When I was a boy of about ten, there was a television show I loved to watch. It starred Phil Silvers and was about a lovable rascal called Sgt. Bilko. He was a motor pool sergeant who along with some of his cohorts was always looking for the big score. He lived by his wits, his charm and fast talking to get him out of the trouble he always got himself and his friends into. The morality of the 1950's never allowed him to profit from his shenanigans, but you always hoped he might some day.
Luke records a parable of Jesus in which he tells a story about a first century rascal. We don't know if he is lovable, but Jesus doesn't tell the story as if he is a villain of any kind. It's a tough parable to get inside. The story is simple and clear enough, but Luke tells it without any context, which is always the key to understanding a parable. For instance, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan when some wise guy in the crowd baits Jesus by asking "who is my neighbour". The parable answers the question. Your neighbour is the person who needs you to be a neighbour.
In this case we don't know what's behind the story. Remember that Luke was not physically present and is telling the parable second hand. The only clue at all is in verse 14 and 15. We read:
The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, ?You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight".
The story that Jesus tells them is about a dishonest business manager. The owner, perhaps an absentee landowner gets wind that his manager is dishonest and word gets back that he is coming to fire him. The man realizes the jig is up and says to himself that manual work is too hard and begging is too distasteful. He quickly gets out the books and in collusion with the debtors, has them change the amount owed to a lesser amount. Barclay points out that he has included them in the swindle and can possibly blackmail them if necessary. Presumably it will not be necessary.
The deed is done, he has lost his job, but he now has some businessmen in his debt, and he will no doubt find ways to cash in his chips.
We are scandalized by the story because it is Jesus telling it. These kind of figures are well known in literature and drama--the quick witted trickster. But what kind of moral example is Jesus giving us? The point is that it is no kind of moral example at all, any more than the parable of the prodigal son is an endorsement for riotous living. That's not the point.
The point is that this is an example of a certain kind of drama--the comedy. Classic comedies are stories of impending disaster which averted just in the nick of time. That's what this is. A man is faced with impending doom and he acts shrewdly to save his skin. Jesus says that children of this world have better sense about them than (in His time), children of the covenant.
Jesus critics sneer at him. Conventional wisdom of the time said that earthly blessings were the sign of God's favor. The pharisees, in this case who Luke says loved money, would have attached to their money a sign of their moral superiority. And so the use of a totally immoral figure shows that money is not necessarily a sign of anything but a fat wallet. It's what you do with it that counts.
Jesus is telling them in a round about way to remember that God will also ask an accounting of them. Will they be as smart as this rascal and do what they need to avoid disaster? They would know there is no way to falsify God's books. Apparently the context of the parable is about money and status, so use their money to gain them some favor where it counts. It is almost exactly the same as what Jesus tells the rich young man..."One thing you lack. Sell what you have and give it to the poor."
The rabbis had a saying, "The rich help the poor in this world, but the poor help the rich in the world to come." Ambrose commenting on the rich fool who built bigger barns to store his goods, said, "the bosoms of the poor, the houses of the widows, the mouths of children are barns that will last forever."1
Is Jesus saying you can buy your way into heaven? Not precisely, no. But one of the signs of a converted heart is a heart that has compassion for others. And he also says, "where your treasure is, there also is your heart". And conversely, a heart that is chained to its possessions will go down with that ship.
Almost everyone bemoans how easily we accumulate stuff. But that tendency nearly killed Patrice Moore, a 43-year-old man living in the Bronx, New York. Moore lived a reclusive life in a ten by ten foot room where he compulsively saved newspapers, magazines, books, catalogs, and junk mail.
On December 27, 2003, it all came crashing down on him?literally. An avalanche of Moore's stuff trapped him, standing up, in his room for two days before neighbors heard him moaning and called the fire department. Neighbors and firefighters hauled out 50 garbage bags of paper for an hour just to reach him.2
Talk about an extreme example of how your stuff can entrap you! Jesus is saying that if you have stuff, use it to free yourself, not enslave yourself. And yes, God does honor compassionate hearts who use their material wealth to honor Him and to help the needy.
But what this parable is teaching us is to make hay while the sun shines. A crisis is coming, so do what you need to, in order to be prepared. Like the thief on the cross, its never too late, but you have to act.
The rascal in our story knew what he had to do and he did it. The thief on the cross acted just in the nick of time. Jesus says his coming will be like a thief at midnight.
Are you ready?
Do your material posessions act like a launch pad or an anchor? It's still not too late to make the necessary adjustments in attitude and lifestyle, to be able to say to Jesus when He comes, "Look what I did with all you gave me, Lord!"