Get Smart (Luke 16:1-15)

How should we make the most of our money for eternal uses? In this sermon Colin Gale unpacks one of Jesus’s parables and his follow up application around our use of money.

Here’s a story I heard on the radio a few years ago about the prospective start of someone’s career. I’ll read it out exactly as I heard it broadcast and later podcast:

This is something I remember from a friend of mine, actually, who went for a job interview and was making such a mess of it, even managed to get the name of the company for which she was interviewing wrong, and it was all going so badly, but she had a classic recovery, when – it was a sales job, and the person who was interviewing her said, “Er, right”, as a kind of last straw, kind of last gasp thing, “here’s an ashtray on the table, sell me the ashtray”. And there was an open window, she picked up the ashtray, threw it out the window, and said “You need an ashtray”, and she got the job.[1]

I laughed when I first heard this, and I see that you too get the point of the story, despite my poor comic timing!

We don’t need to know what company she was applying to join, and whether we approve of the ethics of the business, to understand the point of this story. We don’t have to approve or disapprove of smoking in public places, or worry about whose property the ashtray was, or the health and safety risks involved in throwing it out of an open window, to understand the point of the story.

It really wouldn’t help us to understand the story if we decided to read it as an allegory in which the prospective employer stands for God, the interview stands for the testing he puts us through, and the dramatic disposal of the ashtray stands for, I don’t know, resistance to temptation, because then why would you want another one? All this is unnecessary and unhelpful. But without all this, it’s easy to see the point of the story: the person being interviewed needed the job, time was running out for her, the only thing she found at her disposal was a clever idea, even if it was dubious from a health and safety point of view, an idea which had to be acted on straight away if it was going to stand any chance of working, so she grabbed her opportunity and it worked.

Let me tell you a story I heard from the Bible three minutes ago about the possible end of someone’s career: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you?…you cannot be manager any longer’. The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job…I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses’. So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ ‘Eight hundred gallons of olive oil’, he replied. The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred’.”

It’s only because we’re used to hearing this story read from the Bible that we’re not laughing about it at this point, in secret admiration of the manager for his sheer audacity. To understand the point of this story, we don’t have to know whether the debts owed to the master were fair or unfair, we don’t have to approve or disapprove of the manager’s underhand tactics, or work out how likely or unlikely it would be that the subterfuge would be found out and reversed. To understand the point of this story, it really wouldn’t help us to read it as an allegory in which the master stands for God, the resources he puts at the disposal of the manager stands for everything given to us, and the sleight of hand accounting the manager performs stands for…well, what could it possibly stand for? All this is unnecessary and unhelpful. But without all this, it’s easy to see the point of the story: the manager is going to lose his job and needs another one, time is running out for him, the only thing he found at his disposal was a clever idea, even if it was morally dubious, an idea which had to be acted on straight away if it was going to stand any chance of working, so he grabbed his opportunity and it worked.

“I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.”

There’s a plan of action (I know what I’ll do) in the face of a foreseeable change of circumstances (when I lose my job here) to be assured of future security (people will welcome me into their houses).

And what are we going to do with the point of this story? What purpose did Jesus have in mind in its telling? Luckily, he tells us: “Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

There’s a plan of action recommended here (use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves) in the face of a foreseeable change of circumstances (when it – worldly wealth – is gone) to be assured of future security (you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings).

Let’s spend some time thinking about each of these three points in turn. First, the plan of action. What the manager did, though it was dishonest, made perfect sense within the frame of reference of his world. In Roman antiquity, in politics, business and society, monetary exchange forged and sustained the bonds of (quote) friendship (unquote). Patronage, networking, and patterns of reciprocal obligation were the logic of this world, and the currency that underpinned everything was money. Within the framework of this logic, it was smart of the manager to use money in dealing with his own kind, those for whom money talked.

What lesson is there here for those Jesus calls “the people of the light”? “Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves”. At first sight, this plan of action doesn’t seem to depart much from Roman social convention, but there is one critical difference. As far as Jesus is concerned, the use of worldly wealth by the people of the light does not create a stratified network of mutual obligation. His followers are not to use worldly wealth to pull people into a web of reciprocal benefit. There must be no such expectation on their part.

“When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or your relatives, or your rich neigbours”, Jesus says elsewhere (Luke 14). “If you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” “Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves”. Friends to whom we may show unconditional love, not allies from whom we may expect a return in loyalty, or in preferential treatment, or in reciprocation of gifts. Use money, if you have any to use, to promote true friendship with those most in need, something of far greater value and significance than money. That is the plan of action Jesus uses the parable of the shrewd manager to recommend.

Let’s look secondly at the foreseeable change of circumstances which Jesus uses this parable to warn of. In the parable the manager is given advance warning of the loss of his livelihood. Likewise, we are reminded that there will be a time in the foreseeable future when worldly wealth will be gone- gone in the sense that on the day we die it will be absolutely irrelevant to us, because we can’t take it with us, and gone in the sense that one day God will inaugurate a new age in which money will count for nothing. Many people prefer not to think about the fragility of their own lives and the life of the world around them. But Jesus calls out this way of thinking in three ways. First, he says that “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”. There’s a movement here from the smaller to the greater, which lends tremendous significance to all our responsibilities, no matter how small or menial or un-noticed they may appear to us to be. In the grand scheme of things, and in the sight of God, none of our responsibilities are small, or menial or un-noticed.

Second, Jesus says that “If you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?” The contrast here is between what our Bible translation calls ‘worldly’ wealth, but might more accurately be translated ‘dishonest’ or ‘false’ wealth, and true riches. It is deceptive because one day it will be gone. It promises a lot in terms of security and happiness, but does not deliver. Here is a recommendation not to renounce worldly wealth, but to use it in a trustworthy way.

Third, Jesus says that “if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?” Generally speaking, we have been brought up to believe, and are kept going on, the principle that whatever we possess, is ours because we worked for it and earned it. That way of thinking acknowledges neither the past, in which God saw fit to made us stewards of his good earth, nor the future, in which we will be made fit for heaven not because we deserve to be, but through the unmerited favour of God in Jesus Christ. In the age to come, when worldly wealth is gone, the only property we will want or need to call our own is that which is given to us by God, and that is a life lived in all its fullness in the kingdom of God.

I’ve talked about Jesus’ recommended plan of action (use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves) and I’ve talked about the foreseeable change to our circumstances (when worldly wealth is gone). Now let’s think about our assurance of future security (you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings). In the parable, the manager did what he did in order to be welcomed into the houses of his master’s creditors, and although what he did was dishonest, at least it was clever. Even his master could see that, and commended him for it. He understood money, just as the person being interviewed in my story demonstrated a clear grasp of marketing.

What is the lesson here for “the people of the light”? The ways of the world are one thing, and God’s ways of working are another. God’s way of working is demonstrated in the life of Jesus, in his eating and drinking with undeserving sinners. God’s way of working is demonstrated in the teachings of Jesus, by which he seeks and saves those who are lost. God’s way of working is demonstrated in the death and resurrection of Jesus, by which the evil within humankind was exposed, confronted and absorbed, but was not allowed to have the final say.

Our assurance of future security isn’t dependent on an arrangement whereby we scratch God’s back, and he scratches ours. The future security of God’s eternal welcome itself rests wholly on his grace, which we see at work in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, it is possible to possess that future security without necessarily knowing the assurance of it. The assurance of that future security rests on our learning, under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit, to devote ourselves to a life of love and service to God.

“No servant can serve two masters”, our gospel reading says. “Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” Money talks, and money is the language of this present age. But love also talks, and it is the language of the age to come. Our best assurance of future security in the age to come, and our best preparation for it, lies in learning to speak and listen to the language of that age, which is that of love.

This is a plan of action that mirrors God’s own way of working. In the life and death of Jesus, God himself spent the riches of his glory to gain friends who were undeserving of his favour, but to whom he nevertheless showed costly and unconditional love. Not only does he call us to imitate this heavenly love, but by his Holy Spirit he inspires this love, in this world today. The manager understood money; the interviewee understood marketing; and in readiness for God’s new age we must understand love. Amen.

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