Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 22, 2013
“Managing the Master’s Money” (Luke 16:1-15)
Do you remember the name Bernie Madoff? He was in the news a few years back. Bernie Madoff was the investment-firm guy, the money manager, who, over the years, defrauded his wealthy clients out of billions of dollars–that’s “billions” with a “b.” Madoff made off with billions–for a while, at least. He finally was caught, and he’s in the jailhouse now, awaiting his release in the year 2159, when he will be 221 years old. But Bernie Madoff had to have been a rather shrewd character, he must have had something on the ball, to get away with what he did for as long as he did.
Now imagine Jesus told a parable in which he commended–he praised and commended–Bernie Madoff. Why, we’d all be shocked, I’m sure. Commending Bernie Madoff? Praise such a crook, this swindler? Unthinkable! Why in the world would Jesus commend, of all people, a dishonest money manager? Well, friends, that’s basically what Jesus does in our text for today, the Parable of the Dishonest Manager.
Did Jesus lose his marbles? Has his moral compass done a 180? What are we to take from this story, that Jesus commends dishonest money management? Short answer: No, Jesus doesn’t commend dishonesty, but he does commend shrewdness, i.e., using our noggin, in “Managing the Master’s Money.”
Here’s the story and how it works: “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.’”
“You’re fired!” Pink slip. Clean out your desk. Now the manager is faced with an existential crisis. What is he going to do to get himself out of this mess? He begins to think.
“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.”
No, neither of those options will work, and there was no 99 weeks of unemployment checks to fall back on.
The manager keeps thinking: “I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’”
The man is trying to come up with a golden parachute for himself, and now he thinks he has devised such a plan. His idea is to get people to be grateful to him, so that they will help him out in his time of need.
“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.’”
What the dishonest manager is doing is cooking the books, engaging in some “creative accounting,” shall we say. And in the process, he is reducing the debt of his master’s debtors. He’s cheating his master, but he’s creating some happy customers, who like owing less money. And thus they will be grateful to him when he comes looking for help very soon. That’s the plan.
Well, in many of Jesus’ parables there is some element or aspect of the story that stretches the imagination, that strains credulity, that wouldn’t happen in real life. And this parable is no exception. Look at what Jesus says next: “The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.” Now if I were the master who discovered that my manager, whom I had just booted, did this last-minute debt-shaving scheme by which I lost money, I would be very angry with the guy, to say the least. But here in this story, Jesus has the master commending the manager. Notice, though, what the master commends him for. He commends him for his shrewdness. Not his dishonesty. His shrewdness. The guy was using his noggin and making a plan to reach a goal. That is shrewdness.
And that is the takeaway point for us Christians, as Jesus then makes clear: “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.” Here’s a rough translation of that: The pagans, the worldlings–they’re able to use their brains in handling money to achieve a goal, like the shrewd manager in the story did. Why don’t our people, the Christians, do likewise and use the smarts God gave them in their use of money to achieve an even greater goal? That’s what Jesus is commending, shrewdness. And that’s what Jesus is recommending, namely, that we use our noggins in the way we manage our money, in order to achieve God’s goal of getting people into heaven–as Jesus says, those friends who will welcome us into the eternal dwellings.
Now let’s make this clear. We don’t get into heaven, we aren’t received into those eternal dwellings, because of our shrewdness with wealth. We gain eternal life only because of the grace of God in Christ. You and I have been unfaithful stewards, wasting the gifts our Master has entrusted us with. We deserve to be sacked. But God forgives our unfaithfulness for Christ’s sake. Jesus pays off our debts, our debts before God, 100%. He takes the record of our sins and says: “There, I’ve wiped them all off the books. Paid in full. No dishonesty involved. The debt really has been paid, by means of my holy precious blood. Look, your slate is clean. Go in peace, you are free.” That’s the gospel, that’s the good news. Jesus has redeemed us. As Paul tells Timothy: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” Jesus covers all your debts, and then some. 2 Corinthians 8: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” Pure grace, all Christ. Redeemed, ransomed, debt-free. That is how you, or anyone else, will enter the eternal dwellings: by grace, through faith in Christ.
But this is where we can use unrighteous mammon for righteous purposes. This is where how we manage our Master’s money–which is another way to say “stewardship”–comes in. How so? People come to faith through the gospel, through the ministry of the gospel, which is the ministry of the church. And money can be used to support and advance the work of the church. This is what you do with your offerings. And so wise, shrewd use of our money–how we handle and manage and maximize our income and assets, so we have more money to give for the work of the church and the ministry of the gospel–this is how we can “make friends for ourselves by means of unrighteous wealth.” These friends are those who come to faith in Christ through the ministry of the gospel, and who thus will one day welcome us into the eternal dwellings.
Can you think of some ways in which we can be more shrewd in how we use money for the purpose of the gospel? I can think of some ways. See if any of these would fit for you:
1) Be intentional in your giving. Plan out, ahead of time, how much you think you can give over the course of the year. Do this in proportion of what you have. Do you know what percentage you are giving, relative to your income and assets or how much you spend on other things during the course of a year? That would be a good starting point. Planned, proportionate giving.
2) Then take that total amount for the year, and divide it by the number of weeks (or, if you prefer, by the number of months). Then make sure you actually give what you have planned. If you miss a week, make it up the next week–plus that week’s offering, of course. In other words, your giving is not haphazard, hit-and-miss, but rather, you have set a high priority on it, because you know how important the ministry of the church is. Regular, faithful giving.
3) And this third way is looking at things more broadly, and that would be your overall personal or household money management. Things like budgeting, watching your other expenditures, and so on. This could free up some money that could then be given in your offerings for the ministry of the gospel. Increased giving, if possible.
Planned, proportionate giving. Regular, faithful giving. Increased giving, to the extent you are able. These are just a few examples of shrewd, wise money-management for the work of the kingdom. Now I don’t want you to be weighed down by guilt here, or feel a grudging obligation. “God loveth a cheerful giver,” the Good Book says. You see, that’s what I’m banking on: That because you are rejoicing in your Savior, Jesus Christ, and you know how wonderful the good news of God’s free grace in Christ is, and because you know how important the ministry of the gospel is–there’s nothing more important going on in the world today–because of all that, as a fruit of faith and as a joyous response to the gospel, with a free and willing spirit, you will want, you will actively desire, to give generously to support and increase our work together as church.
Managing the Master’s money: That’s what we unworthy servants do. We can do it poorly, without thinking, or we can do it wisely, using our noggins, that is, with shrewdness. Jesus commends shrewdness. Shrewd, faithful stewards, who use whatever wealth we have with a view toward achieving God’s eternal purposes–that’s who God has made us to be, that’s who God is calling us to be. And his grace is such that he will help us to put that into action.