Tell Us a Story: Lessons from a Scoundrel
Some stories are very, very strange.
A homeless man, deranged by years of alcohol abuse, suffered what might be called alcohol psychosis. Much of his experiences were delusional. On one particular morning he was up early, garnering his breakfast by rummaging through garbage cans in the park. This man was minding his own business, eating his meager breakfast, when something absolutely unbelievable happened. On this day, two cows fell out of the sky through nearby trees and died when they hit the ground in front of him. Of course when the alcoholic recounted his implausible story to others, no one wanted to believe him.
A reporter on television in Baton-Rouge, Louisiana, ultimately explained what happened. A tractor-trailer, carrying over a hundred head of cattle to be processed, was exiting Interstate 10 on a ramp where many accidents had previously occurred. The driver was speeding and somewhat impaired by sleep deprivation when his eighteen-wheeler crashed through a guard rail. A dozen cows were killed instantly. A number panicked, jumped over the rail, and fell into the park below. Those are the ones this alcoholic had seen falling from the sky. More than seventy loose cows began running along the interstate and seeking refuge in nearby neighborhoods. The state patrol called out what amounted to a group of cowboys to wrangle as many of the cows as possible. Calls about loose cows continued to come in throughout the day. Some teenagers found one and tied it to a signpost in their neighborhood. A group of riverboat gamblers saw a small herd break for the river. One state representative walking across the lawn of the state capitol building took an unfortunate step. He called to report that something was amuck. Some stories are very bizarre.
Our text for today comes from Luke 16:1-12. Hear now the Word of God.
Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’
3 “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’
5 “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
6 “‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied.
“The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’
7 “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’
“‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied.
“He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’
8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
10 “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?
The story before us in Luke 16 is also quite peculiar in several ways. The first century people who heard it would have identified with many of its aspects. The parable involves a rich landowner whose stewards, or managers, take care of their property. One of the stewards he has trusted with the management of his property has been dishonest, unscrupulous. He has taken advantage of the position of trust and used it for his own financial gain. If I mention the names of several companies, such as Enron or Carolina Gold, you understand the point I am making. People entrusted with the money or possessions of others sometimes violate that trust, using other people’s wealth for their own gain.
This particular parable is admittedly quite strange because it includes an unexpected twist. The master actually commends his steward, who has been caught stealing, for shrewdness, cleverness. What a strange reaction! A trusted overseer betrays that trust but receives commendation from his master?
We have a perplexing problem here. In the early centuries the church tried to understand this story as an allegory, a story in which characters and/or events represent other things and symbolically express a deeper spiritual, moral, or political meaning. Early interpretations emphasized that this unjust steward symbolized Jesus, Satan, Peter, Paul, Pilate, or even Judas. Emperor Julian at one point confessed faith in Christ but then rejected Christianity, pointing to this parable and saying, “This is the reason that Christianity is not to be trusted. Christianity commends immorality.” Jesus did not intend this story to be allegorical in nature. Nor did he intend for anyone to interpret the story that way.
Remember that this story is a parable, an earthly story with a heavenly meaning, a story that illustrates a moral or religious lesson. I must be quick to note that the master does not commend the supervisor for his deceit. He commends the steward for his astuteness. Though an unprincipled character, the steward does have a particular trait worth admiring. The truth is that people have really not known what to do with this rascal, this dishonest steward who takes advantage of his master.
I was disappointed to learn that my grand-great grandfather, Major Hugh Neely, was not a major at all. Major was merely his given name. I had originally thought that I had a Confederate officer in my genealogy. No, Major Neely was cross-eyed and could not shoot straight. He could not even make buck private in the Confederate army. He did have the reputation for having something good to say about everyone though.
In Major Neely’s home of Fosterville, Tennessee, the town drunk was walking down the railroad track one night when a train hit and killed him. The next day, two wags in the town decided to make a wager that even Mr. Neely could think of nothing good to say about the deceased man.
They went to the post office where Major Hugh Neely was the postmaster and said, “Mr. Neely, I guess you heard about old Joe who was killed on the train track last night. I suppose there is absolutely nothing good to say about old Joe.”
My great-great grandfather pondered for a moment, then replied, “I think old Joe was the best whistler I ever heard in my life.” He could always find something good to say about everyone.
When you read this parable and get to that punch line where the master commends the unjust steward, I want you to try to imagine the face of Jesus. I want you to see the twinkle in his eye and hear the chuckle in his voice when he delivers the line, “The master commended the unjust servant.” Jesus is using the storyteller’s craft, giving us a surprise right in the middle of the story, a technique that confronts us and captures our attention. Jesus has hooked us.
Jesus finds something good in this grand rascal, even though he has swindled his master. Jesus commends him for being astute, not for being deceitful. We meet a person like this and ask, “Why can’t the scoundrel use his cleverness, his shrewdness, to earn an honest living? What if he put all of that energy and ability to some good use?” Jesus sees in this man something to commend. It is not his fraudulence; it is his foresight.
Why would Jesus choose such a person? Surely he could have chosen someone else with a good reputation to be at the center of this story. If a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning, doesn’t it stand to reason that some parables ought to include earthy people, people with all their fallibility, with all their foibles, with all their flaws? Jesus chooses a person from real life, the kind of person we all know, and puts him right at the center of this parable.
Jesus used this technique more than once. If we turn over a few chapters and look at Luke 18:2, we see that Jesus commends an unjust judge who “neither feared God nor loved people.” In his role as judge, he gave bad decisions. A widow who had not gotten justice kept returning to this judge, pleading her case to him. The Bible says that he became so worn out with her pestering that he finally relented to her requests. Jesus taught that particular parable to teach his disciples to pray and never quit.
An immediate question arises: Are we to think of God in the same way that we think of that unjust judge? Does God have to be hounded and hounded before He finally gives in and grants our requests? No. Jesus is not telling a parable of similarity. He is not saying that God is like the judge. He is telling a parable of contrast. “If an unjust judge will finally give in, how much more would your Father in heaven give you what you ask?”
The same is true of the parable before us.
Here we have a rich man who owns a large estate, which many tenants work. A man who has leased an olive grove brings in 800 gallons of oil. The steward, trying to curry favor, says, “Let’s say you have brought 450 gallons of oil rather than 800 gallons.” He immediately takes about half of his master’s profit. To the man who has grown 1000 bushels of wheat, the shrewd and dishonest steward says, “Let’s just say you harvested 800 bushels of wheat.” Why does he cut the amount by only twenty percent in the first instance case but cuts the amount by fifty percent at another time? The steward, this scoundrel, is enlisting these workers to be his partners in crime. Later on, he can blackmail them if necessary. He thinks, I cannot dig; I don’t want to get my hands dirty. I do not want to beg; I am too proud. I am going to do what I do best and swindle a little bit more.
This story is not drawing a similarity. Jesus is not telling his disciples, “Listen. I want you to be grand rascals. I want you all to be like this scoundrel.” Instead, Jesus is saying, “Here is a trait that, if applied to the Christian life, can lead to good things. Even though this scoundrel is acting in this way, we can see a good trait here. Doesn’t it stand to reason that if you are going to be my disciples, this good trait ought to take an entirely different form in your life?” If we interpret the parable in that way, Jesus’ meaning becomes clear to us.
Verse 8 points out the contrast here between people of darkness and people of light: “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” Think about the time and energy you devote to important aspects of your life. If you want to evaluate your life, get out your checkbook and calendar. Look at how you spend your money. Look at how you spend your time.
I do not like to pick on golfers, but I will to make this point clear. Jesus did not call golfers to be his disciples. He called fishermen. Think about the time and money golfers put into a game. Think about the effort put into lowering a handicap. Try to imagine a person devoting that time, energy, and money to the things of the kingdom of God. Jesus makes the point here that if we would put our time, energy, and money into things that are really of the kingdom, we would see a huge difference.
Consider the energy and enthusiasm generated by football fans on Saturday. Try to imagine that same energy and enthusiasm brought to the worship of God on Sunday. Jesus is saying, “Appropriate the gifts you have in the proper way.” He talks about material wealth, mammon the King James Version calls it, the way we use money. Do we use money as a means of manipulation? Do we use money to afford us the things we selfishly want? Sometimes money can cost too much. Sometimes we become enslaved to it. Jesus teaches here that money can be a tool that provides for our families.
Jesus makes a point of contrast between this grand rascal who is so dishonest and untrustworthy and us as people of trust. We talk about trusting Jesus. Do you know how much Jesus trusts you? He has given you the ability to do something special for him. Young people, you really need to hear this point. The Lord Jesus has given you some special ability to aid him. Don’t you think the Lord wants those people who have a knack for making money honestly to use that gift for Him? The Lord wants those who have the gift for music to use it for His service. God wants others who have the gift of teaching to use it for His kingdom.
The first point of the Scout Law is a matter of being trustworthy. People will not trust you unless you are trustworthy, trustworthy, trustworthy over and over and over again. The Christian is called to be faithful, called to be a person of trust.
Clare and I have a favorite contemporary Christian song by Steve Green. Listen to these words.
May all who come behind us find us faithful. May the fire of our devotion light their way. May the footprints that we leave lead them to believe And the lives we live inspire them to obey. May all who come behind us find us faithful.
Above all else this parable of contrast stresses that Jesus wants us to be faithful. That faithfulness begins when we accept Christ as our personal Savior. Some here today have never made that decision. If that is the case, we invite you, urge you, to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Some have other decisions to make. Maybe God has been dealing with you and your life. You know in your heart that He has a decision He wants you to make, maybe a decision that involves mission work, full-time Christian service, or an act of re-dedication. Whatever decision Christ lays on your heart, we invite you to respond as we sing a hymn of invitation.
Kirk H. Neely © October 2006