Sermon / Sept 18, 2016 / Luke 16:1-15 / The Shrewd Manager / Pastor Terry Defoe
Our sermon text is found in Luke's gospel, chapter 16. I'm reading verses 14 and 15:
The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight." (N.I.V.)
Grace and peace to you, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
The Bible text I've chosen for this morning is the two verses that follow immediately after Jesus' Parable of the Shrewd Manager - in the 16th chapter of Luke. These verses give us the Pharisee's response to the parable Jesus' assessment of what was hidden in their hearts. The Parable of the Shrewd Manager is one of the most challenging of Jesus' parables to interpret. It's a stewardship parable that speaks of managing resources we have been entrusted with -- for our good and for God's glory. And it speaks of priorities. I pray that God would bless the time we spend in his Holy word this day!
Luke's Gospel is full of parables and stories that help us understand the Christian life. The lesson our Lord wants us to learn this morning comes in the form of a question. So what do you think? Can Christian people learn spiritual lessons from the way non-Christians behave? The parable before us turns our attention to people who have no time for God. You know people like that and I do too. The parable talks about the problems unbelievers get themselves into, and the solutions they work out in response. Back to the question: Can believers learn spiritual lessons from non-Christian people? Absolutely!
A group of Jewish religious leaders, people we know as the Pharisees, heard Jesus' parable that day. They were known for their love of money. These religious leaders were contemptuous of Jesus. They were experts at putting up a false front to mask their avarice and greed. Jesus' parable was about them. But it's really directed to each and every one of us.
So let's take a moment to have a look at the parable. Jesus tells us that there was a rich man who owned a large and profitable business. In our day, we might call him a rich industrialist. This rich man employed a general manager, a person who took on much of the day-to-day responsibility for running the business. The rich man's business was the ancient equivalent of a modern-day wholesaler. Jesus tells us that the rich man depended a great deal on his general manager. He trusted this employee with large sums of money. But, one day, the owner of the business, found out that his general manager was a crook. He called him the man into his office and told him that he no longer had need of his services. The dishonest manager knew in his heart he was wrong. He didn't try to defend himself. Apparently the owner hadn't been keeping close tabs on his manager. He trusted him that much. But the general manager betrayed that trust. He was given just a few days to get things in order. And then he would be out the door. For good!
The dishonest general manager found himself on the horns of a dilemma. He wasn't strong enough for physical labor. And begging, as you would expect, wasn't high on his priority list. You have to remember this was 2000 years ago. People back then had no Unemployment Insurance -- no pension plans. To be unemployed meant that you had to depend on the generosity of friends and loved ones and neighbors or you would starve. If they didn't help you, you were in serious trouble.
The dishonest manager had a sudden flash of inspiration. He knew what he'd do! During his last few days at work, he'd look out for his own interests. After all, he had an uncertain future to think about. And so the dishonest manager called in a few of his boss's customers and renegotiated their contracts.
"Have I got a deal for you!" he said.
He was in a hurry, because he knew that he would soon to be out of a job. He offered several of his boss's biggest customers large reductions in the amount they owed. These reductions, scholars tell us, were equivalent to 16 month's wages for a worker of that day. Today, that amount might be in the neighborhood of $70,000. The manager offered these reductions hoping that by doing so he would create some I.O.U.'s for himself. He wanted to feather his nest while he still had the chance. He wanted to take advantage of his position just one more time. He wanted these people to remember him after he had left his job. He had scratched their back. Now they could return the favor.
It's clear that the manager hadn't learned his lesson. He had been accused of being a crook. And now, in the last few hours of his employment, he did more of the same crooked behavior. He took advantage of his boss's trust one last time. He carefully set up a situation where the customers felt they owed him something. He wanted them to feel obligated to take him in and look after him while he was "between jobs." It seems that he felt no guilt or remorse for what he'd done. There was no repentance on his part.
It's here, of course, that we come to the most surprising part of the story. When the business owner heard what his dishonest manager had done, instead of being furious with him, he CONGRATULATED him! Now don't get me wrong -- the business owner wasn't impressed with his employee's honesty or integrity. That's quite clear. He still thought of the manager as a crook. That's why he fired him. But he was impressed with the manager's "street smarts," if you will. The hired manager might have been a crook, but he was an intelligent, resourceful crook! He knew he was in a bind. And he did his best, in his own criminal way, to look after himself, to build a few bridges he could cross later.
Jesus' parable is concerned with two things. One is SHREWDNESS. And the other is FAITHFULNESS. In Luke chapter 16, verse 8, Jesus tells us that the rich man commended the manager for his shrewdness. The word "shrewd" can have a positive meaning or a negative one. It can refer to someone who is sly, and crafty, and scheming. Or, it can refer to someone who is astute, and discerning, and perceptive.
Jesus said, in Luke 16, verse 8:
"For the people of this world are more SHREWD in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light." (N.I.V.)
Jesus is telling us that unbelievers are often more discerning and perceptive -- more shrewd -- than most Christians. The dishonest manager in Jesus' parable was in a bind, there's no doubt about it. But you have to admit that he was able to size up the situation, come up with a plan, and implement his plan. He faced the facts, brutal as they were. He knew he was in trouble. And so he acted for his own benefit. Our world is obviously full of crooks. And successful crooks are often very intelligent people. In the parable before us this morning, Jesus points out the irony of intelligence wasted through sin and selfishness. He also points out that Christians often fail to use their intelligence to its fullest extent. Being a Christian is no excuse for being mentally lazy. God calls believers in His Son to think clearly and decisively about life's problems and challenges. We need to use our intelligence to size up situations and make plans that are going to work to help us fulfill the Great Commission of reaching out to the whole world with the Good News of the Savior. If that crooked manager could be that decisive to save his own neck, can't we, as God's people, be that much more decisive in doing the work that God has placed before us?
There are people all around us in this world who give their all for their work, for their profession, for their move up the ladder of success. There are people all around us who work long hours to achieve their goals. They often neglect their family in their quest for success. Some burn themselves out. If non-Christian people are willing to do work that hard for questionable ends, surely Christ's followers ought to be willing to give him their very best effort.
Luke 16, verse 9:
"I tell you," Jesus says, "use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings." (N.I.V.)
"Use your worldly wealth to gain friends," Jesus says. In other words, "Make your resources -- your time, and talents and treasures -- work for you in the Kingdom of God." It's as if Jesus is saying,
The general manager in the story was a steward for his boss. He looked after resources that were not his own. He was put into a position of trust. And you, my friends, are stewards too. God has given you material wealth. He has given you intelligence. He has given you special abilities to build up the Church and help it grow. He wants you to use these things for your good and for His glory.
So Christians, according to Jesus, are to use their material wealth to "gain friends" for the Lord. That means to use our God-given resources to support mission work all over the world, and right here at home. That means to use our resources to preach the gospel through the Lutheran Hour or help people through Canadian Lutheran World Relief. The "friends" we gain that way are friends in the truest sense of the word -- friends for now and for eternity -- fellow believers in the Kingdom of God.
So Jesus wants His disciples to use their intelligence for the sake of the Kingdom. But shrewdness is not enough. Christian "shrewdness" is always put to work in the context of trustworthiness. It's true. The crooked general manager was a shrewd man. But he certainly wasn't trustworthy. Our Lord calls us to be both. Jesus says, in verses 10 and 11:
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. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? (N.I.V.)
A trustworthy person has integrity. A trustworthy person is that way when people are watching, and when no one's around. A newspaper clipping in my files says:
The rear door of an armored truck that carried several bags of cash swung open on a downtown Columbus Ohio freeway sending at least half a million dollars in U.S. bills fluttering over the roadway. Motorists who stopped to help clean up the cash created a traffic jam. Several tickets were issued to drivers and others as they scurried to pick up some cash. One passing motorist, however, a man by the name of Melvin Kiser, picked up a bundle containing $57,000, and turned it over to the police.
Jesus says that those who can be trusted with material things can also be trusted with valuable spiritual things. Those who handle material things with integrity will handle God's spiritual blessings the same way. They'll be good stewards of God's Word, the Bible. They won't change it's message of Law and Gospel. They'll tell people that God hates sin -- that's the Law -- and that he loves sinners enough to have His Son die on the cross for their sins -- and that's that Gospel. They'll be good stewards of the Sacraments -- baptism and the Lord's Supper, the means by God's blessings are delivered to us. God's Word and the Sacraments are our most valuable possessions. We don't own them. They belong to the Lord. We are stewards of God's Word and the Sacraments. We use them to "make friends" for God's family, the church.
Notice what Jesus says next. Verse 13:
No one can serve TWO MASTERS. 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.
Both God and money demand exclusive devotion. Both want our full, undivided attention. And so, as God's people in Christ, we are faced with a choice. Which is to be given first place in our life? It has to be one or the other. It can't be both. The dishonest manager in the parable bowed down before a harsh and demanding "god." That "god" robbed him of his dignity and his freedom. For believers in Jesus Christ, our time, talents, and treasures are a means to an end and not ends in themselves. We use our resources -- material and spiritual resources -- to win friends for the Kingdom, to bring people into a saving relationship with our Lord Jesus. God will someday call us to give an account of our stewardship -- our management -- of all these things. It was Jesus himself who so wisely said,
Seek FIRST God's kingdom and his righteousness, and all these material things will be yours as well.
Jesus' parable teaches us that God wants us to be shrewd -- to use every bit of our intelligence to serve Him and others. And it also teaches us to be faithful and trustworthy with God's rich blessings, including our salvation in Christ. Jesus' parable reminds us, once again, that everything we have ultimately comes from God. May God enable us to be shrewd and trustworthy, too. AMEN.
And now may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in this same Christ Jesus! Amen.
Let's Pray: DEAR HEAVENLY FATHER -- Enable us to give you our full and exclusive loyalty. Enable us to use all of our resources and abilities and intelligence to reach out with the Good News so that we may bring glory and honor to you alone. We pray in Jesus' name. AMEN.