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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Pentecost 17 – Year C

Oh Lord, uphold Thou me that I may uplift Thee. Amen
A mafia Godfather finds out that his bookkeeper has stolen ten million dollars from him. The bookkeeper is deaf. It’s the reason he got the job in the first place, since it was assumed that a deaf bookkeeper wouldn’t be able to hear anything that he’d have to testify about in court. When the Godfather goes to shake down the bookkeeper for his ten million dollars, he brings his attorney who knows sign language. The Godfather asks the bookkeeper, “Where’s the money you stole from me?” The attorney, using sign language, asks the bookkeeper where the money is hidden. The bookkeeper signs back, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The attorney tells the Godfather, He says he doesn’t know anything about the money.” That’s when the Godfather pulls out a gun, puts it to the bookkeeper’s head, and says, “Ask him again.” The attorney signs to his underling, “He’ll kill you if you don’t tell him!” The bookkeeper signs back, “Okay! You win! The money is in a brown briefcase, buried behind the shed in my cousin backyard in Queens!” The Godfather asks the attorney, “Well, what did he say?” The attorney replies, “He says you don’t have the nerve to pull the trigger.” (Homiletics, Vol. 19, Num. 5, p. 34)
That mafia lawyer was pretty shrewd wasn’t he? He’s dishonest, yes, but smart too. You almost have to admire his quick thinking, even if you don’t agree with his actions. In fact it’s his shrewdness that makes the story interesting.
Our Gospel for this morning is known as the parable of the unjust steward. It is a story that puzzles scholars. After centuries its meaning is still not clear. The heart of the puzzle centers around the fact that here we have a story in which Jesus uses scandalous behavior to make a point about faithfulness. A bad guy, much like the mafia lawyer, is praised for his shrewdness, rather than rebuked for his crookedness. In a very real sense, the outcome of this parable violates some of our most basic assumptions about ethical behavior.
Let’s look at what happened. A manager, a steward, who worked for a rich business man was blamed for wasting his boss’s assets. Either he mismanaged them or he failed to manage them. Maybe he had his hand in the till, the parable doesn’t tell us. In either case, the manager found himself in big trouble. He was going to be fired. However, this manager was shrewd. In an effort to save something for himself, knowing he was going to lose his job, he made one last deal. He gathered together all of his boss’ debtors and essentially ran a fire sale for their bank notes. He figured if he was going to go down at least he would go down in the good graces of as many people as possible. If he did these debtors a favor perhaps they would do him a favor once he was on the street. After all, the next best thing to having money is having plenty of friends.
Now you might expect that this story ended with the dishonest manager being sent off to prison. But instead, what happened comes as a total surprise. The rich boss is so impressed with his manager’s cleverness that – and here’s the surprise – instead of firing him, he praises him for his behavior. What is going on with this parable?
I believe this story was intended to be a real slap to the religious elite. Although he was speaking to his disciples, his intended audience was the Pharisees, who were always near by. The Pharisees were the most powerful religious group in Israel. They were scholars of the religious law and they saw themselves as among the most righteous of Jews. I think Jesus was trying to say to his followers that even the dishonest manager and his behavior is more to be emulated than the Pharisees. You see, the manager knew from the beginning that he was wrong. He knew he was a scoundrel and who had to act quickly before he was out on the street. As he said, “I am not strong enough to dig and I am too ashamed to beg.” He was in trouble, he was in need of mercy for his actions, so he did the only thing he could do – he made a deal that would grant mercy to others. While his behavior was self-serving, nonetheless, he lessened the debts of his master’s clients. In so doing he showed them mercy. The Pharisees, on the other hand, rarely understood themselves in need of mercy and so they rarely showed it to others. Jesus was pointing out for his listeners that this dishonest manager was better than these so called honest church leaders because at least the former showed mercy.
I like this rather strange story. It holds up for me the complexity of life and the complexity of our motivations. I know that quite often I am very much like the dishonest manager. I don’t go around misusing other peoples’ funds – but I do misuse my master’s gifts. I know that God has blessed me with talents and skills and assets that I do not make the most out of all the time. I am not as efficient or as faithful a steward of my gifts as I might be. I could give more time, I could give more energy, I could give more money to God’s work in the world. I don’t do what I ought to do. I don’t do for others as much as I should. I don’t do as much for God as I should. I too am a scoundrel. I am a sinful human being. But, in knowing this, I can try and give other people the same kind of break that I hope to receive. Because I am in need of forgiveness for what I fail to do, how can I not forgive others for what they fail to do? The dishonest manager needed mercy for his dishonest behavior and he tried to get it by showing mercy to others. His motivations may have been less than pure, but he was still compassionate.
All of us are in need of God’s mercy. We have done and left undone many things in our lives. The least we can do is show others the same kind of compassion we want for ourselves. Our motivations may be unclear. We may be merciful to another hoping that it will gain something for us, but at least we are showing mercy. Perhaps Jesus wants us to know that a loving compassionate act for the wrong reason is better than no compassion at all. We are all scoundrels who have failed in one way or another to be the kind of stewards our master expects. The question is – are we honest enough to admit it and shrewd enough to do something about it? Amen.

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