When I asked a couple months ago for suggestions of what parables we should preach from, one suggestion was the parable of the Shrewd Manager. The person who suggested I preach from this parable said it was difficult to understand and that is certainly true. If you go online and look for sermons about this parable, you will see preachers struggling to make sense of what seems to be bad teaching.
An employee is suspected of cheating and is fired. But before he leaves he meets with all the people who owe his boss money and reduces the amount they owe so they will help him when he needs a job in the future. This parable could be a lesson for all employers: When you fire someone, do it immediately and do not give them time to work against you.
The amazing thing is that, as Jesus told the story, the boss congratulated the man he was dismissing for having been shrewd by using money to prepare for his future.
So, is Jesus telling us that we can rob a bank and give the money to the church and the poor as a way of preparing to have a better welcome into heaven?
Barbara Tuchman is probably my favorite historian and her first book I read was A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century. One of the things I remember about this book was the repeated experience of some wealthy nobleman who lived a decadent life, gained wealth at the expense of others, had mistresses, used and abused others, and then upon his death he would leave a castle to the Catholic church for a monastery or nunnery so he would be treated well when he came to his judgment before God. This was the teaching of the church and it encouraged these grand gifts of estates.
Does the parable of the Shrewd Manager support this practice?
Let’s take a look at the story.
“There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. 2 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.’
At the end of the story the manager is called dishonest. Maybe it was reported that he had been taking bribes. Maybe he had been mismanaging his master’s resources. Maybe he sold to a friend at a lower price than he could have received elsewhere. Maybe he did not sell wheat when he should have and it spoiled. Whatever the action, whether incompetence or dishonesty, he was not doing what he should have been doing.
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.
The manager received the news with shock and dismay. What was he going to do? He was not used to physical labor. He was probably too old for this. The change from being manager of the rich man’s estate to begging on the street would be too much to bear. So he devised a plan.
I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7 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.’
He called in the men who owed his master money and settled their debts at a fraction of what they owed. The first debt was 100 measures of oil, about 3,300 liters which was the yield from 150 olive trees. This was not an insignificant debt. It was worth about 1,000 denarii which was the equivalent of three years salary for the daily worker.
The second debt was 100 measures of wheat, about 1,100 bushels or 39,000 liters which was the yield from about 100 acres of grain. This was a larger debt, about 3,000 denarii, eight to ten years of salary for the daily worker.
The manager settled the first debt for half of what was owed and gave a 20% reduction on the second debt. This was unexpected good news for them and the manager hoped that they would view him kindly and perhaps offer him employment when he lost his job.
8 The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.
Why would the master commend the dishonest manager for taking his money? What is the action of the manager that makes him dishonest?
Is his dishonesty related to the charges in verse 1 that caused the master to dismiss him? Or is it his settling of the debts that make him dishonest?
There are three possibilities: The first is that the manager stole from his master by settling the debts at a fraction of what was owed.
The second is that the manager removed interest charges from the bills in accordance with Mosaic law, bringing his master into compliance with the law. (Exodus 22:25)
If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest.
The third possibility is that the manager removed from the debts his own commission, sacrificing his own money, not his master’s.
I find this third possibility the most appealing. In a business, collecting debts is difficult and when people stretch out the payment of what is owed to three months, half a year, a year, it puts a lot of strain on the financial stability of the business. The money that is owed is needed to purchase what has to be bought to sustain the business. So when the manager collected the debts, the master benefitted by having cash brought into his business. The sacrifice was made by the manager who gave up his commission. And perhaps he might have lost this anyway if he was dismissed. So he gave up what he might have lost anyway to gain a future hope of employment.
Another reason I like this third possibility is that the action of the manager makes no sense if he was defrauding his master. The men whose debt was settled at a reduced price would not want to hire a man to manage their accounts if he had demonstrated that he was willing to steal from his master. But if they saw that he had made a personal sacrifice, they would see this as a positive quality and be more interested in him as a manger for their estates.
Then Jesus gave the moral lesson from this parable.
For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. 9 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.
Jesus observed that businessmen use their money to take risks with the hope of making more money and said this is what the shrewd manager did. He took a risk with his money that he hoped would pay off and the master commended him for taking that risk. From this he drew a spiritual analogy. Those who seek God should use their resources in a way that will please God so that when the end comes and all the wealth of the world slips away, they will be received in heaven.
So let’s talk about the proper use of wealth.
If you have been here the past few Sundays, you will remember that I talked about wealth on April 1 when I preached from the parable of the Rich Fool. Why am I talking about wealth again?
The simple answer is that I talk a lot about wealth because Jesus did. Sixteen of the thirty-eight parables, 42%, are concerned with how to handle money and possessions. In the Gospels, an amazing one out of ten verses deal directly with the subject of money. The Christian New Testament offers 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 verses on faith, but more than 2,000 verses on money and possessions.
Why did Jesus spend so much of his teaching talking about money and possessions?
Godfrey Davis wrote a biography about the Duke of Wellington, the hero of the Battle of Waterloo. In talking about why he had been able to write such an insightful biography, Davis said, “I had an advantage over earlier biographers. I found an old account ledger that showed how the duke spent his money. It was a far better clue to what he thought was really important than the reading of his letters or speeches.”
It is easy to talk about what we believe but more difficult to use our money to support what we believe. We can be faithful in attending church and we can talk about how wonderful it is to be a follower of Jesus, but when it comes time to spend our money, then we find out what we really believe.
Martin Luther observed: “There are three conversions necessary: the conversion of the heart, mind and the purse.”
Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount: (Luke 12:34)
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
If the purse has not been converted, than the heart and mind are not really serious.
Has your purse been converted? Let me mention what Jesus is not teaching in this parable and then talk about how much we should give to the church.
First, Jesus is not teaching that you can buy your way into heaven.
That seems to be what Jesus is teaching, but scripture has to be read as a whole and one teaching of Jesus cannot contradict his other teachings. To understand the parable, it is helpful to read another passage in the Bible that is often misinterpreted: (James 2:14 )
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?
We are not saved by our actions and we are not saved by how we use our money. But if we have faith, our lives will increasingly be more like Jesus. Our deeds will show that we have faith. The fruit of the Spirit will be evidenced in us. And if we grow in faith, money’s hold on us will lessen and we will become more generous.
So if we are not using our money to please God, it shows that money still has too much power over us and our hearts are not completely given to God.
A second lesson is that God does not want us to tithe, he wants us to be generous with our money.
9 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.
Jesus taught that we should use money in a way that pleases God. So how much are we required to give to the church? 10%?
The concept of tithing is well developed in the Old Testament and there are actually three tithes mentioned in the Old Testament. 10% was used to go to the Temple and make the annual sacrifices. 10% was given to the priests and Levites and every three years 10% was given to the widows and the poor. This works out to 23.3% per year, not just 10%. To meet one’s obligations to God, tithing was necessary.
So in Malachi 3 we read that God’s blessing was withheld because the tithe was not given.
Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the LORD Almighty.
“But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’
8 “Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me.
“But you ask, ‘How do we rob you?’
“In tithes and offerings. 9 You are under a curse—the whole nation of you—because you are robbing me. 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.
God’s blessing was withheld because Israel did not pay the tithe it was required to pay. This was the law of God. To be a follower of God, you had to pay the tithe. God gave you all you had and you were required to give back one tenth.
Now we move to the New Testament and I have some good news for you. You are no longer under the law. In Christ, you have been set free from the law. In the New Testament, the concept of tithing 10% is abolished.
What are you required to put in the collection plate to fulfill your obligation to God? Nothing! You no longer have an obligation to God. God has given you a gift you cannot repay and your response needs to come from the heart, not from an obligation. You are not required to give anything.
But remember what James wrote in his letter:
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?
Someone who says they are a follower of Jesus but holds on tightly to their purse has really not yet been converted. Generosity will be the result of a living relationship with Jesus. If you are open to the work of the Holy Spirit in you, it is impossible that you will not become more generous, taking on the heart of Jesus for those in the world. The New Testament asks us to do more, not less, than the Old Testament. So if you are not giving 10% or more of all you receive, you need to question yourself to see why it is your purse is not more open.
The solution is not to give more money our of a sense of duty or obligation. What you need is a heart more in love with Jesus and when that is the case, your purse will open up naturally.
Let me present three reasons for being a cheerful giver to God’s work.
The first is rather simple. We give to show gratitude. We can never repay what God has done for us but we can show our gratitude.
In Luke 17 is recorded an experience Jesus had that came to my mind.
11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
Jesus is walking to Jerusalem when ten lepers, keeping their distance from him as proscribed by law, called out to him to be healed. Jesus saw them and told them to go show themselves to the priests and when they obeyed, they were cleansed, healed from their leprosy. Ten lepers were healed but only one of them came back to thank Jesus and praise God.
Ten lepers received a free gift – healing from a disease that made them social outcasts from their families and communities. How much would they be willing to pay for healing from this disease? Everything they had. What could they offer to Jesus except their gratitude?
And yet only one out of the ten came back to thank Jesus and praise God.
Why did that leper return? Was he obligated to do so? No. Was his healing dependent on his coming back to give thanks? No. The other nine did not return to give thanks but were still healed. But the leper who returned came back out of gratitude and received in the process what the other nine never learned, that it was faith in God that brought healing, not the magic of Jesus.
Why should we give to the work of God in the world? Because we are grateful for what God has done for us and because when we give, we grow in our understanding of faith and the ways of God working in the world. We give out of gratitude.
How grateful are you for what God has done for you? Let that be your guide as you give.
A second reason for giving to the work of God in the world is that in doing so we are acting wisely, preparing for the future.
This is the teaching from the parable of the Shrewd Manager. Jesus taught with this parable that we are to use our resources in our present situation to prepare for our future situation.
Picture yourself on the Titanic. The ship has struck an iceberg and is sinking. People are struggling to get into the lifeboats. The ship has begun to tilt as the stern of the ship takes in water so walking along the corridors and the deck of the ship is difficult. It won’t be long before the ship goes under and if you are not in a lifeboat by that time, you will most likely drown in the frigid Atlantic waters.
Being a conscientious person, you race through the hallway to see if there is someone you can save and bring to the lifeboats. As you race down the hall, you see a man ransacking the rooms, filling his pockets with gold and silver and jewelry he has found in the cabins. He is dragging a suitcase loaded with money and watches and other valuables. He is delighted at this treasure he has discovered. “I’m a rich man! Look at all I have!” he shouts at you and then races on to the next cabin to get some more. You try to persuade him that he should abandon all that and try to save himself but to no avail. His heart is so set on this treasure he has found he is incapable of thinking of the future.
This is the flip side of the parable Jesus taught. What good does it do you to accumulate money and wealth in this life when death is approaching that will take all you have accumulated away from you? The wise person uses what he or she has accumulated to prepare for the future, life after death. Jesus said (Luke 16:9)
I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
Where are you accumulating treasure? It doesn’t matter whether you have it or are lusting for it. It doesn’t matter whether you have a lot or a little. Where are you accumulating treasure? If your treasure is in this world, then you are a fool, like the man on the Titanic gathering up treasure while the ship is sinking.
Don’t end up being bankrupt when your life in this world is over. Build up treasure now in heaven by using what God has given you here in ways that are pleasing to him.
Why give to the work of God in the world? Because we ought to be grateful to God for what he has done for us. Because it is a wise person who uses what he or she has in this world to prepare for the future. And thirdly, we give to the work of God in the world because we receive from God blessing when we use our money and possessions in ways that please him.
I read earlier a passage from Malachi 3 in which Israel was cursed because they did not bring a tithe as they were instructed to do. But I left off the last verse of that section. After the Lord says he is being robbed because people are not bringing him their tithe, he says:
“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.
There is a theme in Scripture that God’s blessing of us is in some measure dependent on how we use the money and possessions he has entrusted us with. We see this in the last verse of the passage from Malachi 3. We see this also in the teaching Jesus gave after his telling of the parable of the shrewd manager.
10 “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?
What is Jesus talking about here when he refers to “little” and “much”? That becomes apparent when you read verse 11. So verse ten can be read, Whoever can be trusted with worldly wealth can also be trusted with true riches, spiritual blessing, and whoever is dishonest with worldly wealth will also be dishonest with spiritual truths.
If you are not using the money and possessions God has given you in a way that pleases him, you are depriving yourself of the spiritual blessing God wants to give you.
Do you want to be blessed by God? Do you want to receive in your life God’s blessing? Then use your money and possessions in a way that pleases God.
I have talked before about the power money and possessions have over us. When we share our money and possessions, when we give them away, we shatter the power they have over us and make room for the joy of Christian life. Our giving becomes a joyous act, not a religious obligation.
This is why I focus in my preaching on growing in our understanding of the love of God for us. Money follows our heart and when our heart is given to God, our money will follow.
Be a cheerful giver. I remember a conversation I had with my father and the accountant for our company some years ago. We were having lunch and discussing this subject of giving to the church. Annie and I have given at least 10% ever since we were married and so the accountant began to ask me if a 10% tithe should be taken out before or after taxes. He asked what I would do if I had a tax-deferred investment? Would I tithe from that? He went on and on and finally I said to him, “You’re missing the point. It is not a matter of how much I need to give to fulfill my religious duty. It is a question of how much I can give because of the joy of participating in what God is doing in the world.”
This is what will happen if you are not generous with what God has given you. You will miss out on the blessing of God he has in mind for you, the joy of participating with him in his work in the world. You are the one who will suffer, not God.
John Wesley preached a famous sermon in which he called on Christians to earn all you can. Make as much money as possible. Secondly, save all you can. How little of the money you earned do you need to live on. And thirdly, he challenged Christians to give all you can.
10% is not a limit or a goal. “How much can I give?” is the question, not, “What do I have to give?”
I challenge you to open your heart to God and let go of the treasures of this world to which you cling so tightly.
And God challenges you as well.
Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.