[Audio of this message can be found here.]
Let’s get one thing off the table immediately as we look at the strange parable Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel lesson, Luke 16:1-15. The God we know in Jesus Christ does not commend thievery or dishonesty.
The seventh commandment still says, “You shall not steal.”
The eighth commandment still tells us: “You shall not bear false witness.”
The Savior Jesus, the foundational Truth of the universe, Who came into our world not to abolish God’s Law, but to fulfill it, would never compliment dishonesty in financial dealings. Nor would He compliment cheating. But Jesus does commend the manager’s shrewdness. And He commends the shrewd use of all that has come under His disciples’ control in this life. It remains commendable for you and me. Let's find out why.
This parable is, above all, about stewardship. Not just the stewardship of our money, but the stewardship of our whole lives.
Each of us has been given the gift of life. Stewardship is about what we do with this gift.
James 1:17 reminds us: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” We tend to forget this and the moment we take something in hand--be it a job, a house, a car, a career, whatever--we think of it as being intrinsically, by right, ours. In perpetuity...or, until we decide to get rid of it or trade up or sell it or will it to our kids.
But that’s not what God’s Word tells us. Psalm 24:1 says: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.”
Whatever we have, not just property and goods, but also our minds, our bodies, our health, our friends and family and spouses, aren’t ours. We only have them on loan from God. So, how will we use this life that God has given to us? That is the question Jesus challenges us to answer in this parable.
Let’s look at verse 1: “Jesus told his disciples: There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, “What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.”’”
The rich man isn’t quite ready to give his manager a pink slip. Maybe he’ll give the guy another--less cushy--assignment. But the rich man has heard that the manager is wasting his money.
This is curious! The manager is on the brink of getting fired or demoted because the rich man has heard rumors from gossips. He tells the manager, in effect, “I find you guilty. Now give me the evidence.”
Now, in your experiences, what sort of person is quickest to believe that someone else is cheating them, that someone else has lied to them? It’s usually someone who’s an accomplished cheat and liar themselves. They figure that everyone is as bad as untrustworthy as they are. So, when the rich man hears rumors about his manager, he believes them. We’ll get confirmation of this later in the parable.
Read on, please. “‘The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg—I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.” [The manager’s career options are dwindling.] So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” “Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,” he replied. The manager told him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.” “Then he asked the second, “And how much do you owe?” “A thousand bushels of wheat,” he replied. He told him, “Take your bill and make it eight hundred.”’”
Let's be clear: the manager is being completely self-serving. That's not the thing Jesus is commending.
But Jesus says that the manager is using the money owed to his master--or more accurately, forgiven portions of money owed to his master--to create a soft landing for himself--a golden parachute--after he gets fired. The manager figures that each of those whose debts were forgiven will be grateful to him and welcome them into their own households. We still have no idea from what Jesus tells us whether the manager actually had, as the gossips had reported, wasted the rich man’s possessions. But we do know this: That the IOUs the rich man was waiting to come due were now worth a lot less than they had been before.
And there’s something else we know now for sure: This rich man himself isn’t such an upright character. Old Testament law was clear in condemning usury, which it defined as loaning fellow Jews money with interest. Deuteronomy 23:19 says: “Do not charge a fellow Israelite interest, whether on money or food or anything else that may earn interest.”
Yet, here was the fictional rich man in Jesus’ parable likely making loans to other Jews with interest. Why do I say that was likely? Stick with me. But I will tell you now that I believe that the rich man violated God’s law and the law of his country to make money. He was a crook. No wonder he was suspicious of the manager without a shred of evidence.
And here’s the deal. There’s a good chance that the manager reduced what the rich man’s debtors actually owed him, without interest added, under the laws of Israel. It’s likely that one guy really only owed the rich man 450 gallons of olive oil and the other really only had borrowed 800 bushels of wheat. Either way you slice it, the manager was being shrewd. The debtors would appreciate his action. And the rich man would be more likely to get a 450 gallon payback of olive oil than 900 or 800 bushel payback of wheat than 1000...just as today, lenders will pay collection agencies to get at least something out of overdue loans, pennies on the dollar.
This may explain the next verse: “[Jesus says:] The master [didn’t fire the manager, but] commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For [Jesus goes on to explain] the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light [‘People of the light’ being disciples of Jesus]. I tell you [Jesus continues], use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”
Now, don’t miss Jesus’ point. Jesus is talking about how we are to manage every blessing that comes to us in this world and whether we will be prepared for what happens beyond death. Hebrews 9:27 reminds us that “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.”
Death, for we fallen descendants of Adam and Eve, is inevitable. It hangs over each of us, just as the loss of his way of life hung over the manager in Jesus’ parable. The question for us, as it was for the manager, is this: Will we prepare for the life to come by being good stewards--good managers--of the lives we’re living right now? Will we share the riches of God's grace with others so that, by our sharing of the Gospel and of our lives with them, they too will become Christ's disciples and be there to welcome us gratefully in eternity? This is an enormous question!
One scholar says, rightly, I think, that there are three ways we can “manage” this life that God gives to us.
One way is to be like the rich fool of Jesus’ parable in Luke 12. Jesus tells about a man who acquired so much that he decided to build bigger barns to hold all his stuff. Then, he told himself, he would relax, eat, drink, and be merry. But Jesus says: “...God said to [this rich man], ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” [Luke 12:20-21] Watch out, Jesus says, that whenever you come to life’s end, you haven’t been spending all of God’s gifts on this life. That’s short-sighted: There will be no soft landing in eternity for people like this.
Another way we can “manage” the gifts of this life--and this life itself--is to, understanding that this life will pass from our hands one day and so, ignore taking care of God's gifts to us in this life. This what fifty years ago, the hippies in communes tried to do. They weren’t going to own anything. Or take care of anything. They were just passing through, man.
Through the centuries, there have been Christian movements that have adopted this line of thinking. These folks can be, as the saying puts it, so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good. Short as this life may be though, the gifts that come to us from God are to be taken care of, even our bodies. (By the way, have you had a physical lately?)
By His death on the cross, Jesus paid the ransom to buy us out of captivity to sin and death; even as we look forward to eternity, we owe it to Him to take care of this life and this world.
That entails being faithful to the promises we made to God and the Church when we were confirmed:
...to live among God’s faithful people, to hear His Word and share in His supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of our Lord Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.That’s how we’re to use the gifts God has given to us. That's how we're to live and celebrate the free gift of grace given in Christ. That’s how we’re to manage our lives while on this planet!
This leads us to the third way we can live our lives. It’s the way of the manager in Jesus’ parable. It’s the way of shrewdness. One scholar has written that the manager uses “the authority he still has in the present [world] to feather his bed for the future [world].”
Every bit of this life God has given to us is meant to be invested in eternity, in the things of Christ’s eternal kingdom. Invest your life, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, in glorifying the God Who has saved you through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
We all will get pink slips someday, our time and work on earth will be through.
But when it happens, may we stand before our Lord, gloriously spent, good managers who gave this life our all for Christ’s glory, people who, by the way we have entrusted all that we have and all the we are to Christ, have lived faithfully and wisely in response to God's goodness to us.
It will be the ultimate soft landing, right into the hand of God.
And Christ will tell us: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” [Matthew 25:34] It’s then that all will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that those who have managed their lives with gratitude for all that God has done for them are the shrewdest people of all. Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This message was shared during worship on September 18.]