A certain man was driving home from work one day in rush hour traffic when suddenly his car began to choke and sputter, and then the engine just died. Fortunately, the man was able to coast into a service station. He tried his engine again. It wouldn’t even turn over. As he pulled out his cell phone to call for a tow truck, he saw a young woman come out of the convenience store which was attached to the service station.
It looked like she slipped on some ice and fell into a gas pump. The man got out of his car and went over to check on her. As he approached her, he realized that she had not slipped at all but had slumped against the gas pump, crying. She looked tired and anxious, and as she had slumped over, she had dropped a nickel. The man picked up the nickel and handed it to her.
At that moment, it all came into focus for him: the crying woman, the ancient car crammed full of stuff, with three kids in the back, one in a car seat, and the gas pump reading $4.95. He asked her if she needed help. Was she OK? She said: “I don’t want my children to see me crying.”
The gas pump was blocking their view. She said she was driving to California. Her boyfriend had left her two months ago, and she had not been able to make ends meet. In desperation, she had called her parents with whom she had not spoken in five years. They lived in California and said she could come live with them until she could get back on her feet. So, she had packed everything she owned in the car and with very little money in her purse was trying to make it to California.
The man said: “And when you slumped against the gas pump, you were praying, weren’t you? Obviously, you were because God heard you and sent me.”
With that, the man took out his credit card and swiped it through the card reader on the pump, so she could fill up her car completely, and, while it was fueling, he walked over to McDonald’s next door and bought two big bags of food, some gift certificates they could use later and a big cup of coffee.
The young woman gave the food to the kids in the car. They attacked it like hungry wolves. Next, the man gave the young woman his gloves and a gentle hug … and then he said a quick prayer for their safety on the road.
As he wished them well and turned to go back to his car, the woman said: “What are you? Some kind of angel or something?” The man said: “At this time of year, angels are really busy, so sometimes God uses regular people like me.”
Now, when I first heard this story, it reminded me of “The Parable of the Unjust Steward,” in Luke 16, because we see here that God can use regular people, and sometimes God can also use rascals.
The unjust steward was just that – unjust, a rascal. He had been misusing his master’s money, and it cost him his job. However, he didn’t just give up. He came up with a plan.
He went to his master’s debtors and said to one: “You owe 100 measures of oil. Take your bill and write 50.” To another, he said: “You owe 100 measures of wheat, take your bill and write 80.” And, strangely, amazingly, incredibly, the parable ends with the master commending the steward for his shrewdness.
Now what on earth is this parable all about? Scholars have debated this over the years. Some say it’s about money and the lesson is: “Don’t worship money.” “Don’t put material things before God.” “Put your trust in God, not money.” “Use your money to do good, not to do bad.”
Some say it’s a contrast parable, an “If Only Parable,” and the meaning in this story would be expressed like this: If only Christian people were as eager and ingenious and unimaginative in their attempt to serve God and do good as worldly people are in their attempts to attain money and comfort, the church would be stronger and the world would be a better place.
Some say it’s about stewardship and the responsibility we all have as stewards of our master.
Still others say it’s about grace, and I find myself resonating to this one because in many ways the unjust steward reminds me of the prodigal son.
The steward did things that were selfish and wrong, and so did the prodigal.
The steward misused his master’s money, and so did the prodigal.
The steward ended up in trouble and then came to his senses, and so did the prodigal.
The steward was reconciled and celebrated in the end, and so was the prodigal, and neither of them deserved it.
Both of these stories remind us that we can’t earn forgiveness, we can’t merit redemption, we can’t win reconciliation. Reconciliation can only come when the one who has been wronged says: “You have done me wrong. You have hurt me deeply, but I still love you and I forgive you. That is called amazing grace.”
Sometimes people point out correctly that I preach about God’s love and grace so much. When they do, I think of Marco Polo. In the 14th century, when he came back to Venice from his travels in Cathay, Marco Polo described the incredible wonders he had seen there. People didn’t believe him and for the rest of his life (and even on his death bed) they tried to get him to confess that he had lied and exaggerated about the wonders he had described. His last answer was: “I never told the half of it!”
That’s the way I feel about God’s love and grace – “I have never told the half of it!”
Dr. Fred Andrea is the pastor of Aiken’s First Baptist Church.