Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Story of the Dishonest Manager

What is the most unethical or dishonest company that you can think of today? The Swiss research firm, Covalence, released a list of the 12 least ethical companies of 2010.
• Among them was Barrick Gold Corp. accused of illegally burning 130 homes and manipulating land titles in Papau New Guinea to clear the way for its gold mining operations.
• Then there was Mediaset, the massive Italian TV company that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi founded and still controls. Last year, Berlusconi's gov’t raised eyebrows when it tried to double the tax rate of one of Mediaset's main competitors.
• French oil and gas company Total was found on the list because it was accused of building a pipeline with the aid of slave labor in Myanmar.
• Then there is budget airline, Ryanair because of its deplorable customer service, and harsh treatment of employees…including forbidding them from using the company's pens or charging their cell phones with its electricity.
Philip Morris was there again too for trying to persuade the gov’t to overturn its 10 year old lawsuit against the industry for concealing the dangers of smoking.
• Other companies were accused of tax evasion, unfairly procuring gov’t contracts, and for health and safety violations

Now it’s one thing to point out some unethical businesses…its quite another thing to say that we can learn something from them; and yet that’s exactly what Jesus does in The Story of the Dishonest Manager  (Luke 16: 1-9). Here, Jesus shows me that he has the ability to walk through the badlands, the back alleys and the crooked streets of this world, to say nothing of the crooked places in my own heart, and find something that can be used for his own purposes. If nothing else, he’s got my attention…

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. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” 3 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. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” 6 He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” 7 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.” 8 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. 9 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.

As I read this story in vv. 1-8, I find it naturally divides it into three parts.
Part 1: The First Century CEO (1a).  Jesus’ parable takes us to the world of big business. It is the story of a rich man (an owner of a large estate somewhere in Palestine) whose property was run for him by a manager.  A manager was given great authority to do business on his master’s behalf -- it was a powerful and a lucrative profession.

Part 2: The Day of Reckoning (1b-3). With great power comes great responsibility… and it seems that this manager was lacking just that. The charge that he was “wasting” or “squandering” his master’s property was a serious one -- His silence in the face of this accusation is telling. To put it mildly, he was finished. There is little chance that he would be able to get a comparable job…there weren’t that many jobs around anyway, and no one would employ someone who had been fired as he had. The outlook was pretty bleak. As he talks to himself he says, “I am not strong enough to dig.” The manager was probably not a young man, and the change from a comfortable white collar job to a strenuous 12 hour day laboring job would be too much. But he was not only physically unable to do anything else, he was psychologically unable to do anything else, which is why he says, “I am ashamed to beg.” Obviously the question, “What will I do?” was an urgent one…and all the more if he had a wife and children that depended on him.

Part 3: The Perfect Crime (4). The answer that came to him was that he must quickly win for himself some influential friends so that “when I am dismissed as manager” they may welcome me into their homes (4). But how to do this? His strategy was to summon each of his master’s debtors (5), and to get them to alter the documents relating to their debts in a way that was to their advantage. And boy did he alter those documents. The first owed a hundred measures (lit. baths) of oil -- each bath is equivalent to 9 gallons, so that’s about 900 gallons of olive oil. The manager tells him to write fifty instead (6) -- that’s a fifty per cent reduction worth perhaps 500 denarii (days of work)!  The second man owed a hundred measures of wheat (7); and to this one the manager said, “write eighty”. This is a lower discount, but the actual value of the reduction is still about 500 denari.

It’s pretty clear what is going on in the story. The manager has been told by his master to hand over all the paperwork related to his accounts, papers that would have included documents related to business deals he had made. But instead of handing them over as is, the manager takes out the documents related to debts owed to his master, and replaces them with redrafted and now considerably less valuable notes. Whether he had the authority to do this, having just received his notice, is unclear. But the parable says he acted quickly. He couldn’t delay handing over those papers for long. The story ends with the comment that “the master commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly” (8). Now this is the sentence that throws commentators off. Essentially the problem is: “How could the master praise a manager who is obviously a crook who has defrauded him?

The simplest and most straightforward interpretation is that the master of the story is impressed with what the NRSV/NIV calls the manager’s shrewdness (phronimos) -- a word the RSV translates prudence . Kenneth Bailey argues that the original Aramaic word Jesus used was probably hokmah which means "skillfulness in self-preservation."  In any case, I think this manager was the kind of rascal you had to admire for his shrewdness, even if you deplored his morality. How do we know this is what the master was doing? Jesus tells us so.  In v. 8 Jesus comments….“for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” (8). Here is Jesus’ clear recognition that the unjust manager is a worldly man, not a “son of light” whose moral example is something to be followed. Nevertheless, Jesus implies that this rascal can teach us some important lessons…

“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.”  There are four lessons we can learn from this verse….

First, get your hands dirty: Use the things of this world for a holy purpose (8, 9). There is something about the shrewdness of the dishonest manager that Jesus likes. He faced the coming crisis by using what worldly resources he had to the maximum benefit. Jesus is not saying we are to use “ill-gotten gains” or “embezzled money” for the sake of the kingdom. In v. 9 he calls it “dishonest wealth” [Greek: adikia /unrighteous] because in one way or another it is tainted.  Take a bill out of your wallet or purse right now and look at it. What do you see? A President’s face? A metal strip imbedded in the bill to prevent it from being counterfeited. The words “In God We Trust”? Yes, thank God those words are still there! But I see something else. I see dirt. There isn’t a bill in my wallet that isn’t a little tainted; a little dirty; that hasn’t been used for a less than holy purpose. Nevertheless, Jesus challenges us to take hold of it, and use it for God’s glory.

Second, work quickly: This present world and way of life is coming to an end. We’re told the manager acted “quickly”, when he learned he was about to lose his job (6). The manager didn’t waste time; and in this respect he is an example to us. Like him, we are encouraged to make the most of the time that God has given us on this earth, and to be conscious that our present way of life is coming to an end -- whether at death or the Lord’s return.  This is the meaning of Jesus’ comment that one day, the “dishonest wealth” will be gone.  The Greek word is eklipe: literally, to fail, to be eclipsed (9). This is the Eclipse no one wants to stand in line to see or think about; not a movie about immortal vampires, but our own mortality and the limited time we have here. We all have a yearning for immortality. The reason Christ came was to give us life abundant and eternal; and so he challenges us to be a children of light (of eternity with an eternal destiny) and not a children only of this age (8)? Christ wants us to be children of light (8)…using our time for his glory. It’s so easy to waste the time God has given us. So Paul says, “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16).

Third, influence intentionally: “Make friends….” (4): Like the manager, every human being has the ability to “make friends” (9): that is, there are spheres of influence… the home, workplace or school, in which there are people that we can touch with the love of Christ; people that we can comfort and encourage and pray for. We have the opportunity to either ignore, destroy, or nurture these relationships for the sake of God’s kingdom. Now there are different calling and different passions that we have in this area. God may be calling some of us to reach out to international students; others he may be calling to minister to the poor, the rich and powerful, or those who are struggling with sickness or loneliness. Our work place is a major place of contact! Many of us are called to focus on family and children. We don’t all have the same calling…but we do have the charge to share with them the grace and truth of Christ.

Finally, give strategically (5-7, 9): Money is simply a form of power, and like the Steward, we can leverage our material resources in such a way that someone suffers or benefits, whether it be ourselves, others, or the kingdom of God (and these are not exclusive). John Wesley preached a famous sermon on this passage in which he had three basic points: gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.  I’m thinking of Boston Businessman Tom White who at the age of 85 said that his life's goal was to give away his entire fortune. The Boston Globe reported that in 2003 he had given away $75 million to date. When people ask him "why," he responds with "give me three reasons I shouldn't," and then proceeds to give three reasons he should: "I can't take it with me, my kids are okay, and my wife's taken care of." He'll also tell you, "I'm motivated a lot by what Jesus wants me to do…and I think he wants me to help make the world a better place." His proudest relationship is with Haiti, where he has supported numerous health and justice projects. Tom White's one regret? "I'm sorry I don't have more money to give away." Jeffrey Arthurs, South Hamilton, Massachusetts; source: Boston Globe (3-23-04)

Get your hands dirty…work quickly (using your time wisely)… influence intentionally, give strategically. You know, there’s a rascal, there’s a crook in each one of us.  That's why I’m so glad that one of Jesus’ last words from the cross was to a criminal…a thief hanging on the cross next to him. “Jesus,” he said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Now that thief had the right idea…but what if we could pray that prayer today…and not one minute before we die. What could Jesus do through you right here…right now if you were to day, “Jesus, remember me – I’m kind of a crook, my hands are not clean…but I think I could really accomplish something for your kingdom here and now. So remember me, and fill me and use me to bring your kingdom today…and to be part of your kingdom for all eternity.”

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