Petty Dishonesty*

Bibliology
Christology
Guest Writer Sabine Baring-Gould

“What shall I do?—I am resolved what to do” (Luke 16:3, 4).

The dishonest steward in today’s Gospel shows us the natural tendency of the human heart when in a scrape—to have recourse to dishonesty to escape from it. He knows that he is about to be turned out of his stewardship because he has been wasteful—not dishonest, but wasteful. He has not been a prudent and saving steward, but a sort of happy-go-lucky man who has not kept the accounts carefully, and has been content so long as he has not lost much money. So soon as he sees himself about to be turned out of his stewardship, he is wakened out of his easy-going ways with a shock, and he says to himself, “Here am I in a predicament! I shall lose my livelihood, and am not likely to get another situation. I am too old to work with my hands for my living, and I have too much self-respect to try. What can I do?—I am resolved what to do. I will cheat my master.”

I believe that a similar process goes on nowadays in a great many hearts. Bad times come. What is to be done? There is nothing for it but to be a little bit dishonest. Honesty won’t pay. So the manufacturer weaves bad silk, and makes shoddy cloth, and the milkman puts water into his milk, and the butterman sells butter made of Thames mud, and the calico is dressed with chalk, and the ready-made clothes come to pieces because the thread’s ends are not fastened, and the farm work is half-done, and the whole trade and commerce of the country is one great system of adulteration and petty cheating.

Abraham was a scrupulous man. In all his dealings he was perfectly just and honorable. Once five kings came into the valley of the Jordan, and made a sudden onslaught on the towns there; they carried away all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, and thoroughly sacked the cities (Genesis 14). They did not only that, but they carried off as well a great number of the inhabitants as captives. Then Abraham lent his servants to the king of Sodom to help him to recover the booty and liberate the captives, and there was a battle, the result of which was that the five kings were defeated, and all the spoil and the prisoners recovered.

Then the king of Sodom offered Abraham the booty in repayment for his valuable services. He said, “Give me the persons, and take the goods to thyself” (14:21).

But Abraham answered, “No! I will not take from a thread even to a shoe-latchet, and I will not take anything that is yours, lest you should say, I have made Abraham rich” (14:23).

Now, this was an occasion when he might have fairly claimed remuneration from the recovered plunder, but no! he was far too scrupulous. He knew of what that plunder consisted—it was made up of the household goods of the inhabitants of the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah; of all the sticks of furniture, and clothes, and crockery, and household ornaments that the people valued. He would not deprive them of one, lest they should think that Abraham had enriched himself at their expense. He puts an extreme case—lest some poor woman should lament that she had lost all her thread with which to mend her torn clothes, and say, “Ah! I had plenty of thread once, but Abraham has it now,” or another should say, “I have no buckle to my shoe, Abraham has taken of the spoil, and my shoe-buckle he has got now.”

Well, now listen to what follows immediately. This upright conduct of Abraham so pleased God, that we read, “After these things the word of the Lord came to Abraham in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abraham: I am your shield, and your exceeding great reward” (15:1).

How many are there now who act like Abraham? How many who fear lest it should be said of them that they had been enriched by those whose money they had no right to take?

There would be fewer failing banks, and the little stores of widows and orphans swallowed up, were the bankers more of the mind of Abraham. There would be fewer swindling speculations swallowing up the savings of the thrifty, if men shrank from taking that which is not lawfully and fairly their own.

All purchases, and all agreements for labor, are contracts. The purchaser asks for one thing, and of that thing a certain amount, and if for his money he is given another thing, or a smaller amount than that for which he has paid, then there is dishonesty. If you went to a shop and asked for a pound of tea, and were given something that was not tea, or tea that weighed less than a pound, you would be dealt with dishonestly. So if you go into another shop to buy flannel, and purchase three yards, and then when you come home and measure it, you find that it is six inches short, you would have been dealt with dishonestly. In both cases you would be exceedingly angry with the traders, and justly so. But consider, do you always act justly with your employers? When you are hired for a day’s work, do you give good work? And is the time just measure? Or is there much idling and talking when you are unobserved?

Let there be honor and fairness all round. How would you like to be paid in clipped coin, that was not full weight? And yet you have no scruple in giving clipped time, and work in short weight. I speak plainly about this, for it is a crying evil of the day. There is everywhere apparent a lack of conscientiousness in the dealings of man with man. We used to do a large trade with our manufacturers in Europe and the East, and now we have to a large extent lost it—because we have sent out bad material and sold it as good. It is a common complaint that men do not work now as well as of old in every department of industry. They rob their masters of time and labor, which they have contracted to give. Then the masters say, “What shall we do?—we are resolved what we will do, we will make up the loss by adulteration of our goods.” Then purchasers discover this and refuse to buy, so the trade of the country declines.

Remember, then, in all your transactions, how Abraham dealt with the king of Sodom, and how God rewarded him for his honesty, and you may be very sure that God will not overlook you if you deal with others faithfully. The eye of God is over all, and He sees whether you fulfil your obligations honestly or not, and He will certainly bless abundantly those who recognise His presence. Paul bids all who serve others—we all do that in one way or another—do their duty, not with eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as though they were working for Christ, not as if they were doing the will of man, but the will of God, from the heart, “knowing that whatever good thing any man does, the same shall he receive of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:8).

“As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good to all men, especially to them who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10).

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: National Maritime Museum, Falmouth, Cornwall Harbor, England

*Adapted from Sabine Baring-Gould [1834-1924], The Village Pulpit, Volume II. Trinity to Advent / A Complete Course of 66 Short Sermons, or Full Sermon Outlines for Each Sunday, and Some Chief Holy Days of the Christian Year (London: Skeffington & Son, 1886), sermon 46. Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.

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