” Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 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.’ “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— I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’ “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’“‘Nine hundred gallons[a] of olive oil,’ he replied. “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’ “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’ “‘A thousand bushels[b] of wheat,’ he replied. “He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’“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. 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? 13 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” 14 The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15 He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.”  Luke 16: 1-13

I hope it’s okay to say that Jesus has a sense of humor. Among his teachings and stories we find some clever puns and some hilarious images, like the one about the Pharisees straining out gnats and swallowing camels. Which end of a camel does one swallow first? Do we start with the head or the feet?

We’ve just heard another example of Jesus’ humor: he tells a story about a servant, caught with his hands in his master’s cookie jar, who turns the tables on his master by enlisting some of the master’s friends and social equals on his side. It’s the kind of humor you find all around the world, especially among peasants and the poor who have to make their way through a world run by their rich and the powerful masters. Perhaps Jesus was even recounting a familiar joke or folktale that the fishermen, farmers, and day laborers knew and enjoyed. But just when everyone’s sure they know what the old familiar story means, Jesus applies it in a way that his audience probably never saw coming.

Twenty centuries later, the story still leaves us scratching our heads. Why would Jesus use a liar, a thief and a cheat as an example for us, “the people of the light?” That’s the first question in the sermon outline in today’s bulletin. Why would Jesus commend to us the example of an embezzler and a scallywag? It can’t be for his fraud and embezzlement, because just a few verses later, Jesus says, “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?” So, no one gets a pass from this passage on embezzlement, fraud, or cooking the books.

Still, Jesus would have us learn something from this scoundrel. The first lesson that I see is that Jesus uses this story, subpoint A, is: To remind us of our responsibility and accountability to our Master. We too are stewards of sacred, precious things which God has loaned us, for which we are responsible to God, such as life itself, our bodies, souls and spirits, this earth, its resources and relationships, time, talents, and yes, money. All these things are from God and for God. So we too face an accounting for what we have done with all that God has loaned us.

First of all, some sort of accounting happens every day, as temptations, challenges, choices and opportunities to do good or bad come our way. An accounting and a response is also unavoidable every time human need presses in upon us, like whenever disaster strikes, recent fires in California, hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, an earthquake in Mexico, war in Syria and Sudan, or homelessness in our midst. They all present us with a question mark over how we spend our lives and resources.

There is also an accounting that comes every Sunday, during worship, with the offering. Will I worship with my wallet and the checkbook, just as I do with my lips? The contents of that wallet are from God, just as is the breath in my lungs. But I confess, each time the offering basket comes around, I wonder and I worry, “Can I really give that much? Will I miss that amount of money should some unforeseen need come up?” So far, there has always been enough.

And then there comes the annual accounting, once a year, leading up to April 15, when we file our taxes. As I tally up all the previous year’s tithes and offerings and other charitable giving, looking for deductions, I don’t find myself wondering, “Did I give too much?” but “Was that all I gave? Can’t I find another dollar of tax-deductible charitable giving somewhere among all these receipts and forms? Could I not have done more to share the gospel, feed and shelter the poor, or help a child to learn?” Then, if I do a quick calculation of what I have spent over the year at Dutch Brothers, Starbucks, and Dairy Queen, and compare it with my charitable giving, I start to feel like Kevin in this famous movie moment: http://cdn.playbuzz.com/cdn/18f92541-2714-497e-8f20-12ce61e11ced/1e5bcbbc-a1c0-42e1-8974-376f8701f201.jpg

But Jesus here talks about another accounting, one rendered on the threshold of “eternal dwellings,” before the One to whom all things are known and no secrets are hidden, when we shall know as we are known, and all the deepest, truest loves of our hearts are plain to see: that universal accounting upon death or the Lord’s return. If the idea of such an accounting sounds scary, I can think of at least one thing scarier: a universe in which there is no accountability, and therefore no right, no wrong, no meaning, no responsibility nor any consequences, no judgment, just the law of the jungle, or that version of the golden rule that says, “Whoever has the most gold makes the rules.” Now that would be the scariest thing of all.

But however serving and sacrificial, good and godly, I may be in this life, I know that my eternal accounting will show more red than black. That’s a second reason why Jesus would hold up this sneaky, conniving steward as an example: To impress upon us that we will all face our accounting as debtors. That’s subpoint b: To impress upon us that we will all face our accounting as debtors. For all the unjust steward’s faults and foibles, we can emulate him at least in this respect: he admits that his accounts are so deep in the red, there’s no way he can get back in the black, not without help.

So are we all debtors to the mercy of God for all the times we have needed forgiveness. Even in our best moments, with the best of intentions, our motives are mixed, we step on each other’s toes, injure and offend each other’s sensibilities and overlook each other’s needs, whether intentionally or ignorantly. That’s why we must always pray together, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

Even if we were perfectly sinless and innocent, we would still be debtors for every beat of our hearts and every breath in our lungs, for all the wonderful workings of our bodies and brains, and for all the help and healing that comes whenever they break down or misfire, and for all the gifts and goods of this life that keep us alive. We asked for none of those gifts, and yet they were working on our behalf long before we could ever even put a name to them. If anything should go on my tombstone, let it be the words of the old hymn: “Oh to grace how great a debtor.”

But being a debtor is okay, because of the third thing this parable tells us: that the master to whom we must render accounts is not only just, he is merciful. That’s subpoint c: the master to whom we must render accounts is not only just, he is merciful. He does not hold our debts against us. The rich master in Jesus’ parable could have lowered the boom and sent his servant to debtor’s prison. Instead, he commended the man for acting to save his hide, even though he took a great loss. Likewise, God graciously accepts great loss on behalf of all his debtors.

Jesus is still not saying that embezzlement, fraud and cooking the books are good, or don’t matter. But he is saying that, in light of the coming inevitable accounting, there is mercy to be sought and found by anyone and everyone who knows they need it, and that none who seek this mercy will be scorned nor rejected for doing so. The “eternal habitations” of which Jesus speaks are not a reward for worthy heroes who have no need of mercy; they are unearned, extravagant gifts for the desperate, the broken, the down-and-out who know how great is their need, how meager their merits, how hollow any sense of their entitlement. We too are called to account by a master whose mercy is as great and reliable as is his justice and his knowledge of our accounts.

A fourth reason, subpoint d, that Jesus commends this unjust manager is that, when we are pushed against the wall, with nowhere to turn, is to teach us what really matters and endures. More than the riches and resources he had embezzled, the unjust steward knew that relationships, not riches, people, not possessions, would pull his brand out of the fire. Relationships, even eternal relationships, those are what matter most in the eternal scheme of things.

That’s what I observe too, whenever life knocks us back on our heels. Then we are suddenly forced to examine our priorities, and ask ourselves, “Now what have I been so busy with, and why was that so important to me?” When the doctor delivers that dreaded diagnosis, or should the pilot say over the intercom, “Prepare for a crash landing,” we won’t be thinking, “Now why didn’t I work longer hours at the office for a promotion and a pay raise?” Or, “Gee, I wish I had stayed home and watched more daytime TV instead of taking my grandkids out fishing, or the family to the beach.” No, we’ll reach for and remember those blessed and beautiful moments and relationships that touch our souls most deeply and sweetly.

That’s what Jesus is telling us in this parable: once the books are opened before the Great White Throne in heaven, there will be some entries in the legers on our behalf, which we can take with us, that will endure from this existence to the next. They are not the riches which the world counts as such. For Jesus warns us that “What people value highly [in this life] is detestable in God’s sight.”

Like the man who tried to sneak his worldly wealth past the Pearly Gates with him in the form of gold bricks in a suitcase, ten million dollars’ worth. St. Peter caught him and said, “Now wait a minute, Buster! Let me take a look at what you’ve got there.” When St. Peter saw all the gold bullion, he said, “Paving stones? Who keeps telling you guys down there to bring us more paving stones? Go throw them on the pile  with the other ones over there.” The pile was as big as Mount Hood.

By contrast, the unjust steward knew what mattered most. The riches that accompany us from this world to the next are not material, they are relational: our relationship of trust and love with God, our relationships of love and trustworthiness toward others.

Again, here’s why Jesus so strangely, surprisingly commends the unjust steward as an example to” the children of the light:” a) to remind us of our responsibility and accountability to our Master; b) to remind us that we will all face that accounting as debtors; c) to remind us that our  Master is at least as merciful and gracious as he is just; and d) to teach us what matters and endures in eternity: people, not possessions, relationships, not riches.

Which brings me to the second question in the outline: What does Jesus want us to do, like what the unjust steward did? Again, he doesn’t want us to lie, cheat, steal and swindle. He wants us to, as Jesus himself put it, to “buy” friends, friends who will welcome us to join them in “eternal habitations.”

Now doesn’t “buying friends and friendship” sound strange, too? Even crude, crass, and mercenary? What kind of friends can money buy, especially once the money runs out? But then again, maybe it’s not so strange when you consider just how costly friendship is. Not so much of money. True Friendship requires of us time, attention, effort, energy, vulnerability, independence, self-disclosure, prayers, sweat, sometimes tears and suffering. Yet these are the very means by which people enter the eternal habitations of God’s kingdom, the Father’s house with many resting places. Few of us were argued and convinced into God’s kingdom by a book or a pamphlet; we were loved into God’s kingdom by people through all the costly investment and expressions of love and friendship which they made on our behalf. Some of that investment was financial, yes, when people gave money to Christian mission, Christian service and Christian education. But more importantly, people also gave time, attention, talents, effort, energy, sweat, sacrifice, prayers and even tears to welcome us into “eternal habitations.” Buying friends for the kingdom of heaven is not so strange whenever we remember what others have invested in our eternity, and how much.

That’s what the Amish man meant when somebody asked him, “Are you a Christian?” The Amish man sat silently for a moment, thinking. Then he drew a pen and a small notebook out of his pocket and wrote down a list of names. He handed the list over to his inquisitor and said, “Go ask these people whether I have treated them like a Christian or not. Believe what they say about my faith, before you believe me.”

I hope he included on that list the name of the horse who pulled his plow and his buggy.

Nor let us forget at what price God has purchased us, so as to call us “friends.” Consider what great loss God took on our behalf, how far into the red God went at our expense, even the red of blood on a wooden cross at Calvary, by “The Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world.” Therefore, “We are no longer our own; we have been bought with a price.” Our only response then is to “glorify God with our bodies.”

So let us ever come in faith to the One before whom we might fear to give account, for God is as merciful and welcoming as he is just. And glorify God with all that God has entrusted us, by way of time, talent, treasure, life, love and limb. For they are all from God to begin with. They are safely, securely and eternally ours only whenever we offer them back to God.

“They are no fools who give what they cannot keep to gain what they cannot lose.”