Sunday September 22, 2019

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time - 2019c

Old Testament – Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

New Testament – Luke 16:1-13




INTRODUCTION:  In 1631, two book printers named Barker and Lucas were commissioned by King Charles to make 1,000 copies of the Bible, which at that time was no small task.


Unfortunately, for Barker and Lucas, by the time they had finished the King's order, they had produced one of the most notorious copies of the Bible ever made. You see, all 1,000 copies contained a pretty major typo involving one of the Ten Commandments.


Turns out the 7th commandment, "Thou shall not commit adultery" actually read "Thou shall commit adultery." By accidentally leaving out the word not, the two men had created one of the greatest misprints in the Bible ever known.


King Charles, as you might imagine, was none too happy with such a mistake, and he promptly ordered all 1,000 copies destroyed while also ordering Barker and Lucas to pay a $300.00 fine - which at that point was essentially a year of wages.


Today there are 11 known copies of the Barker/Lucas Bible, which somehow survived the King's command to be destroyed. Known among collectors and historians as the Wicked Bible, just one of the eleven copies, in case if you should happen to have one lying around on the coffee table, will net you around $90,000 or maybe even more!


For just this past week, I found one online going for $95,000. Good thing the church credit card has a limit on it!


Well, strangely, Jesus' parable about the manager who mishandles his master's financial affairs also seems to condone its own kind of questionable behavior, right?


After all, by the time the story is over, the manager in Jesus’ tale is being praised by his boss for being of all things a swindler and a thief!


In charge of his master’s business affairs, the dishonest manager has been doing a lousy job and word has finally gotten back to his boss. Says the master to his manager after calling him into his office: “What’s this that I hear about you? I want an accounting of the books right now because you’re done working for me. So reconcile the books and hit the road!” The scam is over. The manager has been caught fudging the numbers and as soon as he’s finished straightening out the books he’ll be out on the street.   


There’s an old joke about a mathematician, an economist, an accountant who have all applied for the same job. The job interviewer asks the mathematician what 2 plus 2 equals to which the mathematician replies, “2 plus 2 equals 4.”


The economist is brought in and asked the same question: “What does 2 plus 2 equal?” to which the economist says, “On average, four – give or take 10% - but on average, four.”  


The accountant is finally interviewed and like the first two is asked the same question: “Sir, please tell me what 2 plus 2 equals.” The accountant gets up, locks the door, closes the shade, sits down next to the interviewer and whispers into his ear, “What do you want it to equal?”


And so it was for the dishonest manager. In charge of his master’s business affairs, he had fiddled with the numbers to make them mean whatever he wanted them to and because of that he’s about to be canned.


Well, so far in the tale everything makes sense. The manager has been mishandling his master’s money and he’s about to be put out on the street for good. It’s what comes next that seems so surprising.


Wanting to ensure that he has somewhere to go after being dumped onto the street, the manager visits those who owe his master money. “Quick,” says the manager to the master’s indebted clients, “whatever you owe my master pay me now and I’ll give you a nice big discount.” 


So one man who owes 100 jugs of oil gets off with only having to pay back a total of 50. Likewise, another person who owes 100 containers of wheat gets his own good deal. He pays up and is given a nice 20% discount.  


And so it goes. The debt for each of the master’s clients drastically lowered by the manager so he can make friends in a pinch. He’s caught between a rock and a hard place, and the only way for him to get out of it is to forgive the debts owed his boss.


What’s shocking, of course, is the master’s response. Rather than getting even madder at the manager for his continued trickery, the master actually goes so far as to praise him. The man has been robbed of his money on two different occasions by the same manager and all he can think to do is praise him, or as Jesus likes to tell it, “And the manager’s master commended him because he had acted shrewdly…”



So just like Wicked Bible with its typo about adultery, the master in the parable seems to be condoning some pretty inappropriate behavior.


Unless, of course, there’s more to the story than meets the eye.


You see, the manager in the story made his living by charging his own commission on any outstanding debts. Since he was the one responsible for collecting the debts owed his boss, the manager got to keep whatever money he could collect over and above the owed amount.


If someone was in the hole to his boss for, say, $5,000 bucks, the manager would make him pay back $5,500 thereby earning $500 dollars for himself. So the manager, in a sense, was ancient Palestine’s version of a loan shark. He would prey on people by making them pay extra money on their debt in order to fill his own pockets.    


So is it any wonder a whole lot of scholars actually think the manager is up to something pretty savvy when reducing the assorted debts owed his boss. In short, while the manager is running around giving his boss’s debtors a break on their debt, what he’s actually doing is removing his commission.


It’s not the boss who’s out the money but rather the crooked manager. Whatever proceeds he may have generated from the repayment of the loans the manager swallows.


Well, no wonder the boss decides to praise his crooked manager for being so shrewd.


With his back firmly planted against the wall, the manager figured out a way to solve a rather thorny problem. By cutting out his commission, the manager is able to ensure that the boss gets all his money back while also in turn making a few friends in the process, who will, no doubt, show their thanks by helping the manager once he’s out on the street.


The well-known preaching professor David Buttrick even goes a step further in his assessment of why the slick manager is to be praised. According to Buttrick, the manager deserves to be commended because he has finally learned that relationships are always more important than cash.


Or as Buttrick writes, “[The manager] quits trying to make money and instead makes friends. He puts relationships above cash which, of course, is what we all should be doing.”


Perhaps for the first time in his life the manager suspends his insatiable drive for greater and greater profits by finally placing his fellow humans around him first.


Sure, the manager’s motives are far from pure; there is no denying that. But that’s hardly new. We humans, after all, are always a mixed bag of both saint and sinner. Even our most genuine acts of kindness, no matter how wholesome and noble, tend to be driven by self-interest.


The reformers even had a fancy Latin phrase for the idea: Simul Iustus et Peccator, which means “at the same time justified and a sinner.”


And so it goes for the, admittedly, dishonest manager. While his kindness is largely motivated by the need to get himself out of a jam, he no doubt is also learning an important life lesson. Namely, that neighbor love is always more important than cash.


Several years ago John Mackey, the co-founder of Whole Foods wrote a book called Conscious Capitalism.


A cogent defender and avid supporter of capitalism Mackey, however, does challenge the notion that the sole goal of any business is to maximize profits. While aware that businesses need to make money, Whole Foods after all does around 10 billion bucks worth of it annually, Mackey is insistent that any business must also focus on how they might make the world a better place. Or as Mackey says at one point: “It matters how money…is made.”


So at one point when describing the purpose of Whole Foods Mackey offers these words that are noticeably absent of talk about profit:


“Our purpose is to teach people that what they put into their bodies makes a difference, not only to their health and to that of the people who supply food, but also the health of the planet as a whole.”


And then later, Mackey quotes Walter Robb, the co-CEO of Whole Foods at the time, who uses language that is almost religious in nature when describing the company’s purpose:


“We are not so much retailers with a mission,” claims Robb, “as missionaries who retail. The stores are our canvas upon which we can paint our deeper purpose of bringing whole foods and greater health to the world.”


Of course, given that Whole Foods has recently been bought by Amazon and that Jeff Bezo, the head of Amazon, just decided to cut out medical coverage for 2,000  part-time employees at Whole Foods, it seems the store is now at a crossroads of sorts. Will the company continue to be missionaries who retail, or will it devolve into nothing more than a retailer with a mission?    


CONCLUSION: Well, with all that in mind, it’s pretty easy to come back around to that cautionary tale of the dishonest manager, right?


For he eventually came to understand that his life had a higher purpose than just a bottom line with a lot of zeros in it.


Sure, he had to learn such a lesson the hard way and he was far from being a saint along the way, but he finally got it, didn’t he? He finally got that whatever his job or career or daily pursuits might be, neighbor love should always be his primary purpose above all else.


O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are God’s judgments and how inscrutable God’s ways! For from God and through God and to God are all things. To God be glory forever. Amen.