Bet Your Life

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Throughout Lent, we’re exploring the parables of Jesus – the two dozen or so stories that were his chief means of describing the reality of God’s rule on earth. 

People are willing to place extraordinary bets.

There are garden variety Super Bowl wagers, of course:  Which team will win, and will they cover the spread? 

Those issues aren’t compelling enough for some bettors.  Las Vegas routinely accepts wagers on which Super Bowl team will win the coin toss; who will commit the first penalty; and whether or not a kicker will miss a chip-shot field goal.

Then there are the really crazy bets.

Basketball legend Michael Jordan admits he sometimes plays a single hole of golf for $100,000.  He once lost $1.2 million to a businessman over a 10-day stretch on the links.

In 1980, a Texan named William Lee Bergstrom walked into Binion’s Horseshoe, a Vegas casino.  He was carrying two suitcases – one empty, the other packed with $777,000 in cash.  Binion’s was famous for accepting any first-time wager, no matter how high.  Bergstrom bet every dollar, double or nothing, on a single roll of the dice in a craps game.  He won.  After stuffing his winnings into the empty suitcase, he returned home. 

An Englishman named Jon Matthews was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2006 and given two months to live.  He decided to bet on his own survival.  Matthews wagered a huge amount of money, at 50-1 odds, that he would still be alive in 2008.  He not only won the bet but lived four years after that. 

At this point you may be thinking that the most pulse-pounding bet you’ve made lately is whether or not you should order a Cheesy Gordita Crunch at Taco Bell. 

Yesterday we began to look at one of the parables of Jesus in which a man risks everything on a single dramatic choice.  Is the “shrewd manager” in Luke 16:1-9 making the smartest or dumbest bet of his entire life? 

In the story, a wealthy man discovers that his CFO has been ripping him off.  He fires him on the spot.  Within the hour, the whole village is going to find out what has happened.  The manager realizes that his life is about to collapse around him – unless he makes a crazy bet. 

He quickly rushes out to find some of his master’s business clients.  As cultural historian Kenneth Bailey points out, here we need to make a key assumption:  This is happening very fast. The people in the village who owe money to the master don’t yet know that the manager has been fired. 

In Luke 16:5 the manager asks one of the debtors, “How much do you owe my master?”  Notice that he is pretending he is still representing the rich landowner.  Check out the next verse:  “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and let’s cut that debt of yours in half.”  All this has to happen in a hurry before the master finds out what he is doing.  What follows is a string of similar conversations. 

The debtors are astounded at their good fortune.  Bailey imagines that the manager might sigh, smile, and say something like, “Yeah, I talked the big boss into it.”  This would be like a factory foreman, on his own initiative, handing out Christmas bonuses to everyone and taking personal credit for it.  

Now comes the big moment.  How is the master going to respond when he sees the books?  At a glance, he will know exactly what the manager has done. 

He will also know that out in the village, at that very hour, all those debtors have launched a party in his honor.  He is now the most noble and generous property owner in the whole region. 

The master has two choices.  He can walk through the village and say, “Wait, wait, wait!  This is all a terrible mistake.  My accountant has cheated me.  By the way, all that money you think you just saved?  I’m going to be needing it back.”  If he does that, the whole village will turn on him, and will never forget what an awful day this was. 

Or, he can simply accept the tidal wave of praise that everyone has begun heaping on him, and let the manager surf on the crest of goodwill right alongside him. 

Therefore the master says to the manager, “You sly dog!  You have put me into an impossible position.  The only way I can save face is by being merciful to you.  Very well, I will do it.”  Here’s how Jesus puts it in verse eight, “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”

This raises an interesting question:  Why does Jesus praise a corrupt accountant?  Isn’t this sending a terrible message? 

It’s worth noting that in the rich legacy of Middle Eastern storytelling, someone who survives by his wits alone is almost always pictured as a hero.  There’s something delightful about seeing the Little Guy pull one over on the Rich and Famous.  Think of Aladdin, who steals from street vendors in order to survive.  We forgive his thievery because we admire his pluck. 

Furthermore, Jesus has a tendency to pick some unlikely role models.  Remember the parable of the widow nagging the corrupt judge until he finally rules in her favor?  And the guy who keeps pounding on his neighbor’s door in the middle of the night asking for bread? The neighbor finally gets up and gives him some, not because he feels compassion, but because he can’t stand all the pounding on his door. 

That’s when Jesus delivers the bottom line:  “Keep praying!  Keep pounding on the doors of heaven!  If that unjust judge and that annoyed neighbor finally give in, how much more will God pay attention to the cries of your heart?”

That’s the key:  If less-than-perfect characters end up doing the right thing, for less-than-perfect reasons, don’t you think a perfect God will take care of you

Jesus is saying, “I don’t applaud that streetwise accountant for his math.  But he was smart enough to know how to take care of himself.  He gambled everything on the mercy of his master.  And that turned out to be a very smart bet.”  So Jesus offers this challenge:  “Are you shrewd enough and bold enough to do the same thing – to bet your whole life on the God who will never let you down?”

A modern-day marketer got it right when he confessed, “We sell what nobody needs.”  The crisis of the human heart is that all of us need what nobody sells

You can bet your life that getting more stuff will make you happy.  Or that a new lover will fill your soul.  Or that the applause of others will finally bring you peace.

Don’t you believe it.

What we really need is to surrender ourselves to the love and grace of Someone who will never abandon us, even when we have made a royal mess of our lives. 

That’s the smartest bet you will ever make.