Sermon, September 22, 2019
“Yeah, Go Ahead and Cheat, Steal”
Old Testament Scripture: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: "Is the LORD not in Zion? Is her King not in her?" ("Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?") "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved." For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?
O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!
New Testament Scripture: Luke 16:1-13
Then Jesus said to the 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 jugs 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 containers 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 the 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 slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."
Sermon: “Yeah, Go Ahead and Cheat, Steal” Rev. David Hawkins
What a strange story we heard today from the New Testament.
A steward of a rich man, the one responsible for the economics of the household realizes that he is about to be fired because he hasn’t been doing a good enough job of managing the rich man’s holdings.
Now, I don’t know how each of you would respond to this news, but this guy takes an unusual step, at least as far as I am concerned. Instead of going to the rich man and pleading his case, or maybe even simply accepting the consequences of doing a not very good job and resigning, the steward goes to the people that owe the rich man money, and he writes down their debt. If they owed $1000 before, now they owe $500. If they owed 100 bushels of wheat, they now owe 80.
And he does this, not because he had cheated them before, and was trying to make it up, not because he felt the rich man was unjust in his business dealings, but because he wanted to ingratiate himself with them, in hopes that when the rich man fired him, he would have some friends on the outside that owed him, that would give him a hand when he called in a favor.
Now, while this isn’t necessarily the step I would take, and I’m sure that none of you would ever take it either, I guess I can imagine that some folks might think this was a good plan. Make hay while the sun shines. Get your fingers in the pie before the pie gets taken away. Take care of yourself, because nobody is going to take care of you. You’ve got to get what you can, while you can.
And the weird thing is, the rich man, when he hears about the plan, is impressed with the steward’s deviousness. He applauds it. He respects it. While the story doesn’t say so, it looks as though the rich man decides to reinstate the steward based on his deceitful behavior.
And not only that.
Jesus himself seems to laud the steward’s behavior, and says to his listeners, go and do likewise. Cheat, steal, do whatever you have to do to make other people like you, in order that they will be there for you when times get tough.
It’s the strangest parable ever.
And I’m not real sure what to do with it.
Now, I'm not the only who has been stymied by this parable. As I was digging into it, I was struck by how many of the different commentaries on this text began with the words: "This is a very difficult passage to figure out." One after another, these brilliant theologians and pastors and Greek scholars scratched their heads and threw up their hands with a sigh.
"We don't know what it means," they said.
Have you ever heard that saying, "Fools rush in, where angels fear to tread?"
Well, I'm about to rush in. Come with me, if you feel brave.
See, the problem is, I think that in a weird way, this passage makes sense to me. And that's frightening.
The steward of the house has been accused of squandering the master's money. He is accosted by the master, who requires an accounting. With some quick thinking on his feet, the steward tracks down some of the folks that owe the master money. And he, um, adjusts downward their debt. And, it's no secret why. He's hoping that in the end, when he's fired, he'll have some place to go.
So, now it appears that he has cheated the master twice: first by mis-managing the money under his responsibility, then by reducing the debt owed to the master by other people.
One would think, given the moral dimensions of this story, that there would be a hard word or two from the master. One would think that the next scene would might even include the master throwing the steward out into the outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. That’s how the story normally goes.
One would think.
Far from giving the steward his just deserts, far from laying down the law, far from even denouncing the steward's actions, the master compliments him for his shrewdness. He seems almost proud of the steward.
In fact, so does Jesus! He lifts up the steward's act of dishonesty, and compares him favorably with those he calls "the children of light." Jesus even goes so far as to advise his listeners to emulate this criminal, to go out and make friends with people by dispensing dishonest wealth.
Has the master lost his mind? Has Jesus? How does this fit into the whole Ten Commandments thing? How does the Master's approval of the steward's underhanded dealing square with ideas of justice, and fairness, and honesty, and truth, and accountability?
How can this be in the Bible?
OK, take a breath with me. We're about to rush in where angels fear to tread.
The first thing that came to me as I was reading this was that I have a tendency to equate being a good steward with being a banker.
The problem is, stewardship and banking are different things.
Bankers keep. Bankers safeguard. Bankers put money into vaults, into safes, into savings accounts. I'm not saying this to cast any aspersions on bankers. That is their job. If they don't do this, they are not fulfilling their end of the contract. And that can have consequences.
I remember a story not too long ago about a banker at a local bank that forgot this mandate, and started to wander in and out of the vault, taking large chunks of money with him. He was fired, of course, because a banker is supposed to protect the money, to safeguard the money, not stuff his pockets with it and walk out as though it belonged to him.
So, bankers guard, they keep, they put things in safes and vaults, and they keep it there.
Stewards, on the other hand, have a different job. They actually are called to spend money. In an effort to make more money, of course. But that’s their job. Investing the boss’s money, in order to make more. When we hear the story in a different part of the Bible of the steward burying the talent of gold the master has entrusted to him, he is fired because he didn’t spend it.
He forgot his job. He thought he was supposed to be a banker, and not a steward.
And so, stewards and bankers have different jobs. One is to invest, the other is it safeguard. It’s one of the reasons that The Glass-Steagall act was created, during the great depression to keep banks from inappropriately investing depositor’s money. It keeps the bankers and the stewards separate, it reinforces the differences in their jobs.
And this difference is an important one. One of the reasons we suffered the catastrophic economic crash of 2008 was because many of the prohibitions of the Glass Steagall act had been repealed, which meant that commercial banks could act like investment brokeredges, and this led to the people who were supposed to be safeguarding money betting their customers’ deposits on high risk and in some cases wholly theoretical financial instruments. Who could have seen this coming? Only everybody?
But greed is hard to fight, which is why it’s a good idea to be clear about who the bankers are, and who the stewards are, and keep those jobs separate.