Grace for the Unworthy Servant

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					One of the more popular movie genres is the “Heist Flick.” Sharp, slippery thieves
outwit wealthy bankers, casino owners, museums, the CIA. And we find ourselves
rooting for the crooks . . . because who doesn’t like a David and Goliath story? Over
and over, in movie after movie, David once again gets the best of Goliath; and yet, as
we cheer, we still can’t help wondering rather guiltily about the morality of it all. I
mean, these “heroes” we’re watching as they dash through their dangerous and daring
escapades are really criminals, just a bunch of clever rascals. These are thieves we’re
hoping won’t get caught.

Today’s story is also a “heist.” When we read this story, we almost feel the same
guilty satisfaction for the manager. After all, just like in the heist movies, it’s the bad
guy who seems to be the hero. But this time it’s not Hollywood; it’s in our Bibles,
and we can’t help wondering, “Should Jesus really be telling this story?” Why is the
cheating manager getting praised?

Listen again to the story that Jesus told his disciples:

There was a certain wealthy nobleman, a landowner, who had many servants, and over
them all a manager. You may remember how Joseph, in the book of Genesis, also was
placed in charge by Potiphar as manager over Potiphar’s entire estate. But this
manager was not Joseph. He was wasteful and dishonest, a crook and a cheat. The
nobleman kept hearing reports and seeing more and more signs of this
mismanagement, and finally he had enough.

He summons his manager: “What’s this I’m hearing about you?” The abrupt word
order in Greek is forceful. “What’s this steady stream of reports I keep hearing?”

The manager, being a shrewd man, keeps his mouth shut. How much does his master
actually know? He’s not about to open his mouth and get himself into even more

So the wealthy landowner breaks the silence, issues the ultimatum: “Hand over the
books; you’re fired.”

    I am heavily indebted to Kenneth Bailey, Poet and Peasant (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
1976), pp. 86-110 for the literary-cultural material that undergirds this sermon.

Now, the owner has to fire the rascal on the spot, of course. That’s how it’s done even
today in Middle Eastern villages, and in our own large western corporations, too.
“You’re fired! Clean out your desk.” The locks and computer passwords are changed
immediately. So this manager’s authority as his master’s agent is cancelled
immediately. It would be foolish to serve him two weeks’ notice; he’d simply have
that much time to embezzle some more.

When the master says, “You’re fired; surrender the account books,” Jesus’ listeners
know what’s coming next—a volley of protests! That’s always what happens. The
manager will fiercely deny the charges: “Never, never! Those reports you’ve been
hearing—all complete fabrications, terrible lies. Those villagers you’ve been talking
with and those servants under me—they’re just jealous of my position, trying to take
it from me. That’s why they’re spreading those vicious rumours. I’m in the clear, I
tell you!”And he’ll go on and on, loudly and insistently, pleading his case, defending
his innocence.

But, to all of our amazement, this guy just hangs his head, and walks out to get the
account books. Not a single word in his own defence!

This silence is extremely significant in the world of Palestine in Jesus’ day. By his
silence, this manager is affirming loud and clear: “I am guilty. My master knows the
truth, and there is nothing I can offer in my own self-defence. At least I only got
fired; it could have been a whole lot worse. And all Jesus’ listeners are thinking the
same thing. “Incredible! The master didn’t even scold him. Most masters would have
taken that guy to court, tried him before the judge, thrown him into prison. What an
exceptionally kind and gracious master!”

On his way to get the books, the manager immediately he begins to think of his future.
“What are my options now? I’m an educated man, accustomed to being in authority,
so working in the fields is really beneath my dignity, but I would still be willing to go
out into the fields as a farm hand, if I wasn’t such a weakling. So that’s not an option.
What else? Begging? No, begging is definitely beneath my dignity.”
And then, as he approaches the account books, he gets an idea. “Quick!” he says to
one of his master’s servants (and obviously the servants don’t know yet that this
manager is no longer in charge). “Go, summon immediately the tenants of my
master’s estate.”

Wait a minute! You mean, he’s just been stripped of his authority, and this rascal still

has the audacity, the brazenness, to pull one final fast one on his boss, right after his
boss has just been really kind to him?

Yes, that’s exactly what’s happening; and it’s all got to happen in a big hurry before
word about his being fired gets out to the servants, the tenants, the community.

And upon the arrival of these tenants (who are obviously also quite affluent
considering the large rents they owe the wealthy landowner), the manager calls them
in, one by one. He doesn’t want them talking to one another, or asking too many
uncomfortable questions.

And what a hurry he is in! No greeting, no titles used, not even a “Friend,” or a “Sir.”
Just, “How much do you owe my master?” Not because the manager doesn’t know
the amount, of course; it’s right there on the bill in his hand; but it’s a matter of proper
procedure: the debtor and the bill must be in agreement. And the debtor affirms
what’s on the bill. “Yes—it’s in my own handwriting!—it’s so much.”

“Guess what!” says the manager. “Today is your lucky day. You are getting a big
reduction on your rent.” For the first person it’s 400 gallons of olive oil, for the
second it’s 200 bushels of wheat, but the dollar value of the rent reduction is the same:
about 500 denarii, or 2 years’ worth in wages. In today’s terms, about 100 thousand
dollars, not just petty cash!

“Sit down, and quickly, quickly, write out the bill changes as I have dictated!”
Remember, this is the manager speaking. But a manager speaks on behalf of his boss,
the wealthy landowner. Had these tenants any inkling that the whole thing was
dishonest, they would, of course, not have cooperated.

It’s easy to imagine, however, the chitchat from this dishonest manager to the tenants,
“I know . . . the rain hasn’t been that great this year, and the sun’s been especially hot,
and then there were all those grasshoppers that came through in the spring. Well, I
just talked the old gentleman into it. He’s a pretty good egg, in the long run, you
know. Just think of it as a sort of Pentecost bonus. Glad I could be of some

And the business all wrapped up, the tenants head back home,and the manager gathers
up the accounts, and takes them over to his former boss—this boss he has just called
his “master” to the tenants, even though he had already been fired. The manager steps

in the door and brazenly places these doctored account books in front of the wealthy

Now what? What possibly can this manager hope will happen next? The master looks
these books over silently and weighs his options.

He could, of course, head down to the village and explain to his tenants that it’s all
been a mistake, that this dishonest manager was not acting on his behalf at all.

But, right now, down there in the marketplace in the centre of the village there’s a big
party going on, and the master’s generosity is being sung to the heavens. (And, of
course, the manager is also being praised for his part in working out the deal and
talking the owner into granting this huge relief in their rent.) The master realizes that
if he chooses this option, his name will be mud. The joy will turn quickly into anger,
the praises turn into curses over the landowner’s stinginess.

And this master is not stingy. He is a generous man who chose not to jail his manager
for his embezzlement. In fact, in the Middle East, indeed in most any Eastern culture,
the most respected, most highly regarded, most honoured quality of a nobleman is just
that: generosity!

So the master will choose the second option open to him: let the accounts stand as
they now are. He looks up from these doctored account books at his scoundrel of a
manager, and I think he smiles. “You are indeed a shrewd fellow, aren’t you! In fact,
your actions are even a backhanded compliment to me and my generosity. You have
chosen to risk everything on my generosity, to throw yourself upon my merciful
nature. And now, because of this, my generosity, you do indeed have a future.”

You see, in this odd story that Jesus tells, the rascal is not being honoured for his
dishonesty, but for knowing where his salvation lay, and for choosing to risk
everything on his master’s generosity. Just as in those heist movies, what makes us
root for the scoundrels is their courage, their pluck, their shrewdness; not their

So Jesus concludes this story with verse 8: “Look at how shrewd the people of this
world are; they have no problem taking advantage of the generosity of wealthy people.
In fact, you see it happening all the time, don’t you! Now, you guys, my disciples, you
people of the light, just think about how much more generous your God is! Why will

you not take advantage of God’s extravagant generosity!

What Jesus the teacher is doing is using a well-known teaching principle favoured by
the rabbis of his day: the principle of “from the light to the heavy” or what we also
call the “how much more” principle. Again and again in his teaching, Jesus
specifically declares this “how much more” axiom.

“If you know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your
father in heaven give you good gifts!”

“If God looks after lilies and flowers, how much more will he take care of you.

“If the man in bed got up in the middle of night when his friend came knocking on his
door, how much more will God answer you when you cry out to him!

So Jesus moves from “the light to the heavy” to drive home his point: “If a dishonest
manager was able to solve his crisis by throwing himself upon the generosity of his
merciful master, how much more will God help you when you cast yourself upon
God’s generosity in your time of crisis . . . or any other time, for that matter!

“Will you be that shrewd?” asks Jesus. Are you wise enough to recognize how utterly
dependent you are on God’s merciful generosity? Wise enough to recognize that
making excuses and trying to defend yourself is pointless (like that dishonest rascal
of a manager)? Wise enough to accept that we really don’t deserve God’s grace, that
we have only one source of salvation, only one recourse—to throw ourselves upon the
amazing generosity of God our Master?

What we’re talking about is prayer. Living prayerfully is living wisely, shrewdly
entrusting ourselves into the good hands of our generous God.

Prayer is the Christian discipline in which we stop trying so hard, stop working, stop
striving to be effective and efficient and to keep our lives all together, and we start
trusting our extravagantly generous God! We begin asking courageously, asking
specifically. We begin waiting hopefully, expectantly for God to help us.
It’s so hard for us to pray. It’s so much easier for us to work. We wake up in the
morning, and immediately there’s a thousand things we should be doing. How can we
just stop and squander away a whole 30 minutes, or even 10 minutes, just . . . praying?

For quite a number of years, Sandra and I struggled to do this together, to build the
habit of praying together, of opening our hearts to God’s generosity. We needed a

The story of the discovery is for another time. But in the past few years we have come
to love our morning prayers. We now use the new Anabaptist Prayer Book [show],
“Take Our Moments and Our Days.” It’s one of the wisest decisions we have ever
made; and my favourite time of the day, first thing in the morning.

We simply ask God for forgiveness, morning after morning, and God generously
forgives, and heals. We pray for our sons and our families, and we pray for you,
morning after morning, and we see God’s generosity welling up in your lives; and
sometimes we don’t see it, not yet anyway, but we try to remember that God’s
generosity isn’t always on our time-line, and doesn’t always look like we think it
should look. And in God’s generosity, even our marriage is strengthened by prayer.
And when we get up to go to work, we are confident that God has already gone to
work long before us, and we just get to join with him in his generosity.

In our Sunday morning worship, our normal response to God’s Word is prayerful
sharing in the Spirit, followed by our Prayers of the People. This morning you might
like to receive another opportunity to experience the generosity of God through
prayer. If you would like to pray more personally, Susie Hildebrandt, Paul and Mona
Chin, and George Goertzen have offered to pray with you individually in the Fireside
Room. So as we stand now for our song of response, if you would like to pray
together with a guide, I invite you to slip out to the Fireside Room.

Let us stand now, and give thanks for the astounding generosity of our big-hearted
God! AMEN.


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