You know you’re in trouble when your preaching professor in seminary throws up his hands and said, “I don’t envy anyone ever having to help a congregation make sense of this passage from Luke. Whenever it comes around in the Lectionary, you might consider preaching on one of the other lessons… or the psalm, instead.” Well here it is… and here we are… and I’m going to do the best I can to walk us through it. I get the bit about the manager being booted from his job because he was incompetent, and I also see that he opted to feather his own nest by dishonest means. I get confused, however, when Jesus gets to the part about the master “commending” the dishonest manager for his “shrewd” behavior. Was Jesus simply being snarky? “Sure, go ahead and dig yourself in deeper… see where that gets you.” Or is he painting a more-subtle picture? As I scratched my head thinking about this question, I remembered a case study (or was it a kind of “parable?”) that I first encountered thirty-five or so years ago in an ethics class at the Police Academy. I’ve fleshed out the story a bit, and given it a fancy title: It’s called, “The seduction of Deputy Jones. I’m going to read it to you…
Once upon a time, there was a young deputy sheriff working in a rural south Georgia county. We’ll call him Deputy Jones. He was a good man, who did his best to be a faithful servant of the Law and provide for his family. Of course, he didn’t make a lot of money and some months, there wasn’t quite enough to make ends meet. There was another citizen of the county who lived on a hundred-acre estate, in a big house, behind a high wall, with a wide gate. We’ll call him Mr. Biggs. He always had a new truck. He was nice enough, though he didn’t seem to have any close friends in the community. Everyone knew he was rich, but no one could say precisely how he made his money. Of course, there was some whispering (this was, after all, a rural county in south Georgia) but most folks just accepted that Mr. Biggs was a businessman of some sort, and left it at that. Are the wheels turning yet?
In any case, one day, Deputy Jones was getting a cup of coffee at the Waffle House and, as he was leaving, he saw that Mr. Biggs, himself, had pulled into the parking lot and had backed his big black truck into a space right next to the deputy’s patrol car… and seemed to be waiting for him. Biggs offered the deputy his hand and asked him how his shift was going. He asked about the Jones family, and Jones was surprised that the rich man knew the names of his wife and children. After a couple of minutes of small talk, Mr. Biggs got down to business: “Deputy Jones, I sure do appreciate the work you do every day to keep this community safe. You seem to be a cut above most of the other sheriff’s office employees, if you know what I mean, and I think you deserve a raise. By the way, I was wondering if I could ask you a favor.” The hairs on the back of the deputy’s neck stood up a little, but he was somewhat in awe of Mr. Biggs, so he inclined his head to listen. “I’ll be meeting with a client out near the County reservoir on Friday evening around 9pm,” said Biggs. “I know you’ll be on duty that evening. It’s no big deal, but we’ll need a little privacy… so if you see my truck and maybe a couple of others in the area, you can assume that everything’s OK. In fact, if you have to be somewhere else in the County around that time, that would be all right too. We’ll make sure the area is secure when we leave.
Friday evening came and went. Deputy Jones didn’t exactly avoid the area of the reservoir at the appointed hour… he had plenty of other stuff to do… he just decided he’d just check it later in the shift. The following morning, he was surprised to find a package in his carport containing a pair of brand-new shoes for each of his kids. Really nice ones. In just the right sizes. Just in time for the beginning of school. The hairs on the back of Jones’ neck stood up again… he had an idea about who might have brought the shoes… but had no way of finding out for sure. What could he do? So, he decided to keep them.
A few weeks later, Jones was at the local BP station, putting gas in his car, when Mr. Biggs pulled up, all smiles. “How do the kids like their new shoes?” he asked. Jones groaned, inwardly. He had almost put the incident from his mind. “I said you deserved a raise,” said Biggs. “And with the start of school and all, it just occurred to me that some new shoes for the young’uns might be a good place to start.” “Thank you,” said Jones, carefully. “You really shouldn’t have done that.” “Nonsense! Happy to do it, happy to!” said Biggs. “And that brings me around to asking another favor… I hope you don’t mind.” Jones heart began to beat faster. Without waiting for an answer, Biggs continued, “I have an 80-acre parcel of land over on the west side of the County, near the old Greenwood Plantation. It’s at the corner of county roads 117 and 230… you can’t miss it. It’s posted and fenced, but I’m having a problem with vandals getting in and tearing stuff up. There’s nothing much there, but I’d hate it if anyone got in there and got hurt somehow… and then it’d be my fault. If you could just keep an extra eye on the fence line for me, I’d much appreciate it. No need to go inside… like I said, there’s nothing much there.” It seemed a harmless enough request, thought Jones. Lots of local property owners were having trouble with kids on dirt bikes trespassing and cutting trails on their land. And every now and then, someone did get hurt. Since Biggs had asked, Jones checked the fence line of the parcel once each shift and ran folks off on a few occasions when he found them on the property illegally. He had some vague misgivings about doing special “favors” for Mr. Biggs… but he put them from his mind. And he never went inside the fence line.
It wasn’t quite three months later that Jones realized he had a big problem. His wife’s birthday was coming up and he had no idea what to get her. He had paid careful attention to the things she seemed to like when they were out window-shopping, but he couldn’t afford any of those things. He wished he could, but it just wouldn’t be responsible to spend that sort of money. So, after much deliberation, he decided to go with something a little less extravagant this year, promising himself that next year, he’d do better. When he came home from work on his wife’s birthday, she met him at the door. “It’s beautiful,” she said. There were tears in her eyes. He looked and saw the new ring, one of the rings she’d been looking at, on her finger. A really nice one. Very sparkly. And just the right size. She gave him a big, long hug. “I found it in the carport when I came back from the store this afternoon. Thank you!” she exclaimed. Jones felt his world begin to close in on him. He spent the next week looking over his shoulder, half expecting to see Biggs’ smiling face looking at him out of the window of his big black truck every time he came out of the Waffle House or when he was sitting stopped in traffic, but he didn’t. He thought about going to his supervisor to confess his misgivings and ask for advice, but he didn’t. There was probably nothing to it, anyway.
One day as Jones was finishing up a wreck investigation on the side of the highway, he looked in his rearview mirror and saw the big black truck pull in behind him. Biggs grinned and waved. As the wreckers pulled away with the damaged vehicles, Jones saw Biggs motioning for him to come and speak with him. Jones felt like he was walking through molasses as he approached the truck. “That ring sure does look pretty on your wife’s finger… I’m guessing she liked it,” Biggs said with a smirk. Jones was adamant: “I told you… sir… you shouldn’t do that sort of thing,” he said. “Oh, come on now, what’s wrong with a friend helping out a friend on his wife’s birthday,” responded Biggs. “And, by the way, I was wondering if you could help me out with something. I need a package delivered to someone up in Atlanta next Saturday night. I’d do it myself, but I’m double-booked. What do you say?” Impotent rage swept over Jones. “Absolutely not! I don’t know what you’re up to with all your private business dealings… and I’m beginning to think I don’t want to know. I work for the Sheriff, not for you, and I think its best if don’t do any more favors for you.” There was a long pause. “I’m sorry to hear you say that,” said Biggs, fixing Jones with a level gaze. “We’ve worked so well together over the past several months.” The bile began to rise in Jones’ throat. “I’d hate to see all that we’ve accomplished wasted, just when it’s about to pay off. And I mean really pay off,” Biggs continued. “Shoes, jewelry, stuff like that is just chicken feed compared to what you’ll get if you stick with me. And I’d particularly hate for the Sheriff to find out about your dereliction of duty that night at the reservoir… and all of the special security you’ve been providing for my business. And the gifts… He probably doesn’t have your best interests at heart, Deputy Jones. I doubt he’d understand.” Biggs paused to let it sink in. “So, whaddya say, Jones? Are we… partners?”
It was set forth at the beginning of this “police parable” that Deputy Jones was a good man who did his best to be a faithful servant of the Law, and to provide for his family. He didn’t set out to be seduced by Mr. Biggs’ offers of camaraderie and gifts. And it was just a couple of pairs of shoes… and a bauble, after all. But in our Gospel story today, Jesus reminds us that, “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” (v. 10). At some point during the course of the story, Deputy Jones “crossed the line” and betrayed his vocation as a servant of the Law and began trying to serve two masters. His fall from grace was subtle… and marked with moments of painful indecision. It didn’t take the form of Jones overtly betraying his oath of office to take up a life of crime… at least not at the outset. It happened gradually, almost without his even knowing it. Biggs was a master, and by the time Jones realized what was happening, it was too late. He was “bought and paid for.” Although the conclusion of the story is left to our imaginations, we can be pretty sure that it didn’t end well for Deputy Jones.
And this brings me back around to today’s Gospel passage and the seeming contradiction between the manager’s master firing him for incompetence… and then turning around and commending him for his shrewdness and dishonesty. I’m no Biblical scholar… and, as I’ve said before, they teach us just enough in “priest school” to make us dangerous. But we have to at least try, I think, to figure out what Jesus is getting at in this parable. So… I wonder if, just as there were two “masters” in the police parable: the Law, and the power and wealth represented by Biggs, is it possible that are also two masters in the parable of the dishonest manager: the rich man who had been his employer at the outset of the story… and then another master waiting in the wings to complete a seduction already in progress. This second master commended him for being in league with the debtors of his original master, in order to defraud him. This master encouraged him to cultivate more such friendships so that he would have plenty of company in eternity. Only, I’m pretty sure that that sort of eternity… with that kind of company… isn’t where any of us would want to be.
I wonder if, in this parable, Jesus is reminding us of something we already know, but that we sometimes ignore at our peril: that there are cosmic forces of light and darkness at work in the world… forces so vast and powerful, there is no way we can stand against them on our own. And that our best and only hope of salvation lies in our choosing God as our Master… and being faithful to him in all things. We must never forget that it’s the little stuff, minor acts and omissions, that that get us into trouble. When we stray from the right path God has set before us, we open the door to seduction. And Satan, the great seducer, is crafty and persuasive. Wealth and power are his most effective tools and his fondest wish is to see the Creator of the Universe defrauded of his greatest treasure; which is the souls of his beloved sons and daughters. So perhaps the real point of this parable, and the question Jesus wants you to ask yourself is, “where and with whom do you want to spend eternity?” God’s arms are wide open. The choice is yours. It’s never too late to repent, but there will be a day of reckoning.
Don’t let it take you by surprise.