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He Said What??
September 24, 1995

LUKE 16:1-13

We are about to wrestle with the most controversial story Jesus ever told, the most outrageous of Jesusí parables. Itís a difficult parable because you canít tell the good guys from the bad guys. When the program on TV has already started, my first question to Ellie is, "Who are the good guys, and who are the bad guys?" With that information, I can quickly get into the story. But, who is the good guy and who is the bad guy in Jesusí parable?

The parable begins with a rich man who is immediately suspected to be the bad guy. Iíve been on a trip, this time to Minnesota. My aunt and uncle celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary. We also drove to northern Minnesota where we visited Ellieís aunt and uncle. There we heard the stories of the now defunct iron mine, and the company town with the company store. Slavs from central Europe were imported to work in the mine, and were treated like slaves. They lived in company houses. When they were paid, they received their pay at one table, and their bill from the company store at the next table. And the bill was higher than their pay. If any were caught sneaking to the next town to shop, they were fired. In California, it was the Chinese who worked on the railroads and in the mines. It took the labor movement to break the power of the rich, and of course, any attempt to organize the workers was called socialist or communist.

But, is the rich man in Jesusí parable the bad guy? Would you call the manager the good guy in the story? Be careful. The manager was accused of squandering the rich manís property. The Greek word, translated squandering here, is the word used in the parable of the prodigal son. The younger son took his inheritance into the far country and squandered it, wasted it. The manager is accused of wasting. It isnít as if the manager had been using the money to feed his wife and children, provide for the kidsí education, or take care of his poor, sick mother. No, he wasted it.

So, the owner called him in, and said, "What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management." When he received his ultimatum from the boss, the manager panicked. "What am I to do?" he asked himself. "I am not strong enough to dig, I certainly donít want to do any manual labor, and I am ashamed to beg." Then he hit upon an ingenious plan. He decided to make the debtors indebted to him, so that when he is sacked, he can visit them, and get fed! Ingenious! So, he told the rich boss, "Iíll be happy to turn in the books to you, but give me some time."

Then, he proceeded to cook the books, or shall we call it, creative bookkeeping? He asked one debtor, "How much do you owe my master?" He answered, "A hundred jugs of olive oil." The manager said, "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" The manager said, "Take your bill and make it eighty." Large amounts are being written off here. Were you tempted to call the manager the good guy? He is the Pentagon general who allows defense contractors to overcharge the government so, when he retires from government work, he can get a plush job as a consultant with the same contractor.

What would you do if you were the boss, and you had a manger like this guy? Look at what the rich man did to the manager in Jesusí parable. 16:8, And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. Commended! The rich man moved from "You crook, you! Turn over the books!" to "You genius, you! A crooked genius but still a genius."

At first we believed that the rich man is the bad guy (after all, heís rich), and the manager is the good guy. But, the manager upsets our moral order through his laziness and conniving, and weíre back on the side of the rich man. We say, "I can see what youíve been putting up with all these years with this guy. You should have fired him long ago!" Then, just when we get it all figured out, tied down--the good separated from the bad, the wheat from the chaff, the saved from the damned, the in from the out--the rich master goes and commends this crooked manager!

This story has caused problems for the church ever since Jesus told it. He said what?? is the usual response. 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 Bible by somebody else. Forget it. If we were inserting stuff into the Bible, do you think we would have inserted this? Even the infamous Jesus Seminar which is suspicious of most of what Jesus says and does calls this parable authentic. The parableís very outrageousness is proof its authenticity.

Jesus delighted in shocking his listeners. His parables are entertaining and fascinating because many of them have a shocker. The parable which Luke placed in his gospel immediately before the parable we are discussing this morning is the parable of the prodigal son. The younger son squanders his inheritance, comes home with his tail between his legs, and his father greets him with open arms. He throws a party like the neighborhood has never seen. The older son pouts and says it is unfair. Of course, itís unfair. Itís unjust. What a shocker! It doesnít make any sense to welcome home a son who has lost, wasted all his money, and give him a party that is bigger and better than any party their father ever had in honor of his older son, who stayed home and did all the work!

Of course itís unfair, but so is the gospel. Thank God, so is the gospel, or I, for one, would not make it. The good people, the righteous people, the religious people of Jesusí day could not understand him at all. They had it all worked out that they should be rewarded for their good deeds, their righteous living, and along comes Jesus who turns their values upside down, throwing a bigger and better party for the no-good younger son than for the righteous do-gooder older son. Along comes Jesus and praises the shrewd manager who cooks the books with his creative bookkeeping.

Along comes Jesus accepting, loving, and forgiving the bad guys, the poor, and the tax collectors. Along comes Jesus cooking the books of divine judgment. Thank God, Jesus does creative bookkeeping or I, for one, would not make it. I visited with an elderly woman who was battling a terminal illness. We talked about heaven and she said she hoped she was going. I asked, "Donít you know?" She said, "I hope so. Iíve tried to live a good life." I gave her the gospel as best I could. I said eternal life is not something you earn, eternal life is a gift from God which you receive by believing in Jesus. You can know, with certainty in your heart that you are going to heaven, not because of what youíve done or not done, but because youíve received the gift.

Thereís the window in the balcony again. John 3:16, For God so loved the world he gave his Son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. Thank God there is no ledger book, recording all you say and do, either on the plus side or on the minus side. Thank God, a relationship with Jesus Christ and entry into heaven, is not based on whether the plus side outweighs the minus side.

Jesus engages in creative bookkeeping, cooking the books so that our hopeless indebtedness is wiped out and forgiven. Living the good life, wanting to live the good life, serving God in all we say and do is the result of being forgiven. Living the good life does not earn us our salvation. Living the good life is what we do out of gratitude for our salvation.

An old lady--humped over, stooped, wrapped up in faded, worn woolens--hobbled into a take-out place. "Shut the door," called the woman working behind the counter. "Whata you want?" she asked the old lady, who mumbled something about a hot dog. A hot dog was thrust before her. For the longest time she fumbled with a pocketful of small change until she found just enough to pay. Before eating the hot dog, she tried to put some mustard on it. But her hands, palsied, shook so that she got some of the mustard on the counter. The disgusted clerk said, "Look at the mess youíve made. Go on. Just get out of here. Go!" The old lady responded with pleading eyes. "You heard me, go."

Then, Phyllis Cook who works with elderly victims of arthritis, moved to the counter and asked the old lady if she could borrow the mustard. Then, Phyllis, staring into the eyes of the clerk, while the astonished old lady watched, took the mustard, poured it up and down the counter, smeared it all over the counter, and said to the clerk, "Donít you ever speak like that again to your elders or I will do to you what I just did to the counter." Taking the old lady by the arm, the two of them left the shop in great dignity.

You would like Phyllis! You would like Jesus too. No matter who you are, or what youíve done; no matter what you look like; no matter your color or your status in life; no matter how little or how much you have, Jesus accepts you as you are, treats you with respect and dignity, fights your battles, and cooks your books with creative bookkeeping.

Are you trusting in yourself for your salvation? Are you trusting in your good life? Or, are you trusting in Jesus for your salvation?

ã 1995 Douglas I. Norris