The Wise Manager

Luke 16:1-13; I Tim 2: 1-7

Today is Stewardship Sunday across the Kangaroo Island Linked Congregations of the Uniting Church so it seems appropriate that we take some time to talk about money.  At first glance it may seem strange that we’d want to talk about the Shrewd Manager in this context, but this one of those stories which is printed in red in the Bible; it is the words of Jesus and so it is worth taking a look at.  There are two traditions around this reading from Luke, two ways in which various commentators and preachers of scripture over the past five hundred years or so have grappled with what appears to be a difficult set of teachings from Jesus.  Why would God-made-Man tell us a story about rewarding dishonesty in business?  So let’s see where the traditions each lead us and where they leave us.  Remember as we go along that this is the Bible: you can’t argue that it’s some weird idea from a self-help book.  I didn’t buy some random book in the Koorong money aisle or at some weird Pentecostal convention; this is what the Bible reads in several English versions.

The manager in this story is a paid servant and is probably working for an absentee landlord.  While the boss is off living it up in his villa in Caesarea our man is living in the manager’s flat above the office and is running the daily accounts and investments.  News has reached Caesarea that things are not good in the business and the boss has decided to take action.  There is no evidence in the story that the servant-manager has been dishonest, more that he has been careless.  Luke uses the same Greek word here to describe how the servant-manager has acted as he used to describe the activities of the prodigal son in the previous chapter.  He has been wasteful, inept.  It is then, with his job and his manicure on the line, that the servant-manager becomes wise.  He uses his position to make friends, and here’s where those two traditions I spoke of earlier begin to diverge.

  1. The servant-manager cuts the debts of those beholden to his master.  One hundred measures of oil become fifty, one hundred measures of grain become eighty.  Tradition one says that what the servant-manager is doing is removing the interest from a loan.  The debtors are required to pay back the master’s principle, but the interest is written off by the astute work of the servant-manager.  This would be a godly act since under Hebrew Law the charging of interest is illegal, and if the master were to push for charges against the servant-manager he’d be in trouble with the priests for charging interest in the first place.  This is what used to be called “the sin of usury” and the compulsion to not charge interest is still a basic principle for Islamic businesses.  So not only does the man make true friends of his business associates, and ensure himself of a cushy place to flop when he’s finally evicted by the boss, he also acts in accordance with God’s higher law that to enslave people to debt under exorbitant rates of interest is morally wrong.  Look at the oil, one hundred measures is reduced to fifty.  That’s a 100% interest rate.  Even the grain carried a 25% loading.  The master is happy because he gets his principle returned, he doesn’t actually lose anything, and he admires the shrewd action of the servant in covering his own backside under the law.  “Yeah, okay, you got me, now get lost” says the master with a sly grin.  So, getting back to Jesus’ point, the remission of interest is an act of grace and an act of godliness against the money-focussed practices of the day.  Therefore the servant-manager is shrewd and just, and not dishonest at all.   That sounds more like something Jesus would say doesn’t it?
  1. Tradition two says that the above is all rubbish and that the servant-manager was probably completely on the take from the outset; by reducing the debts he was simply saving his own backside with no sense of grace toward the law of God or toward his debtors.  He’s using his master’s wealth, even after he’s been given his notice, to secure his future.  Once a crook, always a crook, but at least this crook is a good crook and he gets away with it.  In this tradition it’s not the master of the servant-manager who commends the way he has acted, it is Jesus “the Master” who commends the behaviour.  Have a look at verse eight; is it “the master” or is it “the lord”.  The same word “kyrios” is used, the word we use in Kyrie Eleison or “Lord have Mercy”.  Needless to say this tradition puts Jesus himself in the story, commending a crook for excelling in his crookedness.  What do we think of that?

Make no mistake, this is not a lesson on ethics, it is a lesson on money.  Verse one says that Jesus was speaking to his disciples when he told this story.  It’s something he wanted his own followers to know.  In the second half of verse eight he says that they (which means us) must be shrewd in dealing with their own generation, the people who live alongside them regardless of how old they are.  (Generation is not an age-group thing.) The followers of Jesus are to be as shrewd as the people of the world are in their dealings with each other.    Jesus says in verse eleven that if a man or woman has not been faithful in handling worldly wealth how can he or she be trusted with true wealth, the things of God?  Prove by your wise use of money and possessions that you are worthy to be trusted with the power from on high and the responsibilities of being a good steward of God’s possessions, the actual “things of God”.  This is a clear challenge to the Church to be in the world. Yes we are told to be not of the world, to be “worldly” or to “act according to the flesh”, but we are to be in the world all the same.  In other words Jesus says if you can prove capable of looking after yourself in the midst of all that is happening in society around you then you can be trusted with the care of others.

Remember, Jesus is speaking to his disciples.  In the reading from I Timothy Paul is writing to his disciples, the Christians in the city of Ephesus, the third largest city in the Roman Empire.  This is not an injunction to the World to give up chasing the dollar, if anything it’s a spur to local Christians to be penny-wise and pound-sure.

Lesson one from Jesus and Paul is to know what you possess and to use those possessions well.

Lesson two from Jesus is don’t get trapped in a world of debt. Live in such a way that you are free to serve God and not bound so tightly to a mortgage or a lender such that you are not free to witness Christ.  “What if I lose the house?” says the servant-manager.  Use what you have to make friends with those who will take you in, (and be wise enough in business acumen that the house is never at risk).  Make right use of the opportunities of daily life; make wise decisions now which will free you to be all that you need to be when the time comes to be it.  The here-and-now possessions don’t matter in Heaven, but what you did with them does.  Use your things to make friendships.  And pray for your friends and leaders says Paul to Timothy.

But hang on a minute, can that be right?  Doesn’t the Bible say that all money is dishonest?  Well no, what the Bible actually reads is that all money is tainted, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t use it for good.  Pull out a note or a coin from your pocket.  Do you know where that money has been? What was it spent on before you received it?  Does it matter now that it’s in your hands?  What about this money in the bag?  It’s now God’s money, or the Parndana Uniting Church’s at least.  What if this random $20 note was once used to buy drugs, or porn? What if it was once pick-pocketed? Does it matter now that it’s in the bag; now that it’s being used for good?  Once again if we can’t be trusted to use money wisely how can we be trusted with real wealth, with the things that God finds valuable?  Prove your integrity by using well what you have in your hands.

I want to make one thing clear at this point however, before you accuse me of preaching a prosperity gospel, money is not the reward for righteousness.  As I see it money is the means of exchange in our capitalist society, and as such it can be the means for accomplishing righteousness.  Money is the reward of being a good citizen and a good business person and in today’s world we can do nothing without money.  But as John Wesley, among others, has said use all you have to do all the good you can.  Know this clearly; there is no guarantee that if you tithe 15% God is going to give you a Ferrari.  We don’t preach that story in this Church.

Yet even with that Jesus says inverse eight that as well-intentioned as we may be, the World uses its possessions better than we do.  Like the servant-manager we must use our possessions to gain (rather than lose) our desired future as it suggests in verse nine. So what future do we desire?  Do you want loneliness in a big house, or a well fed and educated African village?  Do you want the only Ferrari on Kangaroo Island, or do you want to see a vibrant and active Church serving Kangaroo Island such that no man, woman or child goes to sleep hungry or cold and every one of them knows that they are loved by God?

I wonder how the servant-manager on the brink of dismissal for carelessness suddenly became so wise.  Did he perhaps get to keep his job after all?  Perhaps his master’s reputation was so enhanced by the servant-manager’s gracious arrangement with the debtors that it was to the enhanced good-will of the business to keep him on.  The way we use our Master’s resources makes our Master look good.  Jesus takes people’s attitude to money as a means of teaching the lesson that discipleship must be whole-hearted.  Verse ten tells us that faithfulness is no accident; good stewardship takes practice and effort.  As verse thirteen says one can be whole-hearted in the service of God, or the service of stacking up possessions for the sake of possessing them, but not both.  We can have God and have money, but we can only serve one.  Who is your master, God or stuff?  Who is your servant, God or stuff?

In his letter to the young leader Timothy, Paul instructs him to live well, to live quietly, and to ask God for all that he might need in terms of wellness and peace.  In the same way we desire to live in such a way that we are not encumbered by anything, but are free to give all our time and talents to God’s purposes of seeing the world come to know the Prince of Peace; the God who has no lack.  Paul instructs the Ephesians to pray for every living person that each will come to know the fullness of God’s saving grace.  Pray especially for the heads of government that they will rule securely and that their subjects may live comfortably.  It is much easier to serve God in a nation where there is no civil unrest.  Today we might want to pause and think about the Christians of Syria.  I read in a mission newsletter a few months back of how the Christians of Egypt were praying not that their persecution would stop, but that the men and women in authority over them would come to know Jesus Christ.  “How will Mohammed Morsi know the love of Jesus now that he has been toppled?  He is too angry.”  Isn’t that sad?

In chapter fifteen of Luke’s gospel and the readings directly in front of today’s reading Luke leads us through three stories where what was lost was searched for until it was found.  Time and effort were invested in recovering what was cherished and dear and no effort was too small, not even an effort to the exclusion of everything else.  The shepherd left the 99 to go after the one.  Why would Luke append this passage, about a shonky manager, to the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost or “prodigal” son?  The answer is simple, I believe.  People are what is most dear to God.  There is no better use of our resources than to employ them in reaching and recovering God’s lost sons and daughters, God’s own lost valuable belongings, the ones who belong to God.  All must be found, rescued from what Rev Rob described last week as “what blankets us – financial pressure, health issues, and family concerns – the things that leave us cut-off, floundering, exasperated and alone.”

Think about the joy of the shepherd who recovers his lost sheep, and the woman who finds her lost coin, from those stories.  Think of the joy of the prodigious father at the return of his wayward son.  In grace God allows each of us to experience the joy of the one doing the finding when we invest all we have in recovering God’s lost treasure.  The more we have in our hands, the more we can do for the Kingdom.  This is wise stewardship.

Amen.

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