A Good Lesson From a Bad Example

This morning, I want us to look at one of the parables of Jesus in Luke chapter 16.  In scripture, we have recorded about 40 different parables of Jesus.  This particular parable has to do with money, which isn’t very surprising because over one-third of Jesus’ parables dealt with the topic of money.

            In fact, Jesus talked about money more than he talked about anything else, except for one thing, and that’s the kingdom of God.  And maybe that’s because Jesus knew that money would be the one thing that would most compete for the allegiance of my heart when it comes to the kingdom of God.

            Think about how much of our lives is spent thinking about money – thinking about how to make more money, thinking about how to spend our money or how to save our money.  And Jesus understood that our life in this world is very dependent upon a form of exchange, and we live and breathe and move with those exchanges.  So, Jesus gives us lots of stories about money. 

            But this particular story is rather shocking because the hero of this story does some bad stuff.  And then, Jesus uses his bad example to give us an illustration of how we ought to live, those of us who are Christians. 

            In Luke 16:1, “[Jesus] also said to the disciples…”  I want you to notice before we even get to this parable is that this parable is for Jesus’ disciples.  Now, that’s not to say that there weren’t some other people listening.  Down in verse 14, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him.”  Which is pretty much what you would expect from people who didn’t like what Jesus said because of how attached they were to their money.  But Jesus was talking primarily to his disciples.  That’s you and me.

            And here’s the parable – “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions.  And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you?  Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’

            “And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me?  I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.  I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’

            “So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’  He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’  He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’  Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’  He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’  He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’

            “The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.  For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.  And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” (Luke 16:1-9).

            The story Jesus that tells here is interesting for several reasons.  First of all, because the hero of this story is a crook.  In verse 8, Jesus used the word “dishonest” to describe the manager.

            Which goes to show that workplace dishonesty is not something unique to 21st century America.  Employee dishonesty costs American businesses billions of dollars a year.  One report shows that 75% of all employees in America have stolen at least once from their employer.  And something I found very surprising – on the average, businesses lose as much stock from employee theft as they do from shoplifting.  So, the manager in this story is not unlike most of the people we know.  He was dishonest.

            Another reason why this parable is so interesting is because it has a couple of statements in it that just don’t seem to make sense.  For example, there’s a line in there that says, “The master commended the dishonest manager.”  The hero of this story — the man that Jesus says we are supposed to imitate — is a cheater and a liar and a thief.  And so, that’s a bit confusing!

            And then Jesus says, “Here’s the moral of the story – you need to be like this dishonest man and use your worldly wealth to make a lot of friends so that when your wealth is gone, they can welcome you into your eternal home.”  And that doesn’t seem to make much sense.  So, let’s take a closer look at this parable.

            It starts out with these words, “There was a rich man.”  In fact, this man was very rich because people owed him massive amounts of money.  They are in debt to him on a very large scale, and there are a lot of debtors.  So, this was a very rich man.

            And what he did was to hire a manager, and put him in charge over all of the assets of this operation because he’s not there, he’s living somewhere else.  And this was a very common thing in ancient times where people who were very wealthy had a lot of operations going on, a lot of agricultural operations, businesses going on, and so, they hired managers to take care of things for them in their absence.

            This manager was given a great deal of authority.  He managed the land.  He managed the crops.  He managed the assets.  He managed the debts.  He managed the disbursing of the resources and the food and whatever was necessary for the servants and all the people who worked in this particular enterprise. 

            And so, the first lesson we learn from this parable is this:

1.      When it comes to money and our possessions, we need to remember that we’re not the owner, we’re the manager

            It is important for us to understand that we don’t own anything.  God owns everything and we just manage it for him.

            Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.  The world and all who live in it.” 

            Deuteronomy 10:14 says, “To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it.”  It all belongs to God.

            I heard a story once about a Christian who had all these oil fields and one day, he hit a massive gusher and suddenly he was worth twice as much.  And one of his buddies asked him, “What’s it like to wake up and have twice as much today as you did yesterday?”  And this Christian said, “I own the same amount today as I did yesterday – which is nothing.  Now, I’ve got more to manage today than I did yesterday.  But I own the same amount I did before I hit that gusher – which is zero.” 

            Somebody might say “That sounds good, but the truth is, I’ve worked hard for everything I have.  It’s mine.”  And to that, God would say to us what he said to the Jews in Deuteronomy 8:17: “You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’  But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth.” 

            And so the body I have, the mind I have, the skill set I have, the gifts I have that make it possible for me to do what I do, and for you to do what you do, for us to have what we have.  Those are all things that God is the source of and, ultimately, he owns it all.  He just lets us use stuff for a while.  And God is not pleased when we act like we own something that actually belongs to him.

            I say with regret that there have been times in my life when I have acted and treated what I have more as though I’m the owner of it, when the truth is, I’m just the manager.

            Back to the story – the manager in this parable was guilty of “wasting his owner’s possessions” (Luke 16:1).  I find it interesting that that’s the exact same word that was used to describe the prodigal son back in chapter 15.  Just like the prodigal son wasted his inheritance, this manager was wasting what belonged to his boss. 

            Which should make us all give careful consideration to the question, “Are there times when we are wasting what God has given to us?”  The thing about waste, though, is that’s a lot easier to identify in other people than it is in ourselves.  Think about how often you’ve heard about someone spending a lot of money on something that seemed to you to be very foolish and you thought to yourself, “I can’t believe somebody would waste money like that.”  And I wonder how many times God looks at what I spend money on and he thinks to himself, “I can’t believe anybody would waste money like that.” 

            And when the owner in this parable hears about how wasteful his manager has been, he calls him in and he says to him, “What is this that I hear about you?”  And he had heard some pretty serious accusations.  Serious enough that he fired him on the spot.  He said, “Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.”  The manager is basically told, “You’ve got two weeks to clean out your desk and get out.”

            Which brings me to the second point of this parable, which is this:

2.         Managers are always held accountable for what they manage

            In fact, this is a common feature in all of these owner/manager parables of Jesus.  There will always come a time when managers are held accountable and are called by the owner to give an account for what they have done with the owner’s money. 

            And we can be assured that there will come a time when we will have to stand before God and give an account for what we have done with what God has given to us.  Romans 14:12 says, “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.”  And the more we are given to manage, the more we will be held responsible for managing it properly.

            You know, a lot of times, when we think of people being spiritually lost, or prodigal sons, prodigal daughters, we think of people lost out there in the world of sexual immorality.  Or we picture people lost in the world of addiction.  We picture people lost in the world of something socially scandalous. 

            But here in this parable, you have someone who is spiritually lost because of the way he handles money, because he is wasteful.  This manager may be more sober than other people around him.  He may not be as sexually immoral as other people around him, but he’s lost just the same because of the way he has used the money he has been given.

            But back to the parable.  The owner calls the manager in, and he knows what’s coming.  He knows there’s a pink slip waiting for him, he knows he’s going to be out of a job, and so he’s got to figure out what he’s going to do to survive the days ahead.

            In verse 3, he says to himself, “What shall I do?”  When I get fired from this position, when I’m terminated, I’ve got to find somewhere to go.  I’ve got to have a place to live.  I’ve got to have an income.  What am I going to do to secure my future when my master takes away my position as manager?

            And then he says, “I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m too ashamed to beg.”  This is a white-collar worker.  He’s not interested in picking up a shovel.  He doesn’t want to do any manual labor.  Hard work is not his thing.  And he doesn’t want to lower himself to the status of a beggar.  He’s not going to do that. 

            So, what is he going to do?  Then he has a eureka moment.  He says, “I know what I can do!”  He decides that he will contact all the people who owe his master money, bring them in one by one, and he’s going to discount all their debts.  And his thinking is, “If I reduce all their debts, then they will owe me a favor and later on, they will be obligated to help me out.” 

            Which leads to my third point –

3.         Shrewd managers plan for the future

            This manager may not have been the most competent person, he may not have been the most honest person, but you can say this about him – he knew that he needed to plan for the future.  And, as managers of God’s money, it is important for us to do the same thing.    

            I have a friend by name of Tuck whom I’ve known ever since I was about 11 or 12 years old.  Which means that I’ve also known his father for that long as well.  Charlie Tucker was an elder for many years in the church in Newport News, Virginia.  Since I was best friends with his son, I guess he felt like could treat me a bit like a son.  Shortly after Sueanne and I got married, Charlie wanted to know what sort of retirement plan I had set up.  Well, I hadn’t set anything up yet.  So, he gave me a fatherly lecture on why it was important to get that thing established early. 

            The next time Charlie saw me, several months later, he said, “Have you started that retirement plan yet?”  I said, “No, not yet.”  There was always something getting in the way.  I knew that I needed to make the proper preparations and I wanted to, I really did.  It’s just that I never seemed to get around to it.  But every time Charlie saw me, he would ask me about it and he’d give me another lecture.  He knew that preparing for my financial future was important.  And even though I got to the point that I dreaded seeing Charlie because I knew what he was going to say, I knew in my heart he was right.

            Preparing for the future is important.  It’s infinitely more important in regard to spiritual matters.  I think there are a lot of people who treat becom­ing a Christian the same way that I treated setting up a retirement fund.  You know you need to do it, you know you want to do it.  It just never seems like the time is right. 

            Are we planning for the future?  When it comes to spending our money, are we thinking about what enjoyment we’re going to get out of it right now, or are we thinking about what it can accomplish from an eternal perspective?  One of the biggest signs of immaturity is the inability to think about anything beyond right this minute.  What are we doing to plan for the future?

            But getting back to the parable, here comes the really surprising part of this story.  When the master found out what his manager was doing, he didn’t react the way you might expect he would.  Instead of blowing his top and having his servant ar­rested (or executed), he congratulates him for acting wisely or shrewdly.  I like the way the New Living Translation puts it, “The rich man had to admire the dishonest rascal for being so shrewd.” (Luke 16:8, NLT)

            Now there are some commentators who suggest that the master didn’t get upset because perhaps he was dishonest himself.  That perhaps the original debts were inflated to get around the Jewish prohibition against charging interest to a fellow Israelite.  In other words, the wheat debtor may originally have only borrowed 800 measures of wheat, but he was charged with 1000 measures to cover up an interest charge.  And if that was the case, then there wasn’t much the master could say because to expose his manager would mean expos­ing himself as a cheater.

            There are others who think that the manager was just flat out cheating his master, making friends in the process.  And that’s a possibility, although it’s hard to see why the master would commend him for that.  But there’s another possibility.

             It’s possible that the manager was cutting his commission.  In other words, the arrangement he had with his master was, “You get me my thousand bushels of wheat and you can keep two hundred for your commission.”  But the manager goes around and he says to all these debtors, “Forget my commission.  You just pay my master what he wants and I’ll take nothing for my effort.”

            Now, you can say a lot of bad things about the dishonest manager in this story, but you have to admit that he was realistic.  He sized up his situation and he realized that the way things were going, things didn’t look so good for him in the future.  And he knew that if he didn’t take some sort of action, later on he would look back with regret.  So, he made preparations.

            And, that caused his master to say, “You are one shrewd dude.”  And if the third interpretation of this parable is correct, he was sacrificing money right now to prepare for the future that lay ahead.  And Jesus said to his disciples, “You need to learn a lesson from a man like this.  He’s shrewd.  And shrewd people plan for the future.” 

            And then Jesus said, “Furthermore, the people of this world – all these dishonest people around you — they do a better job of using their money to plan for their future than the people of God do.  And so, I tell you – you need to use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends so that when your possessions are gone, they will welcome you to an eternal home. “

            Jesus said we need to do what this manager did.  Use your worldly wealth to prepare for a future that lies ahead.  This dishonest manager started sacrificing his money to build relationships for the sake of his future and Jesus said we would be wise to do the same thing. 

            Because like the dishonest manager, we also need to look to the future.  Now a lot of us plan ahead and we manage our money in preparation for what might happen.  And so, we will build retirement portfolios, and we buy insurance, and we have medical savings accounts, and maybe we buy disability insurance.  We do all of that for the sake of what might happen.  I might have to go to the hospital someday, I might retire someday. 

            And planning for all those things is good.  But here’s the question — how much time, how much energy, how much money do we spend in light of what will happen for sure?  Because what will happen for sure is that you and I will one day stand before God and he will call us to give an account for everything that he has put in our hands. 

            We know that that time is coming.  And so, it is imperative that we make our plans and we spend our money in light of what’s going to happen one day.  That’s what shrewd people do.

            So, let me give you one last point of application:

4.         Shrewd managers use their money to help people

            In this parable, the manager sacrifices some money, he sacrifices his commission to build a relationship with people who can make a difference for him in the future, hoping to incur their favor so that they will take him into their homes when he loses his job and needs a place to stay. 

            Jesus said that you and I would be wise to do the same thing.  The smart thing for us to do would be for us to use our money to build relationships with people for the sake of a future.  You say, “Well, what does that mean?”  I think it means this.  I think it means that Jesus is calling us to use our money for the sake of helping others.  And if we will do that, then someday those people that we help will welcome us into our eternal home.

            And if that seems like a bit of a stretch to you, take a look at Matthew chapter 25 because there are two more parables here that I think go together.  First of all, you’ve got the parable of the talents.  A talent was an amount of money and Jesus tells a story about a master who has three servants, and he gives one of them five talents, and another two talents, and the third one he gives one talent. 

            And after he’s been gone for a while, the master comes back and he wants to know what these servants –these managers — have done with the money that he gave them.  One by one, they give an account (because remember, managers will always be held accountable by the owner).  And the manager with five talents shows him that he made five more.  The manager with two talents shows him that he made two more.

            But the servant who was given one talent, he buried his bag of money in the ground, and his master said, “You wicked and lazy servant – why didn’t you at least deposit that money in the bank and earn some interest?”  And the master throws that servant out.  And so, one of the things you’re left with at the end of this story is “OK, so God has entrusted all of us with resources and he expects to get a return.  But what exactly does God expect us to do with the money he’s given us?” 

            And I think the answer to that question is found in the very next story.  Starting with verse 31, Jesus said that when the Son of Man comes back, he’s going to divide everyone into two groups.  The sheep will be on his right hand and those are the ones who have used their money to take care of the poor, the needy, the hungry.  The goats will be on his left hand and those are the ones who have not used what God has given them to take care of those who are in need

            So, what does Jesus expect when he entrusts us with these talents?  What he wants to know is whether or not we have used what he has given us to minister to people around us who are in need.  He wants to know if our money and resources are helping people spiritually, helping people physically.  Shrewd management is using our money to help people because that is going to affect our future.

            And Jesus says if you’ll “use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends, then, when your earthly possessions are gone, they will welcome you to an eternal home.” (Luke 16:9, NLT)

            It’s an amazing thing to be able to use our money – correction, to use God’s money — for something that has eternal consequences.  And it’s not a question of how much we have.  Jesus said in verse 10, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.”

            A lot of us make the mistake of thinking, “If I had more, then I’d do more.”  No, you wouldn’t.  If you’re not faithful in a little, you’re not going to be faithful in much.  The amount you possess is not the issue.  Your character is the issue.  Your commitment is the issue.  Your love for heaven is the issue.  You are either unselfish, humble, generous, non-materialistic, committed to the kingdom with all your heart or you’re not.  It has nothing to do with an amount.

            So, let’s remember:      

1.         We don’t own anything.  We’re just managers, and it all belongs to God.

2.         Someday, God will hold us accountable for how we have used what he has given us.

3.         If we are wise, we will use our money in ways that have eternal significance. 4.            If we are wise, we will use our money to help people.

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