Have you started your income taxes yet? I started working on mine this week. I pulled up my computer records and looked at my general spending categories. I was a little shocked. I'm not good at budgeting—in fact, I don't budget—so it was instructive when I saw these spending categories. I saw how much of my money went towards entertainment and groceries. I also noticed I have a huge miscellaneous category. As I looked at my records and realized all the frivolous things I spent my money on, I again wished I was more money savvy.
A parable with a double take.
Jesus told a story about a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. Today, the conversation might go something like this:
"Smithers, what's this I hear about the way you've been handling my money? I hear you've squandered it. This is it. This is your two weeks notice, and then you're out of here. Before you go, get the books in order. That will be all."
"Man, I just lost my job. What am I going to do? I don't have another one. I'm too weak to dig, too proud to beg. I don't know what I'm going to do. But, I've got an idea so that when my job is gone people will welcome me into their homes."
So, Smithers picks up the phone and makes a few calls. "Johnson, Smithers here with RM Commodities. Right. I'm sure it's in the mail. Listen, I am not calling to collect. I have a deal for you. Right. You've always been one of my favorites, and I've been thinking that maybe we could do something to help you out. How much exactly do you owe the boss? Eight hundred barrels of oil. Right, that's what I show, too. Would it help you out if we reduce that to 400? I thought it would. No, no strings. Leave him to me; I'll take care of the boss. Why don't you make a note in your records, and I've already done it here. Oh, that's fine. Glad to do it. I'll be seeing you soon, I'm sure. Right. You're welcome. Bye."
Weeks later, the rich man is overheard in the grocery store. "Yeah, yeah. Smithers? I fired him. He's wasting my money, but—I have to hand it to that guy—he is shrewd."
Jesus is not commending dishonesty; he is commending the shrewd use of money. Jesus said, "The people of the world are shrewder in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone they will welcome you into eternal dwellings."
Many people think this parable is the strangest of the parables Jesus told. It has in it what I call the double take. Lots of parables have double takes. You read and study the story, and its meaning seems obvious; then something hits you cockeyed, and you do a double take. You think, What did he say? In this story the double take is that the master commended his manager for being shrewd. I have more stuff in my file on this story than any other passage of Scripture because it is mystifying. How can Jesus commend somebody for dishonesty? But he is not commending dishonesty; he is commending the shrewd use of money.
There are many interpretations of this story. Some think the manager is giving away his own commission, so that part of the price that the debtor owed was his commission for managing the resources. Others think some of that debt was usurious interest. So all the manager does is decrease the interest rate and make it fair. He's using all the resources at his disposal to reduce people's debts to debts of gratitude.
Perhaps these interpretations are right; but in my mind this story doesn't have the punch it's supposed to have if the guy isn't using the master's money. He's being commended for the shrewd use of the master's money. He's not commended for the swindle but for being shrewd. People of the light are expected to be shrewd in using the master's money. In the New Testament when the word shrewd is used, it's always positively translated as wise—I like the word savvy. This guy was savvy. In Luke 16 Jesus says, "I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourself." This concept is shocking. Jesus says we should use worldly wealth to gain friends for ourselves, so that when it's gone we'll be welcomed into eternal dwellings. The key point is this: use the Master's money shrewdly to win kingdom friends.
How to be a shrewd manager.
First we need to realize the only money we have is the Master's money. You don't have anything stashed under the mattress, in a retirement account, or in the kid's piggy bank that isn't the Master's money. The Bible is clear that all we have belongs to God, and it's entrusted to us to manage. At the beginning of this story the problem was that the manager wasted the rich man's wealth. That is a real danger, but it is common for people to waste God's possessions, even though they don't want to.
Wayne Watts has written a book about giving, and in it he tells a story of a man who had assets in oil fields. One day he hit a gusher, and suddenly he was worth twice as much. A couple of days later, a friend asked, "What's it like to wake up one morning and have twice as much as you had the day before?" The Christian man responded, "My assets haven't changed. I didn't own the first money, so I own the same amount now as before, which is zero. I feel added responsibility to God to manage this new asset well."
We've got to get that straight: the only money we have is the Master's money. Another thing that stands out in this story is that the wealth we have we won't have long, so use it now. I know that elsewhere in Scripture, particularly in Proverbs, God commends prudent savings. Understandably, there is a place for savings. But this parable gives another angle on money. The key idea in this story is that the money is going to be cut off. One thing this story teaches is: Money is not going to last forever—you can't take it with you.
Revelation 18 tells about the fall of Babylon, specifically the collapse of the whole world economic system. Revelation 18:11 says, "The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over Babylon because no one buys their cargoes any more." There's a long list of the cargoes, ending with "the bodies and souls of men." Revelation 18:15 says, "These merchants and others will weep and mourn and cry out, 'Woe, woe. Oh great city dressed in fine linen, purple and scarlet, and glittering with gold and precious stones and pearls. In one hour such great wealth has been brought to ruin.'" One day the markets will crash. They won't merely be depressed; they'll be gone. The stores will close. Currency will be worthless.
This reminds me of my childhood when I visited my grandma for a few days. My cousin Steve, who is a year or two younger than I, lived in that same town as my grandmother, so we spent a lot of time playing together. For some reason that week we collected pop bottle caps, which are rare today. We had a lot of them. They were like currency, and the one with the most was the richest. One day we were up at the softball field where there was a concession stand, and there were oodles of pop bottle caps. Because I was bigger and stronger, I got more pop bottle caps in my brown bag than Steve did. I don't recall what happened to those caps. But I know for certain they're gone, and if you could find them, they're worthless. I could have given some of my bottle caps to Steve just to be nice; however, Steve didn't get any of my bottle caps. But if I had shared, I'm convinced that 40 years later my relationship with Steve would be enriched. It would be something different because I had spent my bottle caps on that friendship. As it is, I wasted it. Now the bottle caps are worthless dust and rust somewhere.
Jesus is telling us to use it or lose it. Money is worth something now, but it won't be for long. Now, there's another element of this I want you to see. Use all the resources at your disposal to reduce people's financial debts to debts of gratitude. That's what the shrewd manager did, and that's what he's commended for. There are many things money can't buy, but there are some things of eternal significance that money can buy. Money can buy Bibles and Sunday School materials; money can support missionaries, pastors, and evangelists; money can feed and clothe the poor; money can fund a block party and build bridges between neighbors; money can encourage somebody who thinks God has forgotten him.
A wise, shrewd investment of God's resources is when we put it towards things that help others come to know and love Christ. There are many options. We could give money to the Gideons, and those Bibles would show up in a hotel room for people that really needed them. Kurt and Janice are interested in Luis Palau ministries. He's a wonderful evangelist, and money given to that ministry will help people hear the gospel. Scott works with Young Life. Somebody's got to pay the bills so that high school kids hear the gospel in a relevant way. MaryJo is involved with the Chicago Care Pregnancy Centers. When somebody's in a crisis pregnancy, what a great time to represent Jesus by paying the bills.
There are a thousand ways to invest God's resources shrewdly so that when it's gone, there will be friends to welcome you into eternal dwellings. That's the point: Use the Master's money shrewdly to win kingdom friends. Unshrewd Christians ask things like, "So, how much do I have to give?" The shrewd Christian says, "How much of the Lord's money can I invest in future friends?" Do you remember Jim Elliot's famous line? "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose."
The payoff for the shrewd.
Jesus certainly could have said, "Be this way because it's the right way to be." But he doesn't. He assures us there is something in it for us. The second thing I want you to see is it pays off when you use the Master's money shrewdly. There are three ways it pays off. First, when we use the master's money shrewdly, we will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. When we think of stepping into heaven we usually think of that moment when we connect with loved ones. The Bible emphasizes there will be people there waiting for us when we step into glory who will thank us for reducing their debt to a debt of gratitude.
When you step into heaven, wouldn't you like to be greeted by those in whom you've invested? What would it be worth to you to have someone grab you by the hand and say, "If it weren't for you, I wouldn't be here"? What would it be worth to have someone excitedly explain how your gift, when they were broke or broken, taught them of Christ's love? What would it be worth to have someone introduce you throughout eternity as, "This is the guy that helped me through school;" "These people supported the missionary that told me about Jesus;" "This couple provided $50 for us when we thought we were going under, and we knew it was a gift from God."
I'll bet most of us have people like that in our minds who have invested in us. I think particularly of Clarence and Josey Nicholson. They were siblings from my home church in South Dakota who were elderly, modest, and quiet. They were behind-the-scenes people. During my first year of seminary, right after Christmas, my wife and I were broke. I was depressed and scared. At that time, a letter came from Clarence and Josey—the only one I ever got from them. Enclosed was a check for $25. Even then, $25 didn't make much of a dent in the school bill, but it changed everything. It told me God hadn't forgotten; he'd take care of us. I assure you, if I ever introduce Clarence and Josey to you, I'll say, "These folks invested in me." Wouldn't it be great to welcome into heaven your friends who are there in part because of your investment of the Master's money? It doesn't cost you anything. It's just money, and you get the benefit. That's one way it pays off.
Also, when you are shrewd with your money, you are trusted with riches of your own. Luke 16:10-12 says, "Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much. And whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you've not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you've not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who'd give you property of your own?" When you invest shrewdly, you are trusted with true riches of your own.
You notice here that God uses money as a test of integrity. You've heard of parents who leave money lying around just to see what their kids do with it. That's what God does. He leaves money lying around and let's you use it. He sees what we do with worldly wealth. Notice that wasting money isn't just seen as immaturity or irresponsibility; it's seen as dishonesty. To waste God's money is dishonest. But by investing in people, we are trustworthy. In addition, when we use the Master's money shrewdly, it demonstrates our undivided devotion to God.
Luke 16:13-15 says, "No one can serve two masters. Either he'll hate the one and love the other, or he'll be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, 'You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men. But God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight.'"
This reminds me of Jack Benny, the comedian who was always 39 years old and a tightwad. In one of his television shows he is accosted by a thug on the street who points a gun at him and says, "Your money or your life." And he just freezes. The thief again says, "Come on. Come on. Your money or your life." Jack Benny responds, "I'm thinking. I'm thinking."
Similarly, God says, "Your money or me." You respond, "I'm thinking. I'm thinking."
It's a hard decision to make. Not many of us are this shrewd. But your love for God will deepen if you give away his money. The more we give away the more our hearts are warmed to him. Until we learn to invest God's money in people, we'll always be torn between two masters. We live in a world that often revolves around money. Money is never neutral. Don't kid yourselves. It is either the master or it is the servant. It's never neutral. Here's a test: if the money you have isn't serving God, then you're serving the money. This is the bald truth of this passage. You cannot serve two masters. You either serve one and despise the other or vice versa. But using money shrewdly to reduce kingdom debts increases our devotion to God.
I saw a seminary couple I know at a coffee shop. I hadn't seen them for a while, so I went over and talked to them. They are a fascinating middle-aged couple. The gentleman used to be a top man with IBM. They lived in a posh section of L.A. and had lots of money. For many years they were active Christians. He has a passion for evangelism and church planting. Since they've been generous with their money, it was no big adjustment when God told him one day, "I want you to go to seminary and go into the ministry. Leave all this behind." Now they live with their family in a small home. When I went over to them at the coffee shop, I saw they were reading their Bibles. I was impressed. I kidded them a little, "Is this what you do on your dates?" He said, "What could be better than being with your wife and thinking about the Lord?" Now, there's a guy who has learned whom to serve and the joys of doing it.
How shrewd are you with the Master's resources? The money, time, energy, and skills he's given to you are all going to be gone soon. He's given us notice. Here's what I'd like you to do. I'd like you to ask God to show you a debt he'd like you to address. Even if things are financially tight for you right now, ask him anyway and be attentive to what he's showing you. When you know what it is, sharpen your pencil and figure out a way to manage God's resources so you can make an investment for the future.
Back in Deadwood, South Dakota, where they had the gold rush 100 years ago, there's a museum. In it there is an inscription scratched out by a beleaguered prospector that says, "I lost my gun. I lost my horse. I am out of food. The Indians are after me, but I've got all the gold I can carry." Foolish man.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.