I moved to London in 1996 to start university, and after my first year in halls of residence I moved to rent somewhere with some friends in the east end. One of my other friends at the same time, aged 19, bought a house in Bow, ex-council house, not lovely but quite big and a good location, and he lived there for a few years with friends. I remember thinking ‘wow, that seems a bit of a headache, having to be a landlord’, boilers breaking, medical students spilling beer or vomiting on the carpets. 3 years later when he qualified as a doctor, he bought another house, this time a Victorian terrace. The first one had cost him 70k, and the second 140k. He held onto them for 10yrs or so, and made an absolute fortune when he sold them. Both of them had gone up 7-8x in value – he was a millionaire, aged 25. It had been a very shrewd investment. At that point, I was wishing I’d done the same.
Well, in this parable called the ‘shrewd manager’, Jesus looks at what is a shrewd investment.
So in this parable we’ve got this dishonest manager who works for a very rich man. His role would have been to manage all his affairs, to invest his money, make positive returns, to run his household, to organise his staff, to sort out his pension – a bit like a Carson from Downton Abbey or an Alfred to Bruce Wayne (Batman)… But it transpires that this man has been lazy and wasteful (v.1 – he was ‘accused of wasting his possessions’) and the master finds out about this.
So v.2 the master calls him in, asks him to explain himself and gives him his marching orders, but with a 3-mth notice period ‘you cannot be my manager any longer’.
This is a very big deal in those days; it is likely that he would have lived with his master, so losing his job would also have made him homeless. There would have been no job seekers allowance, no benefits system. So the manager is clearly very anxious, v3. He says to himself 'what shall I do now?' I am in my 50s - I am not going to be able to dig for a living, I’ve got a bad back, and I certainly don’t want to start begging – that’d be way too humiliating, imagine my friends walking past – how awkward.
So he comes up with a cunning plan v.4 ‘I know what I’ll do so that when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses’.
In Black Adder, Baldrick, would often say these words ‘I have a cunning plan’, which was always entertaining as the cunning plan was usually so stupid…
And similarly what this manager decides to do is so outrageous, he calls in some of the people who owe his master money.
The first man comes in – you can picture how they are feeling, queueing up outside the managers office, perhaps fearful that they’ll be demanded to pay the debt in full, maybe thrown in prison if they can’t do it.
The first man owes 800 gallons of olive oil - that makes a lot of salad dressing, and that amount is thought to have cost around 3y wages for an average man – but to his surprise, the manager slashes the debt by 50% v.6 ‘take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it 400’. You can imagine him stifling a shriek of delight, as he quickly gets his chequebook out before the offer is withdrawn.
The second man comes in, he owes even more: a thousand bushels of wheat, that would have cost the equivalent of 9y salary. And again this man is given a huge discount – this time 20% off.
But as each of these men leave, the manager hands them his business card, ‘by the way, I’m looking for a job…’
Can you see what the manager is doing? He is following through with his plan in v.4, he is acting to make friends for himself: so that ‘people will welcome me into their houses’.
Now perhaps the thing that makes this parable slightly quirky and hard to relate to is the rather unexpected response of the Master in v.8 'the master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly’ – really, commended him? We would have expected the Master to be outraged. His dishonest lazy manager in the last few days of his work for him has ripped him off and lost him a lot more money.
I recently been watching the American drama The House of Cards, and it’s about a politician named Francis Underwood rise to power. His strategies to make it to the top are not very commendable – they include bribery, corruption, murder, blackmail… He is successful and his methods are effective, but as you watch, he’s so unpleasant, you’re unsure if you want him to succeed or not.
Similarly here, the hero of the story, the person we are called to emulate and copy in some way, is also not likeable… so why is Jesus telling this parable, what are we to learn from it?
I have 3 points that I think Jesus makes in the passage: a better perspective, better stewards, a better master.
The first point: ‘A better perspective’ v.8-9
But what is he commended for?
v.8: ‘The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly’ - what he is doing is using money in the present to secure his future after this job is finished. The parallel for us is to use our money and resources in this life to invest in our future; our eternal futures.
We get this from v.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’
What he is commended for is that he puts money into something more valuable – friendships.
There are no investments, bonds, ISAs or money from property that will really last, Jesus spells this out in v.9: ‘when it is gone’, the only thing we can take with us into the new creation is people. Jesus is encouraging us to put our money towards things that will last forever, things might result in people coming to heaven.
One man who did this was John Laing. He was in the construction industry and when he died in 1978, his firm was one of the largest in the country – you’ve probably seen the signs on new buildings: Laing O’Rourke (it merged after his death). His firm built the M1 motorway and Sizewell nuclear power station.
When he was in his 20s, he made a vow that as his personal income increased, his standard of living would stay the same and it would be his giving which would increase.
He never talked about his giving but we know now that he helped to bankroll what we now call UCCF (a charity that works to make Jesus known in universities).
He also built churches, theological colleges, pastors homes - all for free.
He would drop into the UCCF offices each week, asking the same question:
'How many students have become Christians this week?'
When John Laing died in 1978 his firm was worth millions and millions
But his own estate was worth a paltry £381
He was investing in something far more worthwhile – he was investing his money to help secure people many people’s eternal homes.
So how are we to use our money and resources? Jesus is encouraging us to use them for things that will really last – that means using our money, our resources and our homes towards things that will develop relationships where we can share the good news of the gospel, maybe that involves opening up our homes to our friends, or eating out with people, being generous and kind with what we have, showing that we value them and time with them is important to us and worth investing in. It might also involve giving our money to organisations and charities that are working to make Jesus known in this country and around the world.
v.9: ‘use your worldly wealth to gain friends, so that when it is gone, you may be welcomed into eternal dwellings’
Can you imagine the welcome that John Laing received into heaven from all those he helped to bring to Christ through his generous giving. You probably wouldn’t hear many people talking about this sort of investment as ‘shrewd’ in today’s society, would you.
Jim Elliott, was an American missionary to South America, and he was killed by a tribe there that he was working with, he said: ‘He is no fool to give up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose’ rpt
The Cambridge dictionary’s definition of shrewdness is ‘the ability to judge people and situations well and make good decisions’. Surely this is shrewd business, to use our resources to invest in the eternal futures of those around us.
Have you ever tried to imagine the concept of eternity? I find it quite hard to get my head around – it will never end, everything we know here in this life is temporary and will come to an end. But imagine the new creation, eternity in paradise, a world of perfect friendships, love, never any sadness, crying or pain and we’ll be with our Lord, and this will continue for ever – would we consider this to be shrewd. When we are there, we will never for one moment regret giving generously of our time, resources and money to the eternal futures of other people.
What is the reason that we have this better perspective
Well, it is the Lord Jesus Christ -he embodies the message of verse 9
Here is the author of Creation, the eternal Son of God
All riches are his, all power belongs to him
And yet he gave up his home in heaven and lived and died among us. He clothed his power with weakness.
All so that we might become friends with God
And enjoy an eternal home with him
So that’s the first point, a better perspective – that’s the longest one.
-the second point, I’ve titled Better stewards v.10-12
So in this parable, the Master clearly represents God, and the manager represents people entrusted with God’s possessions.
The word for manager here is the Greek word: oikanamos, which means manager or steward. So the point Jesus makes is a reminder that we are stewards of God’s possessions.
I wonder whether we really believe this- if we really believe that everything we have is God’s, not ours.
If I’m honest, when there’s a sermon on money & giving, some of the emotions evoked would be those of guilt and discomfort, as I think about what more I can spare from my meagre bank balance?
I say to myself: ‘I earned this money, I worked very hard for it’
we need to remember…
Who gave us our jobs? Who gave us health so we can do our work? Who gave us our skills/intelligence? Who placed us in these circumstances? - you can be sure that you if we were born in S.Sudan, that we wouldn’t have the same level of wealth.
No, the point Jesus is making in this parable is that we are stewards of God’s possessions - everything we have belongs to god, and that he is entrusting these things to us for a time to see if we can be trustworthy and responsible with them.
see v.10 ‘whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, whoever is dishonest with little will be dishonest with much’
It’s almost as if this life is a test – can we be trusted to use well the things God has loaned us in the 70-80yrs that we have in this life (maybe less) – v.11 ‘if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches’ – true riches again is speaking about eternity in paradise.
So what does being trustworthy mean?
Well I think this covers our use of money both in terms of honesty and also using it responsibly:
- our honesty – we are to pay people what we owe them, not to swindle people, to be honest with our tax returns – this is a good witness, remember we are managing our masters goods here – we want to give him a good name.
A couple of years ago I was paid a consultancy fee for a day’s work in a private firm who were developing gastroenterology services, and I received a small fee for my work. A few months later I was paid large lump sums on 2 consecutive months – each time I informed them and paid it back – it transpired that they had another R Palmer working there (she had also been paid). Then it happened again two months later… now they were a very big firm, very successful, I don’t think they’d have missed the money, it would have been a drop in the ocean for them, it was very tempting just to see if they noticed… a big test on my honesty. I did pay it back – of course, I was secretly hoping that they’d be so impressed with my integrity, that they’d tell me to keep the cash – they didn’t!
So trustworthiness involves honesty, but also our responsible use of money – we are not to be wasteful – in some circles Christians view money as something evil just to get rid of (asceticism) – well, that’s not right (the manager in the parable was fired for being wasteful)
We are to be wise with money.
It is ok for us to try to earn as much as we can (through honest means), so that we can use it well – money is hugely important for church work.
When this church began we fundraised and raised >100k to develop the church hall, which can be used to serve our local community and to make Jesus known.
Many of you will know that this church is a second generation church plant from St Helens Bishopsgate, which is in the city of London, and has a number of very wealthy bankers in their congregation. Through their generosity, St Helens have planted 13 churches since 2001 to create vibrant bible-teaching churches all around London.
Gospel work is hugely expensive, spending on building and staff and wouldn’t be possible without Christians earning money and using it for eternal purposes.
That’s our second point, we are called to be better stewards, but we do need to beware – always the danger is that money can become our Master, our god, and this brings us onto our final point – ‘A better Master’
Look at v.13: ‘No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.’
Jesus speaks a lot about money in the NT, as it has such potential to tip over from being a good thing God gives us to use well, to something that controls and masters us. This is called idolatry.
Maybe you can recognise times when money can begin to master us.
Tim Keller writes about this in his book Counterfeit Gods:
He talks about there being ‘deep idols’ within our hearts, such as power, approval, comfort or control, which sit beneath the more concrete and visible ‘surface idols’, such as money, spouses, children, careers. He says ‘Some people want lots of money as a way to control their world and life. Such people usually don’t spend much money and live very modestly. They keep it all safely saved and invested, so they can feel completely secure in the world. Others want money for access to social circles and to make themselves beautiful and attractive. These people do spend money on themselves in lavish ways. Other people want money as it gives them so much power over others. In every case, money functions as an idol and yet, because of various deep idols, it results in very different patterns of behaviour’
Can you identify yourself in any of these patterns? I imagine all of us are prone to money becoming our idol at times.
Money is a terrible master – it dictates our status, our significance and our security.
It tells us our status is tied to our job
It tells us our significance is in our pay grade
It tells us our security is in our savings
- and we’ll for ever feel anxious as there will always be others in a better place than us
Steve Jobs was the CEO of Apple - one of the greatest innovators and businessmen of this age – he died in 2011 and some of his final words are quite striking:
“I reached the pinnacle of success in the business world. In others’ eyes, my life is an epitome of success.
However, aside from work, I have little joy. In the end, wealth is only a fact of life that I am accustomed to.
At this moment, lying on the sick bed and recalling my whole life, I realize that all the recognition and wealth that I took so much pride in, have paled and become meaningless in the face of impending death.
In the darkness, I look at the green lights from the life supporting machines and hear the humming mechanical sounds, I can feel the breath of death drawing closer…
Now I know, when we have accumulated sufficient wealth to last our lifetime, we should pursue other matters that are unrelated to wealth…
Should be something that is more important:
Perhaps relationships, perhaps art, perhaps a dream from younger days
Non-stop pursuing of wealth will only turn a person into a twisted being, just like me.
God gave us the senses to let us feel the love in everyone’s heart, not the illusions brought about by wealth.
The wealth I have won in my life I cannot bring with me.
Money is a terrible master.
But God is a good master. For those who are forgiven in Christ, he freely gives to us:
A status in his family: being loved children of God
A significance in his kingdom, being in relationship with our Maker and with one another
A security in heaven, which can never be lost
Lord, we thank you that through the death of your son that you have made us your children and secured for us a wonderful eternal future. We ask for your help, that for the years that you give us here in this world, that we’d be responsible and faithful stewards with the money and resources that you’ve entrusted to us, and keep us from ever allowing it become our master. Help us to be free to give generously in order to help bring others with us to our eternal home with you.