Remember a few weeks ago, we heard Jesus tell us that in order to be his disciple, we must hate our father, mother, brother, sister – you know – the people who are closest to us. And we agreed that we weren’t crazy about hearing Jesus say that. I called it one of the hard sayings of Jesus. And if you weren’t here to hear the whole message – let me just say that what Jesus was really saying is not that we should actually hate our family members – like say, one might hate Brussels sprouts – but what Jesus is saying is that our commitment to Jesus – our commitment to following Jesus – is to be stronger than love for father, mother, brother, sister and so on. It’s one of the hard sayings of Jesus.
Well, today is another one of those hard sayings of Jesus. It’s a parable – hard to understand. And remember, that Jesus told parables in order to make a point. The challenge is to try to understand just what the point is that Jesus is making here. I almost chose the passage from I Timothy to preach on. That would have been the easy way out. But then – you would all be scratching your heads wondering – did we just hear what we think we just heard? What does this parable mean?
So in this story – this parable – that Jesus tells today, we read about a rich man who has a manager who is accused of wasting the rich man’s possessions. So he calls him in and asks him, “What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.”
The manager has been playing fast and loose with the boss’s money. Today we would call it embezzlement. So the boss has no choice – gives him – I don’t know – two weeks’ notice – but apparently doesn’t give him the pink slip right away.
And the manager says to himself, “What am I going to do? My body wasn’t built for digging ditches, and I don’t want to have to beg.” So he thought and he thought, and he thought some more. And the plan he thought up was this. He told the people who owed his master money to rewrite their bills. Do you see what he was doing? We think – we think that he may have been taking his commission off the debts that were owed to his employer. Either that or he was truly being dishonest in reducing those bills. But in either case he was looking for favors – making friends – who would be indebted to him when he no longer had a job!
And then – Jesus finishes the parable by having the manager’s boss praise the dishonest manager for acting shrewdly. Let me tell you. Theologians and preachers have been trying to make sense of this parable for years. Just what was Jesus – just what IS Jesus teaching by telling this parable?
There are three possible explanations.
One explanation is that this is a parable about forgiveness because the master forgives the dishonest manage. A second explanation is that this parable is a parable about money. At the end of this parable are these words: “You cannot serve both God and money.” Money is a great servant, but a poor master. We cannot serve God and money. They are both good points – and in keeping with Jesus’ overall message.
But what I want to suggest is that Jesus is using this parable to teach us about the need to take action when a problem or an opportunity comes our way. Because in no way can we say that Jesus is teaching us to be dishonest. BUT – and here’s what you really need to pay attention to – Jesus is using a story about dishonesty as a teaching tool to teach us something about being bold – about taking charge of a situation that calls for action.
This is hard, I know. I want you to know that I am having a hard time saying this just right. Pay attention now to how Jesus ends this parable. In verse eight we read, “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” In other words, he is praised for his shrewdness – certainly NOT for his dishonesty. Are we clear on that? And then Jesus says, “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.”
And who are the people of light? We are. We are. Christ followers. Disciples of Jesus Christ. That, I think, is the plain meaning of this parable. This man took hold of his life and got himself out of a tight situation. He didn’t sit around wringing his hands, and worry – like – you know – so many of us do. Sorry – I had to say it. And neither did he spend a lot of time praying a prayer like, “O Lord, please get me out of this mess.”
In fact, we don’t know if the man prayed at all. But let me tell you, part of taking charge of any situation – good or bad – is to pray first. That’s always a good thing to do. Pray first.
A book I am reading for the second time as part of my daily devotions – a book on prayer called “Draw the Circle,” says, “Pray like it depends on God. Work like it depends on you.”
I think that’s good advice. Pray like it depends on God. Work like it depends on you. Now please don’t hear this as “God helps those who help themselves.” That quote is not in the Bible. That’s Benjamin Franklin. The whole point of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We are lost sinners who cannot save ourselves. For that we rely totally and completely on the grace and mercy of God which is ours in Jesus Christ. So this is not a “God helps those who help themselves,” message.
So what do we do when we find ourselves in a tough situation? First, it’s a good thing to pray in and for a certain situation. But here’s the thing. When you’re done praying, don’t expect God to do things for you that you are perfectly capable of doing.
For instance, it’s one thing to pray, “Lord – feed all the hungry people of the world.” Or, “Lord feed the hungry people in Buffalo.” Do you know what Jesus says to me when I pray a prayer like that? He says, “OK, Randy. I’ve put the answer to your prayer in your wallet. I know you can’t feed the whole city of Buffalo – but how much can you give to feed one hungry child for one day or one week? Randy – I want you to do what you can do. I want you to be shrewd. I want you to take action.” So every month I go to Wegman’s, and I buy a case of canned vegetables, four jars of peanut butter, and eight cans of tuna fish, and put it in our food pantry bin out in the hallway. It’s not much. But it is something that I can do because I care about feeding hungry people.
I’m also something of a news junky, so just this past week I came across two stories that I think might help. Two different stories about people who were caught in a situation, and acted shrewdly.
The first one involves Brian Holloway. Brian is a former offensive tackle for the New England Patriots. While he was in Florida over Labor Day weekend, his vacation home outside of Albany was trashed by anywhere from 200 to 400 teenagers. Can you imagine? These teens posted twitters about what they were doing – while their party was going on. Brian Holloway was actually able to follow in real time through Twitter what was going on in his home. Holes in walls. Grafitti. Carpets ruined. Things stolen.
Tell me, what would you do if that were to happen to you? Do you know what Brian did? He said, “Damage can be repaired. Stolen things can be returned. But we’ve got to do something about these kids.” So he started a website called “helpmesave300.com”. He isn’t looking for revenge. He’s not looking to punish. He said, “We need to get these young kids turned around.” Since he had the kids names from their tweets on Twitter, he posted the kids names on his website AND invited them to attend a party to clean up the place. I think he is acting rather shrewdly, don’t you agree?
Then there is this second story. Joey Prusak, a manager at a Dairy Queen watched as a visually impaired customer unknowingly dropped a twenty on the floor. A woman picked up that twenty – and stuck it in her purse. When she got to the counter to order, Joey refused to serve her unless she returned the twenty. She left in a huff, without returning the twenty. So Joey went to the man who had dropped the twenty, and gave the man a twenty from his own pocket. About two hours wages for Joey. Another customer saw all this happen, and sent an email to Dairy Queen. That email was forwarded to the owner of that particular Dairy Queen. Well, the news went viral. And since then, traffic at that Dairy Queen has doubled. Joey even got a phone call from Warren Buffett – second richest man in the United States – whose company owns the Dairy Queen chain. Folks have been coming in and giving Joey large tips, or just giving him money. He’s saving to go to college for a degree in business, but do you know what he’s doing with these tips and gifts he’s getting? He said he is giving it to charity.
Now folks, I don’t know if Brian Halloway or Joey Prusak are Christians or not. I don’t know if they prayed about the situation they found themselves in or not. But they certainly are modeling what it means to be a Christ-follower. And I mention these stories because I want to suggest that both of these guys acted shrewdly when faced with difficult and challenging situations. They were making a difference for someone else. In the one case – hundreds of teenagers who need to have their lives turned around. In the other case a visually impaired man who was stolen from was helped.
Jesus calls us the people of light. Good people, moral people, honest people. People who need to be where the action is.
When Jesus told this parable, he was talking to his disciples. And what he was telling them was this: “Look guys, I need for you to get out there and make a difference in the world.” And that – I think – is the message today for us too.
Does that help make sense of this parable today? Jesus is not commending this manager for being dishonest. He is commending him for his concern about the situation he found himself – and then taking action. For us – it means – well – taking action to touch hearts, change lives, and make a difference.
It is a strange little parable. But it’s a reminder that as long as we are disciples of Jesus Christ – that we need to take action. To pray like it depends on God – and work like it depends on us.