Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Lessons from a con artist: a sermon (Luke 16: 1 - 13)

Jesus once told a story about a man who was a bit of a crook.  In fact, the man in the story was an out-and-out con artist

This man worked as the business manager for a wealthy man.  His boss found out that this man was cheating him, and he was sacked from his job, pending a full accounting of his boss’s finances.

Facing the possibility of unemployment, the con artist needed to find a new job quickly.  He knew that he was far more suited to “white collar” work than to “blue collar” work, and so he realised that he needed to get on the good side of a few people, particularly a few people who had desk jobs on offer, and to do so very quickly. 

So the con artist called in a few people who owed money to his boss and, together, they cooked the books in a spectacular fashion.  They falsified the account books, … they created dodgy receipts, … the lot.

The con artist’s boss heard about it and, rather than suing his former business manager for all he was worth, decided that this bloke was very, very smart.

The story was followed by a few ironic comments about using your money to make friends.  These comments were followed, in turn, by some more direct and straightforward comments about living lives of integrity in the midst of a frequently dishonest world.

Now, when Jesus told this story, it wasn’t to encourage us to be con artists.  Jesus wants us to be honest with each other in everything we do.

The heart of this passage is found in a comment right at the end of Jesus’ story:  “… for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

What Jesus was teaching us in these words was that we need to use the brains that God gives us when we seek to express love, compassion, and mercy to others.  We need to use our intelligence actively when we seek to do good things and to be good people, and sometimes that does not always happen:  “… for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

People who try to hurt other people – or who try to be cruel to other people - sometimes are very clever, and very shrewd, in what they do. 

Con artists are usually very, very believable people.  They are frequently far more believable than honest people.  That’s what makes them successful con artists.  They are living proof of the old saying that a fool and his money are soon parted.

“… for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

People who sexually abuse children and young people are classic con artists.  They usually come across (at least at first)  as very caring, concerned people who want to help the children and young people in their communities.  In the process of harming the children and young people, they also con the children’s families, and the schools, churches, scout troops, and various other groups which work with young people into trusting them.  As the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse continues its public hearings, we’ll hear much more about this.  (We’ll probably all need rather strong stomachs by the time it’s over.)

“… for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

The challenge in this passage is that the “children of light”, those of us who try to help other people, and who try to show God’s love to other people, we need to be just as clever as those who are nasty to other people … even a bit more clever … and even a lot more clever. 

One of the great tragic facts of our society is the fact that the phrase “do-gooder” has become a term of abuse, as if it’s somehow bad to try to do good things for people … as if it’s somehow bad to try to do good things for the community … as if it’s somehow bad to try to do good things for God.  Any culture in which “do-gooder” is an insult is a culture in deep ethical trouble.

The problem is that, frequently, those who seek to help others – those who seek to do some good in the world - do so with a certain naivete about the reality of the problems we seek to overcome, a certain naivete about the realities of human nature.

“… for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

In this passage, Jesus is challenging us to be enthusiastic “do-gooders” and never to be ashamed of the fact, but … but … to be “do-gooders” with brains … and to be “do-gooders” with guts.  And this, I believe, is what Jesus was telling us in this story about the con artist.

“… for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” 

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