A Thief is Saved

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
Psalm 79:1-9
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

Δε και is a Greek phrase often used by Luke to link segments of his writing.  It is found at the beginning of Chapter 16, so links the current story with the preceding story, or stories.  In chapter 15 we read the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the famous lost son, or prodigal son.  Therefore, we should understand that Jesus simply went on in the same theme.  Put simply, the Parable of the Shrewd Manager has the same theme as the other three parables.

But if you read Jeremiah and Psalms, you might wonder how they might be connected to the theme of God saving the lost.  Or for that matter, what saving the lost has to do with a dishonest manager.

Paul gives us some help in his missive to young Timothy who was working the difficult mission in Ephesus.  To pull it from the middle of the sentence, God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved.  That is the theme.  God wants every human to join Him in His New Jerusalem.

The problem is that we all sin.  Thus, Jeremiah records his own fears for the people.  I would weep day and night for the slain of my people.  God had said in 8:13, What I have given them will be taken from them.  Jeremiah knew the suffering the people would soon experience and he wept for them.  But when we complete the reading of Jeremiah, we realize that he also knows that the suffering is a just punishment meant to force his people to return to the Ways of God.

We are fond of Psalms 23, 19, 117, and many others because they praise God and thank Him for His wonderful care.  79 is a bitter pill.  It was sung in the Temple to remind the people that God can and will punish evil.  It was particularly a reminder of the bitterness of the long captivity in the hands of Assyria and Babylon.  Yet, even here, we have the theme.  May your mercy come quickly to meet us. 

So what do we make of the rascal of a steward?  First, he has a great deal in common with the people carried into captivity.  He is a sinner.  His master has called him to account.  He is facing prison or slavery for himself and his family.  He finds himself on the way to Assyria.

As we know from the reading, that is not what happed.  For reasons the steward cannot understand, the master simply fired him.  “I cannot have a crook keeping my books.”  We modern Americans understand that position.  Send him down the road to fend for himself.  Neither would we be surprised if the employer filed criminal charges.

In Jesus day, firing the steward was unheard of.  Yet again, Jesus takes a common experience and stands it on its head.  I wonder how often people listened to Jesus, thinking he was going to say one thing, when he suddenly says the wrong thing, and they are turning to their neighbors asking, “What did he say?  Did he really mean that?”

Yes, he meant that.  The land owner fired his steward without sending him to prison, requiring him to pay back the stolen money, or selling him into slavery to pay him back.

Don’t get the idea it was all sweetness and light.  Once word got out he had been fired, the steward could never get another job; no one would trust him again.  He and his family would probably starve to death.  So he took advantage of the master’s soft head, or heart.  Without bothering to deny or haggle the issue, another common feature of the times, he rushed to get two of the larger tenet farmers to come to him and had them reduce their debts to the landowner by five hundred denarii each, about eighteen months wages for a worker.  Then he turned in the books demanded by the master.

This is where the story takes another twist when Jesus turns a thief into a hero.  The common people listening would have loved it, being David and Goliath, or the more modern Robin Hood.  By this time, the whole town is buzzing with the great gift the wealthy landowner has granted to the two men.  They are not talking about the dismissed steward.  The landowner knows he can never ask for the money to be returned.  The people would hate him instead of loving him.  He simply lets the man walk away, free and unpunished.

How is this like the lost sheep, coin, son?  In each, the mercy of God is at work.  Sheep are about the simplest minded animals on earth.  If one gets lost, it will stay lost until it is found.  Only by risking the herd can one shepherd find one lamb, yet he will take that risk.  The woman who has so few coins will expend great energy searching for the one that is lost.  The father who watched the road for his lost son and then disgraced himself by running through town like a mad-man to receive his son is perhaps the greatest expression of Grace except for the Cross itself.

There is an important addition in the current parable.  Grace is given to a thief who tricks his master and two renters.  He has not repented, but he avoids the suffering that is his due.  Jesus uses the common technique of lesser to greater.  If a wealthy landowner will allow grace to fall on an unrepentant thief, how much greater is the Grace of God?

The suffering predicted by Jeremiah was not as harsh as described.  God’s Grace returned His chosen to the land and prepared them for the coming Messiah.  It is by the Grace of God that the Jesus Messiah has once and for all bridged the gap caused by sin.  In spite of my sin, I can stand in the presence of God.

Be righteous and do good.

Mike Lawrence

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