…As We Forgive Our Debtors?

A sermon from the 17th Sunday after Pentecost (9-19-10)

Children’s Time: bring a clock with a second hand… talk about a runner sliding into home, safe! …or about a girl oversleeping and missing her bus by a few seconds. In both cases the small things (just a few seconds) matter. Just a few seconds can make a big difference! God cares about the little things. And so do your SS teachers and youth leaders! The Bible teaches: “If you are faithful in the small things you will be faithful in the big things.” / INSTALLATION OF TEACHERS & GUIDES

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

When I first saw this lesson for today, I though to myself, “Oh great! I get to preach on the lesson where Jesus approves of a man lying to cover his own mistakes!” Since when is dishonesty a virtue?

Well, if you happened to be watching the Yankees game against Tampa Bay last week, you saw Derek Jeter up at bat fake getting hit by the ball. The instant replay clearly shows the ball glancing off the bat, but because of his good acting skills, the ump gave him first base. Later he admitted that he’d faked it because it’s the batter’s job to get on base whatever it takes. They even had the team physician on the field examining his wrist while the coach from the opposing team went to argue it with the ump. And he got thrown out of the game! Sometimes dishonesty is rewarded.

So why does Jesus commend the dishonest manager, praising him for his shrewdness, when we all know that he was doing it just to save himself? Here was a guy who knew he was in trouble. He had just gotten his walking papers from the boss for mismanaging the property for far too long. And he went out and did all he could to cover his own behind! Sure, he cut his clients a break, but only so that they would return the favor for him some day. In verse 9 Jesus said, “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.”

The Jerusalem Bible translates this verse to read: “So I tell you this: use money, tainted as it is, to win you friends.” What a lowdown thing for Jesus to say! Is he telling us the ends justifies the means? I mean, if you’re only trying to help someone (in this case yourself) does that justify lying?

I should say right now that this parable has been explained in several different ways. Probably the biggest stretch I’ve heard comes from The Living Bible. In this translation, Jesus says in verse 9: “But shall I tell you to act that way, to buy friendship through cheating? No!” It’s clearly a twisting of the Greek text to get Jesus to say what we want him to say.

So, what’s really going on here? I’m tempted to just avoid this parable altogether. After all, the word parable comes from the Greek paraballow, which means literally “to throw down alongside.” Jesus rarely explained himself. He just threw little stories down alongside people and walked away without explanation or altar call. But the question remains: Is a lie ever the faithful thing to do?

Say, for example, your friend’s son just dropped out of school. You wouldn’t tell him about how your own son just go the A honor roll. Or if a friend just had a miscarriage, you wouldn’t tell her about going to see your new niece. Sometimes not saying anything is the best course of action. As Aristotle once said: “Honesty is speaking the right truth to the right person, at the right time, in the right way, for the right reason.”

People lie to build themselves up, and they lie to put others down. A lie can hide the truth even from oneself. One basic rule I’ve tried to live by is to simply ask myself: “Who am I?” and to judge no one. That’s not easy. I have been shamefully wrong about people at times – only to regret the judgment I made about them later. Noted author Maya Angelou once said “Reality has changed chameleon-like so many times before my eyes that I have come to trust anything but what appears to be.”

One final take on this parable comes from writer-theologian: Sarah Dylan Breuer. She suggests that Jesus isn’t condoning lying… but rather, commending the dishonest steward for the outcome of his underhanded dealings.

“Q: What, precisely, is it that the steward does, albeit without authorization and with deception?
A: The steward forgives debts.
The steward forgives. He forgives things that he had no right to forgive. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and to compensate for past misconduct… So what’s the moral of this story?
It’s a moral of great emphasis for Luke: FORGIVE. Forgive it all. Forgive it now. Forgive it for any reason you want, or for no reason at all.”

Just imagine the conundrum the landowner must’ve faced. He’d probably seen many of his farmers on the way in to demand an accounting of his crooked steward. “Thank you, master, for forgiving our debts!” they shouted. “You’re the best!” He was suddenly a hero. Could he really turn around and tell all those folks: “Ah, well you see, there’s been a mistake. You all really still owe me all those debts.”? He had a choice to make. And he chose to praise the steward for his shrewdness.

Beuer later concludes… “It boils down to the same thing: deluded or sane, selfish and/or unselfish, there is no bad reason to forgive. Extending the kind of grace God shows us in every possible arena — financial and moral — can only put us more deeply in touch with God’s grace.”

How we treat each other – our families – our clients – matter. Jesus says in v. 10: “Whoever is faithful in very little, is also faithful in much.” …and “You cannot serve both God and wealth.”

So, what will happen when the master pays you a visit? How will God find your management of what has been entrusted to you? And, more importantly, how will you take action to forgive? I mean, if this sniveling excuse for a steward can show forgiveness (for all the wrong reasons) and still come out smelling like a rose… why can’t we?

Let us pray: O God, you forgive us our debts when we least deserve it – even when we’re thinking only of ourselves. Help us to be faithful in the little things – to be generous in our forgiving – to serve you over money at all times… in Jesus name we pray: Amen.

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