Earlier this year, Rita Crundwell was sentenced to twenty years in prison after she was found guilty of embezzling $53 million dollars. The surprising thing about this is that Crundwell was not a financial officer for some large company. Instead, she was the treasurer for Dixon, IL – a town about Marion’s size that is located one hundred miles west of Chicago on the Rock River.
Though the amount was large, this case was by no means unique. A security firm did a study of embezzlement cases in which at least $100,000 was stolen and found that last year was a five year high with 538 new arrests or indictments of workers who are accused of stealing a total of $735 million dollars.
Obviously embezzlement is a serious problem, and it is a growing one. The study found that the crime has been growing by about ten percent each year since 2010 and the amount of money embezzled keeps getting larger and larger.
Now it is interesting to learn that there is a profile that describes a large percentage of embezzlers – and I am happy to report that our congregational treasurer, George Trammell, doesn’t match the profile. You see the people who are considered most likely to embezzle are women, who are in their forties, and have no criminal record. So see, it's a good thing that you came to church this morning, because now you know the people you need to watch out for.
In our Gospel lesson this morning we have one of the more puzzling parables of our Lord. He tells about a manager who not only had done a terrible job, but then acted in a criminal manner with his employer’s financial affairs. He didn’t do this to embezzle funds directly for himself, but instead to gain friends who would help him in the future. He acts in a dishonest way, and yet his behavior is held up by the parable as exemplary.
In our text Jesus tells a parable about a certain rich man who had a manager who handled his affairs. Most likely he was a landowner who rented out plots of land to farmers who worked it and then owed him a certain amount as rent. The manager’s job was to handle different aspects of this business.
Clearly the manger was not doing a responsible job. Word got back to the rich man that the manger was squandering his possessions – the word used here is the same one used in the previous chapter to describe the lifestyle of the prodigal son. He had wasted them, and one suspects, he had probably benefited in the process.
The rich man called the manager and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.” He brought the charge against the manager. We hear nothing about a response from the manager because it was true – what could he say? And so the rich man dismissed the manager from his service and told him to turn in the books – the written financial records that were kept for the different accounts.
As we listen to what happened, it is easy for us to overlook what didn’t happen. If a person today is caught embezzling from their work, they don’t just get fired. Like Rita Crundwell they are also accused of a crime, and if found guilty they go to prison.
There is evidence that in Jesus’ day the manager accused of squandering the property of another could be required to make good on what had been lost, or even to go to jail – a move intended to force his family to come up with the money.
However, the rich man doesn’t do either of these things. Instead, he simply dismisses the manager from his service and tells him to turn in the account records. In doing so, he shows himself to be merciful. He is not mean spirited and vindictive. He just sends the man away.
The manger was faced with a crisis. He said to himself, “What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” The man was losing his management. He was losing a great position in the midst of a bad economy – unemployment was an issue in first century Palestine. He didn’t believe he was cut out for the activities at the very bottom of the social ladder such as digging and begging.
So instead he said to himself, “I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.” He developed a plan of what he could do so that others would be well disposed towards him in the future.
He summoned his master’s tenants and clients and told them to reduce the amount they owed. One scholar has estimated that the reduction amounted to five hundred denarii a piece. Since a denarius was a day’s wage, we are not talking about small amounts here. The individuals receiving the break could only assume that master had permitted this. Since the now former manager was the go-between, they were probably led to believe that the manager had been speaking on their behalf.
He summoned the people who owed his master and told them to significantly reduce the amount they owed. There was a great sense of urgency because the window was rapidly closing – soon everyone would know that he had been fired and that meant he was no longer able to authorize the changes.
When the master learned about what the dishonest manger had done, he commended him for his shrewdness. Having experienced his master’s mercy he had decided “to go all in.” He hadn’t been condemned for his prior action, so he gave away what belonged to his master. He used the possessions in light of what the master had revealed about himself; he gambled everything on the merciful character of the master because he had no other hope. And in this way he gained favor among others and secured his future.
In the latter portion of our text, Jesus goes on to provide some explanation of the parable. The key statement that shapes our understanding here is when he says just after our text, “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
Our Lord is talking about possessions and how we choose to deal with them in our life. Which one is the master in our life? Which guides the use of our wealth – our recognition that we are to fear, love and trust in God above all things or our own wants and desires?
In our text Jesus says, “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”
He says that when it comes to possessions, the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with the time in which we live than the sons of light – the children of God. If you are of this world, then when you deal with possessions your concerns do not move beyond yourself. Your only concern is to get more; to have more. And when that is your goal you are free to use and abuse anyone around you to achieve that goal.
However, if you are child of God, then your single greatest concern is supposed to be God. If this is the case then all your dealings with wealth should show that you are putting God first. All your dealings with wealth should show that you are acting on the basis of what God has revealed about his own character.
And what has God revealed about his character? Look at the crucifix behind the altar. In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ he has revealed his self-giving love has given you forgiveness. God the Father has given his own Son in the death of the cross in order to redeem you – to free you from sin. And in Christ’s resurrection on the third day, God has defeated death. He has already begun the resurrection of the Last Day and through your baptism he has guaranteed that you will share in it.
This is what God has done for you. And not only has he given you eternal life in the death and resurrection of his Son, he also gives you all that you need to live life in the present. He gives you daily bread, the things you need to sustain this life – and then so much more beyond that.
Our Lord’s words this morning prompt us to consider how we view and use our wealth. In the parable the manager wasn’t dealing with what belonged to him. Instead, he managed what belonged to his lord, the rich man. He acted with a sense of great urgency because he recognized that the moment of crisis had come upon him and how he dealt with his masters’ possessions was of great importance to him.
The same can be said of us. What we have is not really ours. When you die – and you don’t know when that is going to be – it won’t do you any good. You can’t take it with you. You came into this world with nothing and you will leave this world with nothing. Instead, what you have right now belongs to God. He is the one who gave it to you … or more specifically, he has put it under your management for this time.
Our Lord is telling you to use that wealth in a way that keeps God first. And like the manager, you are to use it with a sense of urgency. You see from God’s perspective we are in the last days. Of course, things don’t look any different to the world. But Gods says that because of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ everything is different. The end times have come upon us. The final stage of God’s plan of salvation is at work. And therefore we need to live like it.
What God want us to do is to use our wealth in ways that help others. First and foremost that means supporting the Gospel work of Christ’s Church both here in this congregation and around the world. It means supporting the administration of the Means of Grace in the midst of God’s people and the proclamation of God’s Word to those who don’t know the Gospel.
It also means putting our money where our mouth is when it comes to the issues of life. We need not only to speak against abortion, but also to support and assist those facing the question of what to do about a pregnancy. And on that front we are immensely blessed to have Pregnancy Matters here in southern Illinois – an organization that does exceptional work and is certainly worthy of our support.
And then it also means showing mercy towards those who require help with the basics necessities of life. As a congregation we did that three times this week – you didn’t know about it, but if you have contributed to our emergency fund recently you helped do it. We do this when we contribute to various human care charities, both in the Church and in the world.
God has made you a manger of the wealth he has put in your care. He has charged you to use the wealth entrusted to you in a way that always keeps God first. And he wants you to do this with a sense of urgency because of what Jesus Christ has done for you, and there because of the time in which you live.