Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Shrewd Manager: Luke 16.1-15

The parable of the Shrew Manager, in Luke 16.1-15, is not on anyone's favorite list.  The main character of most of Jesus' parables are people we can relate to: a shepherd, a sower, even a prodigal son.  Luke 16 has a manager who cheats his master out of a great deal of money.  Then Jesus says "...use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings (Luke 16.9).  How is that possible?  Nobody can buy their way into heaven.  How am I supposed to use my money to make friends who can get me into heaven?  This is a very odd parable.

The situation that Jesus describes in the parable is not strange, even in our own time.  A man had a successful business and he wanted to enjoy his success so he hired a manager to run the business for him.  If he had hired a good manager things would have gone smoothly, but he didn't.  The master had hear rumors that the manager was wasting his money.  He went to the manager and told him what he had heard, that he believed the rumors and he was going find out what was going on and dismiss him from his job as manager.

Back then there were not a lot of job opportunities for a fired manager.  The manager only lists two: digging and begging.  He said he was "not strong enough to dig."  I have heard people criticize him for that, saying that he was too proud to do an honest days work, but I would have to say the same thing as the manager.  If I had to do hard physical labor I wouldn't last very long; I'm not strong enough to do that kind of work.  As for begging, I think all of us would have to agree that we would be ashamed to do that.  Then he realized a simple fact: He hadn't lost his job yet, he was still the manager.

As manager he could prepare for the future, but he had to act quickly.  His plan was simple, he was going to make friends.  When he lost his job they would be willing to help him.  So, he called in his master's debtors.  Some of the debts he cut in half, some he cut in third.  As manager he was able to change the amounts in the ledger, so the bill and the ledger matched.  From now on that was the amount the debtor owed.  He had a lot of people who were very grateful to him and they would be willing to help him when he was in need.

An odd thing in this parable is that the master complements the dishonest manager for what he did.  To some people business is a sport and money is how you keep score.  When you play someone and they play very well and win you honestly shake their hand and say "good game!"  Jesus observed that worldly people understand that in business you can't wait.  If you wait your business opportunity will be gone.  He hopes that we can learn that simple lesson from them.  We only have now to now to prepare for where we will spend eternity.

"I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings" (Luke 16.9).  This isn't possible.  Nobody has enough money to buy their way into heaven.  Who are we going to give our money to?  I can't get you into heaven, nobody on this planet can.  Jesus can get us into heaven, but he doesn't need our money.  Jesus gave us a clue to this parable in the chapter 14.   In Luke 14.12-14 Jesus had been invited to dinner at the house of a important Pharisee, and during dinner he gave the man some advice: "When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite you friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they man invite your back and so you will be repaid.  But when your give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, and the lame, the blind, and your will be blessed.  Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

Luke 14.12-14 is about more than having someone over for lunch; it is about repayment for good works.  The ledger has to balance.  If someone invites me and my family over for dinner, at some point I'm going to say to my wife "they had us over for dinner, let's invite them over for dinner."  The ledger is now in balance, nobody is owed anything.  But what if we invite someone over for dinner who is so poor they can't even repay the debt of a meal.  Jesus said we will be repaid at "the resurrection of the righteous."  How is this using our money to make friends who will welcome us into eternal dwellings?  Let's see how we are repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

In Mat. 25.31-46 Jesus describes judgement day, when he will say to the righteous "Come...take you inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world."  We would expect a reward like that to require some extraordinary act: climbing some sacred mountain, giving all you own or giving up your life.  Notice what Jesus says they did: "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink..." (Mat. 25.35).  The righteous are honest, and they admit that they never did any of these things for him.  Jesus tells them "...whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did me" (Mat. 25.40). This is how we use our money to make friends who will welcome us in to heaven: When we help someone and we are not repaid Jesus assumes the debt.  

Look at what the debts Jesus is repaying: food, water, old clothes and visits when he was sick or in prison and a place to stay when he was in town.  Small things, common and easy to do.  And easy to ignore.  The unrighteous are cast into "eternal fire" because they didn't give our Lord a cup of water, food or old clothes (Mat. 25.41-43).  In their defense they say that they never saw Jesus in need; if they had they would have helped him.  Jesus said they did see him in need and passed him by.  He was the poor unimportant brother; the "least of these," that no one noticed.  Jesus said "that was me."  It is easy to think "someone else will help them," and that is correct, someone else will help them and get the gratitude of our Lord. 

Philippians 4.14-19 shows another way to use our money wisely.  It is in the comments at the end of the book where Paul writes "Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles.  Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need.  Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account.  I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent.  They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.  And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus."

When Paul was doing missionary work only one congregation sent him money to support him: the Philippians.  They didn't do this only one time; this was their regular custom.  Paul quickly pointed out that he was not asking for more money, Epaphroditus had just arrived, Paul wanted them to know that their gift would not go unrewarded.  Paul couldn't pay them back, so it had been "credited to your account."  When they were in need it would be repaid "according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus."  Too often we think of giving money to support mission work as helping people who will never do anything for us, but when we support the spread the gospel message it is credited to our account, and Jesus will repay the debt owed.

There were rich people in the first century church.  Paul gave commands to Timothy on what to tell them to do with their wealth.  "Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.  Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.  In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of life that is truly life" (1Tim. 6.17-19).  God does not command us to give away everything we own, He does command us to share.  It is the same thing we tell children to do with their toys: share them.  Don't over look the statement that God "richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment."  Our Father wants us to enjoy the gifts He has given us, but He is pleased when we are "generous and willing to share" them.
When we do this we are laying the foundation for our new life.

The concept of God assuming debts in not found only in the New Testament.  Look at Proverbs 19.17: "He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD and he will reward him for what he has done."  Let me rephrase that quote: "He who gives to the poor lends to the LORD and he will reward him for what he has done."  We all understand the difference between giving and lending: when you give you don't expect anything back.  When we give something to the poor we don't expect to be repaid.  God takes on that debt and He will repay us.

There is one more passage in Luke 16 that I want to comment on: "You can not serve both God and Money" (Luke 16.13).  Paul wrote about this too in 1Tim. 6.6-10.  Most people can misquote verse 10 as "money is the root of all evil," but that is not what Paul said.  Paul wrote "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.  Some people eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs."  I have heard many good people talk about all the great things they will be able to do for the church when they become rich.  Paul wrote us a warning: that idea is a trap, and it will ruin our lives.  "People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap..." (1Tim. 6.9).   Go back and look at that list in Mat. 25.41-43: food, water and old clothes.  There is nothing on it that you need to be rich to buy or do. What we need to learn is that "...godliness with contentment is great gain...if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that" (1Tim. 6.6-8).

God expects us to use our wealth wisely, to be kind and share with other people, and to be like a shrewd business man, always be looking for chances to make a friend who can welcome us into heaven.  Our Father has blessed us with great comforts, and that gives us ability to help so many people.  Let's not let these opportunities pass by.


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