Be Shrewd

Luke 16:1-9 must be one of Jesus’ most challenging parables. So, let’s review . . .

A rich man heard that his business manager was wasting his money – who knows how? Embezzling? Bad stock purchases? Hiring overly expensive labor for certain projects? Bottom line: the manager wasn’t doing his job.

“Give me a report” sounds like “You’re fired!” What’s more, before he goes, he is to complete an audit of the books. The manager begins to worry about his future – a comfortable life on the rich man’s staff has left him proud and “soft.” He can’t dig ditches, and he will not beg.

So, he makes the dishonest, but clever decision to make a few friends before he goes. Maybe in hopes of securing future employment? He reduces all the debts owed to his boss (each person who owed his master money). 900 gallons of olive oil cut to 450; 1000 bushels of wheat cut to 800. The master, the boss, commended the dishonest manager because of his actions.

Here’s where it gets weird: Verses 8-9: The master commended the dishonest manager because he acted cleverly. People who belong to this world are more clever in dealing with their peers than are people who belong to the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to make friends for yourselves so that when it’s gone, you will be welcomed into the eternal homes.

Did Jesus really just say what I think he said? Use money to make friends? Buy your friendships? When in doubt, look for other opinions, like The Message (a paraphrase of the Bible by Eugene Peterson): Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.

This is the passage on which John Wesley bases his famous sermon on money, the one that contains the famous line, “Gain all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.” The sermon is titled “The Use of Money” (that word, “use”, is crucial).

The world in which he preached this sermon was a lot like ours – the most important similarity being that the gap between rich and poor was large and growing larger. There were great economic pressures on Wesley’s people. The audience he preached to was in the lower economic classes, where poverty was rampant and labor was hard.

Methodists preached that the gospel could change every area of a person’s life – not only your worship habits. That means every area, even your finances. This message offered great hope to those who were in the life-or-death struggle of poverty.

Some historians believe that the disciplines preached by Wesley in sermons like these saved England from turmoil like the French were suffering (think French Revolution, Bastille, Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette). These practices enabled poor people to become more responsible, educated, and prosperous.

In his introductory paragraphs, Wesley sounds surprisingly current, for a 200-year-old sermon: “The right use of money is an excellent branch of Christian wisdom . . . Largely spoken of by men of the world but not sufficiently considered by those whom God has chosen out of the world.” Here we are, in 2015, doing exactly what Wesley accused us of. We do not “sufficiently consider” the “right use of money,” except for about one month a year.

We talk about money before, during, and after our pledge campaign, but rarely in any other time. But, Wesley wasn’t raising money. He was teaching his people how to manage and use money in the most faithful way. In using this parable, he wasn’t encouraging graft and dishonesty, but shrewd management, careful, detailed management – like “spoken by men of the world” and too often ignored by “those whom God has chosen out of the world.” Because, what did Jesus say? “People who belong to this world are more clever in dealing with their peers than are people who belong to the light.”

The Bible is amazingly consistent in regards to money, and Wesley knew that. How we use our money matters! It matters for our souls. Look at Jesus’ closing words in this parable (verses 10-13):

Whoever is faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who is dishonest with little is also dishonest with much. If you haven’t been faithful with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? If you haven’t been faithful with someone else’s property, who will give you your own? No household servant can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Paul knows it. He writes to Timothy, “the love of money is the root of all evil.” The second half of that verse is even worse, “Some have wandered away from the faith and impaled themselves with a lot of pain because they have made money their goal.”

In 1 Kings 3, when Solomon was asked by God what he wanted more than anything, he asked for wisdom, a “discerning mind” or an “understanding heart.”

We don’t have time to list all the passages from the book of Proverbs that deal with money, but let me suggest reading chapter 3.

  • 3:5-6 – Trust in the Lord with all your heart; don’t rely on your own intelligence. Know him in all your paths, and he will keep your ways straight.
  • 3:7-10 – Don’t consider yourself wise. Fear the Lord and turn away from evil. Then your body will be healthy and your bones strengthened. Honor the Lord with your wealth and with the first of all your crops. Then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will burst with wine.
  • 3:13-14 – Happy are those who find wisdom and those who gain understanding. Her profit is better than silver, and her gain better than gold.

I have not gone temporarily insane and become a proponent of “prosperity gospel.” But listen to the core meaning – BE WISE! Use the brains God has given you to manage your earthly wealth – no matter how much you have. Live as God intends you to live. Don’t leave the money talk to the bankers and business people of the world. Earn all you can; save all you can; give all you can. It may not insure you will become rich, but it will lead to a healthy, prosperous, and abundant life.

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