16 Jesus said to his disciples:
A rich man once had a manager to take care of his business. But he was told that his manager was wasting money. 2 So the rich man called him in and said, “What is this I hear about you? Tell me what you have done! You are no longer going to work for me.”
3 The manager said to himself, “What shall I do now that my master is going to fire me? I can’t dig ditches, and I’m ashamed to beg. 4 I know what I’ll do, so that people will welcome me into their homes after I’ve lost my job.”
5 Then one by one he called in the people who were in debt to his master. He asked the first one, “How much do you owe my master?”
6 “A hundred barrels of olive oil,” the man answered.
So the manager said, “Take your bill and sit down and quickly write ‘fifty’.”
7 The manager asked someone else who was in debt to his master, “How much do you owe?”
“A thousand bushels of wheat,” the man replied.
The manager said, “Take your bill and write ‘eight hundred’.”
8 The master praised his dishonest manager for looking out for himself so well. That’s how it is! The people of this world look out for themselves better than the people who belong to the light.
9 My disciples, I tell you to use wicked wealth to make friends for yourselves. Then when it is gone, you will be welcomed into an eternal home. 10 Anyone who can be trusted in little matters can also be trusted in important matters. But anyone who is dishonest in little matters will be dishonest in important matters. 11 If you cannot be trusted with this wicked wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? 12 And if you cannot be trusted with what belongs to someone else, who will give you something that will be your own? 13 You cannot be the slave of two masters. You will like one more than the other or be more loyal to one than to the other. You cannot serve God and money. Contemporary English Version (CEV)
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The meaning of this particular parable is a puzzle.  It is a parable that makes us uncomfortable, not because it is a reflection of our own dishonest nature, but because Jesus seems to endorses dishonest behavior.
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’
This is a workplace story.  Have you ever worked somewhere where a coworker didn’t pull his or her weight, or even stole from the company? In the field I’m familiar with, education, there was always room for improvement.  I worked with lots of great teachers, but some times I grew frustrated with the habits of some of my colleagues.  It was usually done in conjunction with turning a blind eye to my own shortcomings, of course. Like most people, we were always afraid of losing our jobs for some capricious reason.  Thanks to the teachers’ union, you really had to do something awful to lose your job, like shoot the principal. On the other hand, that meant that as you got older, you could coast your way to retirement, as long as you kept the kids out of the halls and turned in grades on time.  That being said, it is easy for me to imagine a parent complaining to a principal about a teacher and the principal calling said teacher into the office.  Shoot, I don’t even have to imagine it!  I sat in the chair a couple of times.
If the teacher was unjustly accused, then she or he could ask for the union to step in for protection.  That hardly ever happened.  Most of the time the issue was resolved and everybody got paid or graduated.
The manager in our parable doesn’t have a union to turn to.  He is on his own and has to think quickly about how he can survive, keep food on the table and a roof over his his head.
3Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.
There are few jobs available to him. The equivalent of flipping burgers at a fast food joint was  hard labor on construction projects—digging dirt.  There are two reasons digging dirt was not an option.  First of all, he was not physically capable of physical labor. Two, there were plenty of people looking for work who could do the work.  He wouldn’t have a chance at getting a job, let alone surviving it.
He knows he will need friends to survive, so he sets out to make friends.  He can’t make just any friends.  He needs friends who are powerful, who have money, and who will be willing to take a risk on him.
How does he make these friends?  He cuts them a deal.
So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’
After he has been fired, he can go back to them and remind them that they owe him a favor. He may get only a meal or two, or they may even employ him…at least he has a little bit of security to look forward to. Ironically, even though he is stealing from his master, he expects them to reward him for that, since they benefited from his dishonesty.
That’s strange, coming from Jesus’ mouth.  But it gets better….or stranger.
8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.
9And 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.
Did Jesus really say that?  Make friends by means of dishonest wealth? Yes. According to Luke, he did.  Jesus explains his reasoning this way:
10“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
This is common sense.  This parable is about the big picture. Jesus’ point is not to get rich by any means possible.  The point is to use wealth to promote the Kingdom of God.  In my research, I found this explanation especially helpful.
“… this lesson from Jesus, like every other mention on money in Luke’s Gospel is about how God’s economy is different than the worlds economy.  The underlying fundamental truth is that every economy is a faith based system.  Certainly, in America post-1933 and the end of the Gold Standard, any value we place in a dollar is based on our faith that it is worth something.  Even before that, dating back all the way to Jesus and beyond, things like gold and silver have value because someone says so.  They are “precious metals” only because they are rare and hard to unearth, not because they really have any inherent value.”
So, according to [this] line of reasoning, when Jesus says, “you can’t serve God and wealth,” he is saying that a choice must be made between Almighty God and the Almighty Dollar.  If the pursuit of wealth deprives you of a relationship with God and with your fellow human beings and even all of creation, then you have made the wrong choice.  But if your wealth building up the Kingdom, supports the Church, aids the poor, oppressed, and afflicted, then your priorities are in the right order.”1
Doesn’t that make sense?  We know very well that wealth is not distributed fairly, let alone equally, in our country. There are a hundred reasons for that, but you and I have little control over that.  What we can control is how we use our own wealth and how we use our own talents and abilities.
The media gives a lot of attention to the widening gap between the rich and the poor.  It becomes especially critical when Congress or the state legislature cuts millions of dollars from the grocery budget of people who depend on government help to put food on the table.  The majority of these “food stamp” people are disabled, elderly , or under the age of eighteen.  Twenty percent of the people who receive food stamps hold down jobs; in other words, they’re not getting paid to sit on the front porch.
Thanks to my daughter, Miriam, I’ve learned why people need the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Plan.  For one thing, no one can survive on one minimum-wage job.  Two, like it or not, some households have one adult, not two, to provide income.
I spent this last week at a workshop in Ames.  It was nice.  The workshop was in the Holiday Inn, so I stayed in a nice room there.  There were fourteen people in my workshop.  We had two things in common: 1) we were studying to become Peer Support Specialists and 2) we’ve all had a mental illness diagnosis.  My mental illness is simply clinical depression. I’ve had it all my life, but it was first diagnosed in 1986.  I was 37 years old, I had three small children and I was working full time as a high school teacher.  I was lucky. I never had to quit my job; I was never homeless or hospitalized.  My classmates experiences were different from mine. Some, because of their illnesses, had been in jail, had lost jobs, had lost their children, and had been deserted by their families.
You might say my classmates had made bad choices, like the manager in our parable.  You might say, they had pushed too many buttons, made too many mistakes to be given jobs or respectability or even to have their children returned to them. But like the manager, they used their brains, their ability, their experience to rebuild their lives.  They’ve learned how the systems of law enforcement and public assistance and health care can work for and against them.  They have learned how to survive and become stable, valuable citizens.
You’ve probably heard complaints about people abusing food stamps or medicaid or child support.  First of all, statistics prove that the abuses are very few compared to those who use agencies to support their families.  And to put things in perspective, think about the latest Wells Fargo scandal.  Do all bankers create false bank accounts and defraud consumers?  No.  Very few do.
On the other hand, when I talk with people who are social workers or who use food stamps, I know that to survive, you have to know how to get the most out of the system to survive.  That’s what the manager in our parable did.  And what does Jesus say? Does Jesus tell a story about a dishonest manager going to jail or being thrown out in the street? No.  That could have very well been the ending of the story.  Instead, Jesus commends the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.
Jesus is not naive.  He knows that we all have found it easier at one time or another to lie or to cheat or to steal.  I won’t give you any examples; you can think of your own.  I think what Jesus expects us to do is to take anything that we have gained through dishonest means and turn it to good use.  So, if I cheat on my taxes, then the money I save can be put to help someone else.  Does that make sense?  Do you have something that is yours because you took advantage of someone or because you never got around to paying for it?  I expect you might want to find a way to use that advantage to give someone else an advantage.
Perfect people don’t need to follow Jesus; but those of us who fall off the path need all the help we can get, even if it doesn’t make much sense.
Blessings on all that you do, whether you screw up or make up or build up.  Amen.

1 http://draughtingtheology.wordpress.com

Sheep and Shepherds

15 Tax collectors and sinners were all crowding around to listen to Jesus. 2 So the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law of Moses started grumbling, “This man is friendly with sinners. He even eats with them.”
3 Then Jesus told them this story:
4 If any of you has a hundred sheep, and one of them gets lost, what will you do? Won’t you leave the ninety-nine in the field and go look for the lost sheep until you find it? 5 And when you find it, you will be so glad that you will put it on your shoulder 6 and carry it home. Then you will call in your friends and neighbors and say, “Let’s celebrate! I’ve found my lost sheep.”
7 Jesus said, “In the same way there is more happiness in heaven because of one sinner who turns to God than over ninety-nine good people who don’t need to.”
8 Jesus told the people another story:
What will a woman do if she has ten silver coins and loses one of them? Won’t she light a lamp, sweep the floor, and look carefully until she finds it? 9 Then she will call in her friends and neighbors and say, “Let’s celebrate! I’ve found the coin I lost.”
10 Jesus said, “In the same way God’s angels are happy when even one person turns to him.”1
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What does being friendly with sinners have to do with finding something lost?
As is true with any piece of Scripture, rereading or reading it again after a long time reveals new insights and new ways to think about what Jesus wants to teach us.
So I look at the Pharisees’ grumbling and then I look at the two little parables and I have to ask myself, “What is the connection?”
Heretofore, I have skipped over the Pharisees’ peevish remarks and delved right into the two parables.  Jesus uses parables to teach, so that’s where the lesson is, right?
But now I have to ask myself–why did Jesus choose those two parables to respond to the Pharisees charge that Jesus spent too much time with sinners? What does looking for something that is lost have to do with hanging out with the wrong people?
First of all, I assume that the Pharisees did not consider themselves sinners.
What a good deal, to not be a sinner.  If I’m not a sinner, then what do I have to worry about, other than keeping up my reputation?
For the Pharisees, keeping up their reputations meant publicly following all the laws of Hebrew tradition.  It meant worshipping often, it meant giving to the poor, it meant eating only the foods approved by the Law, it meant associating only with their own kind.   The Pharisees were seen doing the right thing with the right people at the right time in the right place.  It seems like a simple life, but in fact, the Pharisees were able to make it rather complicated by interpreting the laws to their advantage. They seemed to have most of the wealth and most of the power within the Jewish community.
Jesus puzzles them.  His wisdom attracts them and the local rumors that he is the Messiah worry them. So they keep a close eye on him. They, like all Jews, have yearend for a Messiah for hundreds of years. Can you imagine how long that is?
Our country is less than three hundred years old–what if we had been promised something in our constitution or Bill of Rights that hasn’t yet manifested itself? (Come to think of it, not all of the citizens of this country can claim that they are afforded all the rights and responsibilities our forefathers envisioned. So for 240 years, some of our friends and neighbors are still waiting.)  What if we were all, waiting, 240 years, for the one thing that would make our nation perfect?  What would we do while we were waiting for a person or a plan or natural phenomena to rescue us?  How would that waiting change how we go about our daily business, about how we make decisions?
The Pharisees wanted to be sure of their position, to be sure, on the first level, that they pleased God, but on other levels, they had to please each other, and that meant excluding people who didn’t meet their high standards.
It makes me wonder: do those of us who sit in the pew or stand in the pulpit consider ourselves a little closer to God’s ideal person than those who skip church affiliation? Are we Pharisees?
The two parables use very common symbols: a sheep and a coin.  The shepherd actually leaves the other 99 sheep to look for the one. Why he expects the other 99 to stay out of trouble is beyond me, but it’s not part of the parable.  The parable is about the shepherd deliberately looking for the lost sheep. Again, my limited experience with sheep makes me think a lost sheep is lost because it’s sick, dead, or stuck in a fence. Is one lost sheep out of 99 worth looking for?  Jesus says, yes.  Just because a sheep is sick or stuck in a fence doesn’t make it any less valuable.  By extension then, there is no one who does not need to be found, to be returned to the herd.
This makes me wonder; if Jesus means by sheep, children of God, who, in 2016, are the lost sheep, and, more importantly,who are the shepherds?
Yesterday, my doorbell rang.  I opened the door to find two young men in black trousers and long-sleeved white shirts ready and eager to share their faith with me. Guess who the sheep was? Baaaa.  When is it my turn to be the shepherd?  How will I do that?  It’s not by standing in one place for an hour, preaching and reading Scripture.
I think we are the 99 sheep, found, safe, and saved.  We are thankful to have a shepherd.  But now it’s time to turn the parable inside out and look at Jesus’ point: lost sheep don’t just show up.  Lost sheep need someone to find them, someone to deliberately leave the safety of the barn and go to those places that are not safe, that are not pretty, that are not comfortable, to find the lost sheep.
One of my favorite hymns is “I am Jesus Little Lamb.”  But in the world of parables and stories and metaphors, once I am found, I am transformed.
The parable of the lost coin is a retelling of the same lesson.  It takes effort to find the lost. The lost coin doesn’t just jump up on the table or fall from the ceiling. Finding the lost coin requires effort on the part of the finder.
We’ve all lost something–a billfold, a key, a piece of jewelry. Do you just wait for the lost object to show up or do you search for it? What do you do when you find the billfold, the car keys, the earring?  You put the object in your pocket, the ignition or your ear and move one.
The last point that Jesus makes is that finding the lost sheep, the lost coin is so wonderful, so fantastic, that the only way to react is to throw a party.
I have lost plenty of car keys and earrings.  Never once did I throw a party to celebrate.  It never occurred to me.  But Jesus says that finding a lost child of God, finding a lost sinner, causes God so much joy that God has to celebrate with everyone around.
As you sit here today, can you remember a time when someone was lost and returned to family and friends.  Maybe someone wasn’t really lost, but had been absent for a long time. Maybe someone returned from the military.  Or maybe the genealogist in the family had discovered a relative in the family tree and that person came to the next family reunion. We know how to welcome people back into the flock.
Think about the joy of those gatherings.  Multiply that times ten. Or twenty.
That’s the joy God feels when a sinner is found.
So, who is a sinner?  Where are the sinners?  Well, raise your hand if you’re absolutely perfect.  We are sinners, are we not?  And yet we repent, confess, and accept forgiveness.  I wonder if there is not dancing in heaven every time we go through our ritual of confession.
I wonder about the sinners who are outside our four walls, the sinners who are not really connected to God.  Who will find them?  How will they be found and returned to the flock or the moneybag?
Once again, I find myself with multiple identities.  I am Jesus’ little lamb, safe as can be.  But I am not really a lamb.  Jesus describes God’s children as lambs because lambs need guidance, just as we do.
Parable only go so far.  Perhaps that’s why Jesus told so many parables, to cover the multiplicity of our human situations.
So, shed your wooly hide and get ready for the next parable.  There are lost sheep, lost coins, who won’t just show up on our doorstep.  They are waiting to be found.  And how do we show our delight in finding them.  Do we invite them to sit in a pew for an hour?  That’s the part that I find challenging.
We want to find the lost lamb, the lost coin. We know that as disciples, that is our calling. But how do we keep the lost lamb safe in the flock?
These are the challenges of the Christian of the 21st Century.  What are we looking for?  How do we find it or them?  What do we do to keep them in the flock?
We are not the Pharisees who have everything figured out. We are the shepherd who values every sheep.  We are the woman who values each coin. We are the family of Christ who values every human being.  Amen.