ever written in I Corinthians 13. The Apostle Paul was certainly one of the most influential men who ever lived. He would receive credit for his contributions because he convinced us that he was an instrument of the Risen Christ.
I don’t believe that anyone would have charged the Apostle Paul with not making his life count. He was charged with many other things. He was beaten and thrown into prison because of numerous confrontations with political and religious authorities, but never could he have been charged with not making his life count.
The secret to his purposeful and powerful life is contained in these words from I Timothy 2:5-7. “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men, the testimony given in its proper time. And for this purpose, I was appointed a herald and an apostle, I am telling the truth; I am not lying, and a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles.”
For there is one God. You and I take that great truth for granted. The writers of the Bible could not. They knew what a struggle it had been for their forefathers to declare their One True God. Their neighbors worshiped many gods. It was these stubborn Jews alone who maintained that there was but one God, Yahweh, and that there could be no other gods before Him.
“And there is but one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” We have moved now from the universal to the specific. Our Muslim friends declare that there is but one God. Our Jewish friends declare that there is but one God. Most thinking people in the world today declare that there is but one God, but it is the unique claim of the people called Christians that there is but one mediator between God and human beings, the man Jesus.
Again, this was no frivolous claim. Most of the early Christians had been Jews. The God they worshiped was a God of power, majesty and strength. To look upon God was to die. To even touch the things of God with unclean hands was to risk awful retribution and even death. The Jewish God was a Holy God. He was a God whose glory could not even be properly contemplated by mere mortals. And yet, the Apostle John writes in the prologue to his Gospel John 1:1,14, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father.” John’s hands must have trembled as he wrote those words: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
The early disciples believed with all their hearts that there was but one mediator between God and humanity. There was one way, one truth, one life, one shepherd, one door, and that was Jesus.
They heard him teach, they saw him heal people’s hurts and illnesses, they witnessed his death upon the cross and they encountered him in his eternal glory on the road to Emmaus, in the Upper Room and on the mountain where he ascended to the Father. Throughout the New Testament they tried to sum up the impact of his life on theirs. They called him Prophet, High Priest, Servant of God, Lamb of God, Son of David, Son of man, Holy One of God, Son of God, Savior, Messiah, King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Twentieth century novelist James Joyce declared “modern man has an epidermis rather than a soul.” Post-modern culture writes Joyce even goes one step further. The skin we long for isn’t even our own; it’s cut and stitched, sculpted, tightened, tanned, lightened, suctioned, all according to whatever celebrity trademark, whatever perfect look we hope to emulate of our cultural gods and goddesses.
Jesus’ parables challenge us to get beyond our skin- deep preoccupation. The gospel is more concerned with our souls than with our skins. Jesus looks at the eternal, not the epidermis. Life is not what you make it. Life is what you let God make it. Make your life count.
Turn away from the mirror for a minute, and let something else get under your skin: Let compassion for others get under your skin; Let feeding the hungry get under your skin; Let forgiveness of those who have wronged you get under your skin; Let a thirst for justice get under your skin; Let the needs of your children, your spouse, your parents, your church, your community, get under your skin; Let a desire for God’s grace and goodness get under your skin; Let a hunger for things of the Spirit get under your skin and touch your soul.
Please make your life count.
Pastor Rosemary DeHut
References: * R. Wallace, “Confessions of a Master,” Reader’s Digest, July 1956, p. 44. Cited in Proclaim magazine, 4th Qt., 1987.