My sermon for this week was based on Luke 16:1-13.
So some people know that I restore antique cars as a hobby. I recently put on up for sale on Kijiji, and almost immediately got a reply that set off some alarm bells for me. It went something like this: "I love the car, and want to buy it. I am out of town but I will send you the money via Paypal with a hold on it until my friend comes to pick it up, and then I will release the money".
Now I may be born again, but I was not born again yesterday. Nobody, but I mean nobody buys any car without seeing it in person and kicking the tires.
I farmed this out to my FB community, and the scam was explained to me this way: they pick up the car and basically never release the money, so you are out a car and whatever money you thought you were getting.
At first I thought, "What a low-down dirty thing to pull", but my second thought was, "That's brilliant!" I got to thinking about what kind of person would do something like that. Poor moral choices aside, this person has to be pretty diligent (they must be scanning the internet waiting for suckers), has to be pretty good with people (we had a very nice conversation as they pumped me for more details and reeled me in), has to be a self-starter, have good computer skill, think on their feet, be inventive and knowledgeable about cars.
In short, this person has some pretty marketable skills!
I can't help but thinking what the ostensible scammer could accomplish in life if only they turned their energies towards good or at least legitimate things. I think they could do really well for themselves and for others, if only they weren't a criminal, if only they turned those energies towards helping people rather than ripping them off.
The Gospel passage for today touches on a similar theme. It's a tough one, no question, so if you are having trouble with it, don't feel bad, so do I.
A merchant finds out he has a dishonest manager who has been skimming off the top for a while, so he says, "Call in all your bills because you are fired!" Understandably, the manager is panicked: he is too old to do manual labour and too proud to beg, so he hatches a scheme. He decides he will fudge the bills that are owed to his master to endear himself to them. He takes a bill for 100 jars of olive oil and makes it 50. He takes a bill for 100 bushels of wheat and makes it 80. What he hopes is that when he is out on the street, the debtors will remember his generosity and take him in to their homes.
So basically, he screws the merchant twice: first he has been stealing from him, and then he cheats him out of what he is owed. Whereas I think most of us would be reasonably angry all over again, astonishingly, the merchant commends the manager for his shrewdness.
This is a challenging passage, and like so many passages in the Bible, there are a number of possible interpretations. What the passage is asking me to reflect on today is: what do I do with the resources at my disposal? Am I using my gifts, talents and energies for the betterment of my family, church, community, workplace, etc, or am I using it for my own interests?
One could rightly argue that the manager is certainly acting in his own best interests, but the corollary is that the debtors get cut a pretty big break. They are helped by his actions.
We all have gifts, talents and gifts, and we all have a choice as to whether we apply those things to good ends or evil ends. Imagine, for example, what Europe and the rest of the world would be like today if Hitler had been a humanitarian. Imagine what the Middle East would be like if al qaeda, isis, daesh or any of their many splinters were good people. Imagine what Walmart could accomplish in their communities if they actually paid their employees a living wage (please note I am not placing these three examples on the same level of severity).
None of us are fascist dictators, religious zealots or owners of multi-billion dollar corporations, but we have our own power, perhaps more than we know or are willing to acknowledge. We have the power to wield enormous influence in our homes, communities, churches and workplaces. We have the power with our words and deeds to lift people up or grind them down, to support or undercut, to affirm or shame.
Sadly, some of the most energetic people I have met are habitually negative or critical. They hurt people, put them down, undermine them, and just generally suck all the air out every room they are in. I cannot help wonder what they could accomplish if they would only turn those prodigious energies towards more constructive activities.
I hope that today, you and I can take stock of our talents, gifts and abilities, and that we can redouble our efforts to make sure that those gifts are dedicated to performing acts of goodness, kindness, mercy, justice and peace. These things are the currency of the Kingdom, and the only currency a Christian should ever carry or trade in.