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Saints and Swindlers
a homily based on Luke 16:1-13
by Rev. Thomas N. Hall

Recently, at least twice a month it seems I get a letter that has on the envelope in thick block letters, "URGENT! - OPEN IMMEDIATELY!" So I rip the envelope open and read . . .

"MR. THOMAS HALL of _____________,
if you’re standing up, you may want to sit down
because you may just have won $10,000,000,000."

Last count, I had won six Mazda Miatas, three Caribbean cruises, one in-ground swimming pool, $14,000,000 (to be paid in $1,000 monthly allotments for the rest of my life) and a lifetime supply of cat food. These letters are personal, too. They actually know my name and its spelled correctly in bold-faced, capital letters. And it sounds so official. "Mr. Hall, congratulations! You have made it into the final sweepstakes drawing for $1,000,000,000! Yes, Mr. Hall, this may be your lucky day! And then comes the "imagine-with-me type questions: "Have you ever wondered how you would spend that kind of money?" Must be something to this because as I scan the page I see color photos of boats, motorhomes, cape cods, beaches, and pictures of smiling winners--one from Cincinnati, another from New Mexico, and would you believe it, one even from my town!

Yet, sadly, nothing has arrived on my door step except the magazines to which I subscribed in order to enhance my chances of winning. Scam artists who know the legal loop holes are pretty slick.

A couple of summers ago, my wife’s father and his wife from Montana were visiting us eastern seaboarders and so we spent one day in New York City. There, during a traffic jam, our Montana couple came upon the buy of a lifetime. Someone on the corner was selling an expensive CD/Radio boom box that retailed for over $250.00 in their home town in Montana, but at streetside in NYC is was going for only $70.00. Such a buy! Back at our home they opened their treasure. What had they paid seventy bucks to buy? Why, three of the nicest red bricks you’d ever want to see wrapped in a New York Times and stuffed inside a boom box package! Montanans are so trusting.

I'm sure you could tell me of your own experiences of being swindled. Your used car flat lines four days after the ninety day warranty runs out. Your timeshare dream turns into a nightmare. That pocket trumpet you won on Ebay can’t even stay in tune with itself. A credit card arrives in your mailbox and promises you $5,000 instant cash at any ATM machine, but you miss the fine print that says that a 24% interest fee will be tacked on. An ad in the tabloid at the grocery checkout line wants to sell you "cancer insurance" at a ridiculously low price. (What they neglect to tell you is that no one has ever been able to collect on their policy because technically, no one ever dies of cancer, but of organ failure.) Yes, we all have our stories about being ripped off by dishonest people and organizations.

Well, the opportunity has finally arrived for us to vent all of our anger and frustrations, for we have in our gospel lesson today a two timing, chiseling rat fink. Like our prodigal son character who blows his wads on tail-gate parties, cruises, and penthouses, so our little business manager squanders his boss's resources. The good part of this story, though, is that this guy gets caught. The boss catches wind of his dishonest scheme and Fed Ex’s the pink slip with the words, "You're fired, you little weasel. Get the books in order and turn them over. You're through with this company."

Now the conniving business manager is caught by surprise and faces a dilemma, a no-win situation. He's a white collar worker. No calluses. Probably a pale, sickly little fellow. But he still has his dignity. In the Greek text we see an intrapersonal conversation going on: "To dig, I am not able, to beg, I am ashamed." He can't work construction, but he refuses welfare. What to do? And then he hits upon brainy idea: "I'll play with the debit ledger and tilt my boss's debtors in their favor, then, when I am thrown out of the company, at least I’ll find favor with these debtors; they'll be grateful for cutting their bill.

So he gets his eraser out and begins to juggle the numbers on the accounts. Those who owe 600 gallons of costly olive oil he cuts in half; those who owe I ,500 bushels of wheat he cuts 150 bushels. You can well imagine what might happen when the boss finds out the newest the shenanigans of his crooked business manager.

I sure know what I’d do. I’d call the police. And while they're on their way to make the arrest, I would speed dial the attorney general. Then I’d contact my own lawyer and draw up the charges and indictment against my former employee. That's what's supposed to happen.

But it doesn't work out that way. Jesus instead throws an unexpected twist in the story. Jesus has the boss applauding the little chiseler! Rather than throwing the book at the manager, the boss tears the pink slip into shreds and throws confetti! The swindler is not fired after all, but promoted to Executive Vice President of Accounting instead! We don't know for sure, but I suspect he even ends up marrying the boss's daughter and is given a free, life-time subscription to Forbes Magazine. And all this is due to his dishonest bill-shaving! Where’s the justice?

We can now understand why most of us preachers prefer to spend time in the parable that precedes this parable-the Prodigal Son. At least we can understand the thing. But this parable! What’s the point here? Why would Jesus use a two-timing, chiseling cheater in this parable to be the hero of his story? And what is true about this little business manager that is also true about the kingdom of God?

Jesus points out that the manager was a shrewd character and that those of this age are shrewder in dealing with their own than those who belong to God's Kingdom. Though evil, though conniving, though dishonest, the manager was shrewd when it came to using the resources of this life to ensure his future. And that is the question the parable asks of us: do we use our resources to ensure our future life? Have we planned for our long journey into eternity? We can pile up impressive portfolios of dollars and honors, get our name in Who's Who, and yet wake up one morning asking, "Is it worth it?" When we become aware that we have only a limited amount of time left to accomplish the things really important to us-what really counts?

There was once a king who ruled a vast territory. When the affairs of state became particularly unbearable, he would call for a little court jester to come and make him laugh. The jester never failed to take the king's mind off his troubles. The king affectionately referred to the jester as his little fool. On one occasion when the jester had returned the king to good spirits, the king gave the jester his scepter and said, "Here, take this scepter and scour the land for anyone as great a jester as you, my little fool."

The court jester traveled the vast kingdom for another jester but while on his search one day, a messenger of the king met the jester. "The king is very ill and requests that you return immediately." Inside the royal bedchamber, the jester once again stood before the king.

"Well, my little fool, my little jester, I am about to take a long journey."

"My king," said the little fool, "have you prepared for that journey?"

"Sadly, no," replied the king, "no I haven’t."

Handing the scepter back to the king, the jester said, "Then take this with you, O King, for you are the biggest fool in your kingdom."

Our lesson today, challenges us to take our shrewd friend seriously.

I can still see the little framed poem that was tacked to the bare wall of my bedroom in my grandma's farmhouse in Minnesota. I slept in a cozy little room with peeling wallpaper; I can still hear the howling winter wind. A forty watt bulb would cast large shadows on the walls giving this framed poem even greater influence over me. The farmhouse has long since been sold; my grandfather and grandmother live on only in my memory. But with each passing year I think more deeply about the implications of that little poem:

"Only one life, ‘twill soon be past,

only what's done for Christ will last."

How are you managing your life and resources? That's what our parable asks of us. This morning we have the most valuable asset possible. We have our life. Our bodies may be a bit stiff maybe, a bit unresponsive, but life we have. Our life may lack the streamlined look of fashion models or the bronze tan of youth, but we have our life. And we have our memory. And we have friends. And we have opportunities.

Most of us this week will not have the opportunity to christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with the queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake. But we will have the opportunity to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county commissioner, teach a Sunday school class, share a meal, tell a child a story, smile, and feed the neighbor's cat. When it comes to life, resources and planning for the future, remember Jesus' clever little manager, for because of his shrewdness, his master applauded him.

May God be pleased with the management of our lives, too. Amen.