The Dishonest Manager

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In our studies in Luke's Gospel we have come to a famous Parable of Jesus, The Dishonest Manager – a very appropriate parable for Advent Sunday, when traditionally we think about Christ' second coming and those four last things, death, judgment, heaven and hell. So will you now open your Bibles at Luke 16:1-13. And I want to speak first, about The Parable itself; secondly, about The Lessons from the parable; and, thirdly, about Money's Use. First, then...

The Parable

By way of introduction, let me say that this is one of the most difficult of Jesus' Parables to understand and interpret. Perhaps someone is saying, "what then is the use of this Parable for us today if it is so hard to understand?" Well, the answer is given in a remark of Mark Twain, who, sure, was no great Bible lover. But on one occasion he said this – I won't attempt an American accent:

"it is not [or 'it ain't, to quote verbatim'] those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bothers me, it is the parts that I do understand."

And that is so important. The point is that the Bible is clear enough, negatively to provoke Twain and positively to challenge and encourage believers. And that is nowhere truer than in this parable, as we shall see. So how do you understand something of what the Dishonest Manager did? What can we say about him? First, he was an estate manager of someone like the Duke of Northumberland. But somehow he carelessly or dishonestly managed the estate and incurred significant losses. Verse 1 says, the man was "wasting" his master's "possessions":

"There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions."

We are to take this as a true accusation. The manager never defended himself or contradicted it. He accepted the charge. So he was fired - verse 2:

"He [his master] 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.'"

So the Master wanted final accounts. He wanted the manager's successor to have a clean sheet with which to start. Then we come to verses 3-7:

"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. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.' So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he said to the first, 'How much do you owe my master?' He said, 'A hundred measures of oil.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.' 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.'"

What do you make of all that? The man is obviously not wanting a labouring job on being sacked, and has too much self-respect to go on the streets to beg, as verse 3 tells us. So he has decided what to do, namely this: make people indebted to him and friendly with him, so that, when he soon has no tied house and home, he has at least somewhere to live - verse 4:

"I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses."

Then verses 5-7 tell us exactly what he did next. He made these clients or tenants rewrite their debts to a lesser amount. His solution was simple - to reduce the amounts of money people were owing the estate (oil and wheat, by the way, could be used in those days like we use money). Then the master's clients with reduced debts would have been pleased with the windfall and with this manager. Now, on the one hand, this may have been a straight fiddling of the books with the clients aiding and abetting the deceit. But would that have been classed as "shrewd" or "clever"? Anybody can just lie and be dishonest. So what is an alternative explanation?

One explanation comes from the fact that strict Jews refused to have interest on loans. But some got round things by having a commission added to the loan. And this extra could be taken by the manager as his fee and on which he lived. So, if this was happening here, what this manager was doing was not robbing his master but forfeiting his own commission. The dishonesty of the manager must then refer to the charges mentioned in verse 1 and him wasting his master's possessions. It does not refer to these transactions which were like a shrewd insurance scheme. Be all that as it may - whatever the analysis of his actions, one thing is crystal clear from the first part of verse 8:

"[somehow, for whatever reason] the master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness."

And the "master" could be Jesus or the master of the manager. Either way, the point is the same. What is being commended is not the manager's dishonesty which is recognized but his "shrewdness" in planning for his future. And the value of such foresight is the lesson Jesus is teaching here. So whatever was going on, this is clear. The dishonest manager is being commended for his shrewdness in taking action in the light of his future needs, and keeping in mind the hard realities he will be facing, in the future. So that brings us, secondly, to...

The Lessons

Look at the second part of verse 8. This is a vital lesson for us all to accept. And remember it is Jesus teaching:

"… the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light."

Here is a real problem not of interpretation but of fact. Remember, too, at this point Jesus is especially talking to his disciples. Go back to verse 1:

"He [Jesus] also said to the disciples."

But as you can see from verse 1 of chapter 15, Jesus has been talking up to now to tax collectors, sinners and Pharisees. So this parable and its lessons are especially for the committed, "the disciples". Jesus is now saying to them that, on average, pagans and non-believers have no thoughts beyond this present life. But they are more shrewd and strategic with their money and possessions for their futures than believers ("the sons of light") are for their futures, which involve eternity and heaven. And Jesus is so fired up about this, as you can see from those four opening words of the next verse, verse 9: "And I tell you …" He is being absolutely emphatic. It is as though he were saying, "if you forget everything else, remember this." And what is "this"? It's the command in verse 9:

"make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings."

Here Jesus is telling his disciples to make use of "unrighteous wealth" (meaning money especially) to make friends for the world to come and in respect of those future "eternal dwellings". But what precisely does that mean? Let me give you five considerations.

First, what Jesus is not meaning. He is not meaning "use money in unrighteous ways" or "or use money acquired through unrighteous methods" to achieve good purposes. Certainly not. For he is only calling money or wealth "unrighteous" because in this fallen world it is always a temptation. By itself money is neutral, but its acquisition (how you get it), and then its use (how you use it), can so often be unrighteous or immoral. So because of this possible misuse, the word "unrighteous" needs to attach itself to the word "money" as a permanent warning. It is a bit like the word "poison" stuck to a bottle of liquid week killer that is OK, if used properly, but not if taken as a drink!

Secondly, what Jesus also is not saying is that you can buy your way into heaven. For no amount of money or good works is enough for that! Christ's death, alone, can pay the debt of your and my sin. But then, thirdly, Jesus positively seems to mean this in verse 9: you are to use your wealth to prepare for your eternal future by helping others – "friends" – to prepare for their eternal future also in those eternal dwellings. So you need to use your brains as well as your money to work "shrewdly" or strategically for the health and growth of God's church and kingdom. This is both for now but especially in the light of your eternal future. And, fourthly, this need to prepare is because one day money and wealth will "fail", if not through an economic crash, certainly at your death. 1 Timothy 6.7 says:

"We brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world."

Those are words we regularly use at Funeral services. So in the light of all that, Jesus says, verse 9:

"make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings."

So when money fails (particularly at death), because your resources have helped people trust in Christ and materially, you will have "friends" in heaven. And, fifthly, to see how this works out with someone who lacked such "friends", you can look at the end of Luke 15. You read there of a man who had wealth but he obviously had used his money unrighteously. This is in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus which looks beyond death and judgment and speaks of heaven and hell. It tells how when the Rich Man died, he had not even one friend to "receive him [or greet or welcome him] into the eternal dwellings." Rather, we read, he himself ended up in Hades and in torment. Lazarus, on the other hand, was the poor beggar at his gate whom the Rich Man had ignored during his lifetime and not helped with his riches. But he now sees Lazarus "far off" at "Abraham's side" and obviously happy but across a "great chasm".

Chapter 16 verse 9, then, about spending money to make friends for eternity, seems to presuppose and anticipate the Second Coming of Jesus, Judgment Day and the final Judgment. So in the light of that, you need to make sure you are not like that the Rich Man. First you need to be right with God yourself, through getting to the point where …

"you confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead" (Romans 10: 9).

Then in this life you are to be strategic and godly with your money now, so that your money helps others materially but also spiritually and helps win them for Christ, ultimately to be in heaven in those eternal dwellings to welcome you. Exactly how you spend money to make friends for eternity, works out for different individuals, depends on your resources and a host of other factors including whether you are economically more like the Rich Man or Lazarus. But the gist of Jesus teaching is clear enough. It really is a command to use your money to further God's kingdom, that benefits others and yourself, and to outsmart the pagan world in doing so. Commenting on verse 9 and its focus on planning for our eternal future, F F Bruce, a great New Testament scholar, writes this:

"A man or woman who constantly remembers that they will have to render an account of their stewardship of these things [money and possessions] when he appears before the tribunal of Christ, will be less inclined to expend them in a worldly manner."

So that brings us thirdly, to...

Money's Use

How do you spend your money and use your wealth? How have you or are you responding to the JPC and St Joseph's Gift Week? When this series was devised I didn't know this parable of the Dishonest Manager would be the set passage just after the Gift Week. It seems providential. For it is so relevant because our giving is strategic. It is to enable the work at Jesmond and St Joseph's to continue paying its way in helping to "make friends" for the gospel in a desperately needy society, spiritually speaking. Yes, this work is strategic.

The cost of our work is just under £1.3 million. We praise God that our office predicts that if people continue their regular giving, just over £1.2 million will have been given by the end of December. But £85,000 has been needed to pay our way and make up the predicted shortfall. Thank God for the just under £70,000 (including Gift Aid) that has been given so far. Thank God that while not yet quite there, we are nearly there. And the work is seen to be strategic when you put those sums we need into the context of the billions that are being spent on so much in this country and in this city on what is entirely Godless and often anti-God. By comparison tiny amounts are spent on Christ and his kingdom. For example, with regard to our children and young people, even at Jesmond and St Joseph's just 100s of pounds per child per year is the cost of our children's and youth work. But its 1000s of pounds per child per year through our taxes for their secular schooling, where the Christian world view and faith is often being diluted or minimized. So bear those facts in mind as you think about the challenge of verses 10-12 where Jesus says:

"One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful with the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own?"

Again this relates to eternity. True, there is much we do not understand about eternity, heaven and hell, and so some of the allusions in those verses. But that that shouldn't surprise you. Deuteronomy, chapter 29 verse 29 in the Old Testament says this:

"… the secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever."

And Paul in the New Testament said in 1 Corinthians 13.12:

"now we see in a mirror dimly, but then [when Christ returns] face to face."

But what has been revealed by Jesus both through his Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 and of his Parable of the 10 Minas in Luke 19 is this. His faithful followers will be rewarded in heaven one day by having a great inheritance. And this will correlate with how they have stewarded what has been entrusted to them in this life. And by comparison with the immensity of what they will have in heaven, what they are stewarding in this life is tiny. In Luke chapter 19 the servant who had made the nobleman's 1 mina into 10, was given authority over 10 cities. And the one who had made his 1 mina into 5, was given authority over 5 cities. That illustrates how our God is a great giver. And he wants to give you infinitely more in heaven than he has given you on earth. 1 mina is about £6000 at today's prices. So think of that as your stewardship in this life. But in heaven God is wanting to translate that into the equivalent of cities worth billions of pounds more, and with no worries or cares and with exciting responsibilities. Yes, this is imagery in a parable. But this is how Jesus wants to stimulate your imagination as you think of heaven. For there, all are winners. God is praised and others and yourself benefit. So how foolish not to be a faithful steward now. How suicidally and eternally foolish not to trust Christ in the first place.

There certainly seems to be an allusion to that inheritance, or whatever those cities represent, in verses 10-12 of Luke 16:

"One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful with the unrighteous wealth [understand: 'in this life'], who will entrust to you the true riches [understand: 'in the age to come']? And if you have not been faithful with that which is another's [understand: 'God's gifts to you now to steward in this life'], who will give you that which is your own [understand: 'that heavenly inheritance']?

But perhaps someone says, "how can I be as faithful, as I should be, with all that God has entrusted to me in this life, including my money?" Well, Jesus could say, "think about this – the conclusion to the parable" and verse 13:

"No servant can serve two masters, for 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 God and money."

So I conclude with two related questions: Question, one, have you noticed that Jesus said, "you cannot [not 'should not' but 'cannot'] serve God and money"? And question two, who this morning needs to put God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, first in their life and not money?

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