Writings from the ministry team
for your refreshment
Sermon – 18th September 2016 – Trinity 17/Proper 20
Our Way or God’s Way?
Readings: Amos 8:4-7 God’s dismay at the World’s Selfishness
1 Timothy 2:1-7 Instructions on Worship
LUKE 16:1-13 The Parable of the Shrewd Manager
Psalm: 79: 1-9
There’s a saying that ‘God works in mysterious way his wonders to perform’. Well that will certainly be true if I can make sense out of today’s readings. They’ve certainly given me food for thought and not just me. Humph and Wendy have been scratching their heads as well. So where do we start?
Well, God is a good starter for ten. The only trouble is, if you read Amos, it’s very plain to see that God is not happy. In fact, it’s safe to say, that he is positively spitting nails. For millennia he’s been looking after his people, showing them how to live good lives, even giving them a rule book to help them remember. But what do they do? They throw it back in his face. Something they keep on doing. You see man has become greedy, putting profit and personal gain over goodness and righteousness. In fact, God has actually become an inconvenience. Observing the Sabbath is interfering with making money.
So is it any wonder that God is somewhat upset to the point that he says ‘I will never forget anything they have done’. This does not bode well for the future of Amos’ people. Thinking about it, Is it any different today?
Move forward 750 years to Jesus and our Gospel parable and it would appear that history is repeating itself. The people of Amos’ time were cheating, overcharging rogues, out to defraud their customers. Is our parable manager doing the same?
Now it has been said that this particular parable is one of the weirdest, most confusing, misunderstood, and hotly debated of all of Jesus’ parables. The others have generally been easy to understand and interpret, but this one? It has been said that unless you’re a trained professional, forget it, interpret it at your peril. This is the one where they say ‘don’t try this at home’.
So what is Jesus telling us in this rather complicated parable? We have a rich businessman who employs a manager of dubious character to run his business for him. Does he know that this ‘manager’ is not quite honest? We’ll have to wait and see. The manager looks after the man’s business whilst at the same time lining his own pockets but he gets found out. He’s told he’s going to be fired. If you like he’s given his months’ notice. So what does he do now? He realises that he isn’t qualified to do manual work or for that matter any other type of work but he needs to provide for his future pretty pronto. So, he goes to all the outstanding debtors and offers them a deal. He offers to reduce their debts by as much as 50% provided they settle in full, reminding them in the process that he’s doing them a favour, and that one day he just might want that favour returning. Like when he’s looking for a new job. (Personally I wouldn’t touch him with a barge pole. If he’s embezzled from one boss, then he’s quite likely do it to another).
Anyway the boss rather than being even more angry at being diddled out of a big fat profit actually praises the man. It appears that the owner may not be so squeaky clean himself. You see in biblical times it was not uncommon for a powerful business man, who perhaps had a monopoly on a certain resource or trade, to inflate his prices and overcharge his clients. He would therefore need to employ a not-so-honest manager to keep an eye on things for him. His books would need to be manipulated accordingly to make it appear that the clients owed more money than they actually did. Today we’d call it creative accounting!
Anyone who has worked in sales will know that there’s the asking price and then there’s the actual sale price. The salesman’s job is to get the asking price and therefore the greater profit and greater commission. But he has wriggle room to negotiate with the client. Today it’s common practice not to accept the first price. There’s always room to negotiate, just ask Roger and his deal with Stannah, unless of course you’re like me and are too embarrassed to barter. Anyway, we got a good price for the stair lift, Stannah got a sale and a profit, everybody’s happy.
And that’s what the manager did. He knew how much the goods were actually worth so was able to negotiate with the clients. They thought they were getting a good deal by not having to pay so much interest and as such paid up in full. This meant that the books could be balanced, there were no outstanding debts to be collected, the businessman’s coffers were full, he’s made a profit (perhaps not as big as he’d have liked) but at the end of the day, he was Mr Generous, his clients were happy, and probably recommending him to their friends, thereby generating more business.
By working in this way the manager has ensured his own good name and in the process secured his future. He has made the money work for him by putting the debtors into his debt. They don’t owe him any money, but they do owe him for helping them. Morally he cannot be defended but his business acumen, well you’ve got to hand it to him, he’s out-manoeuvred his boss.
As Jesus tells us, the boss, realising that he’s been out-manoeuvred actually praises his manager. Jesus then goes on to tell us to use worldly wealth to make friends. Because, when that wealth is gone you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. Now this is where it gets a bit confusing. How can it be good to cheat? I don’t remember in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus saying ‘Blessed are the shrewd, for they shall make eternal homes by dishonest wealth’. Sounds like an advert for Barratt Homes. But no it’s not that. I think what Jesus is talking about in this parable is forgiveness.
By letting the clients off from paying the full amount they owe, the manager has in fact forgiven them their debts. ‘Forgive us our debt as we forgive our debtors’. ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’. Debt is a sin. Jesus is showing that it’s possible to change and be forgiven. The manager realising that he’s in the wrong tries to make amends as best he can by making sure the owner is not out of pocket. All debts are paid, and forgiveness is given.
God knows that life is not black and white, not now and not back then. We’re human. We will always have mixed motives and make mistakes, even when we think we’re doing the right thing. We’re not perfect but that doesn’t stop God from loving us. He knows we’re going to need help and guidance and forgiveness and probably lots of it if history is anything to go by. But that’s the gift he gives us freely. He forgives us openly and without restraint. There are no strings attached to his love. We’re forgiven before we even realise we have done anything wrong. There is nothing we can do that will take God’s love away from us, no matter how much we annoy him. What matters though, is that we seek that forgiveness when we know we have done wrong. That we return that forgiveness to those who have perhaps done wrong to us. It’s not easy to forgive, but the more you try the easier it becomes. And that’s when trust comes into it.
You see in order to forgive one must first trust. We must put our complete trust in God. We’re not God, and we can’t offer perfect love. We’re human, and if we’re honest, there’s a little bit of the dishonest manager in all of us. Jesus recognises that when he says ‘no man can serve two masters’ ‘you can’t serve God and money’. We have to choose, man’s way or God’s way?
To choose God is to trust that he will look after us. To choose God is to trust that He will forgive us our sins. To choose God is to trust that through him you too can forgive. It’s not always easy but it’s definitely worth it. So here’s what I want you to do. Think of someone who has made you mad. It could be anyone. The person driving the tractor you couldn’t overtake, the daughter who gives you her dirty washing just when you thought you’d finished it all, the person driving the car who has just driven into yours and driven off without stopping, it could be anyone. Now in your mind say to them ‘I forgive you’. It’s not face to face and it’s not easy but it’s a start. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Three little words that can do so much good if we let them. ‘I forgive you’.