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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Luke 16:1-13
“Shrewd Dealing”
September 22, 2013 - Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

         Everyone knows about Ponzi schemes, right? A smooth-talking operator gets people to invest in non-existent businesses and properties, then uses later investments to pay off dividends to earlier investors, making it appear as though huge profits are being made. In the process he bilks people out of their life savings. The scheme ultimately collapses and everyone loses everything.

         I searched Google News for “Ponzi” hoping to get one or two current examples for this morning. I was flabbergasted to find at least seven or eight, probably more, current news stories about Ponzi schemers who had been found out and were being indicted, sentenced, investigated or whatever. There  were a former star University of Connecticut basketball player, an attorney, a house candidate and army reservist in Hawaii, a Christian preacher and financial manager, and others. Each of them stole millions of dollars.

         Swindlers should be caught and punished. We all agree on that. So what about Jesus’ story today? We have a manager who is blatantly and obviously dishonest. It says so right in verse 8. But this particular crook was commended. In fact, it sounds like he is supposed to be an example for us. What’s up with that?

         This guy who appears in verse 1 is the business manager for a rich man. We’re to understand he handled all financial matters and property for his master. But the end of verse 1 tells us charges were being brought, like indictment of Ponzi schemers. He’s been “squandering” his master’s property. Maybe bad investment. Maybe skimming to pay his gambling debts. Maybe just lousy at bookkeeping. But something’s not right.

         So in verse 2, the rich man hands the manager a pink slip and fires him. But he first demands an accounting. Where has all his money has gone? What is the current state of his holdings? What happens next is exactly why employers often escort terminated employees immediately out of the building. If left in place, such employees will have an opportunity for more theft, or other mischief. That’s exactly what the rich man’s manager got up to.

         Verse 3 begins a little conversation the manager has with himself. He isn’t strong enough for manual labor and he’s too proud to go on welfare. But while he’s still got his hands on his master’s books, he can create a little golden parachute for himself. That parachute is not another job. It’s a network of people who “may welcome me into their homes.” He’ll be unemployed, but he will have folks he can count on to feed him and give him a place to stay.

         The next few verses, 5 to 7, show the manager’s plan in action. He calls in his master’s best clients, other business people who owe substantial sums. Then he gives them each huge discounts on their loans, as long as they pay off immediately. An olive oil merchant gets a fifty percent reduction. A wheat farmer is invited to pay eighty cents on the dollar. All the debtors get this treatment, a cheap, easy, and dishonest payoff for less than they really owe. You can bet they will be friendly to this guy later.

         Jesus’ big surprise in this story is the punch line at the beginning of verse 8. The rich man doesn’t get angrier with his manager. He doesn’t have him hauled away in chains. Instead, he commends this shady deal. He liked the fact that the manager acted “shrewdly.” Apparently, one shrewd dealer appreciates another.

         Our problem is that Jesus also appreciates this crook, likes the fact he was shrewd. We might say he was cunning or crafty. This guy was a clever crook. He gave away still more of his master’s money in order to soften his personal disaster. It turned out well because his master had a sense of humor and was maybe a crook himself. But what’s that got to do with good, honest people like you and I want to be?

         The bizarre implication in the second half of verse 8 is that we’re supposed to be more like this dishonest manager. Jesus compares the “children of this age,” sinful, dishonest folk like that guy, with “the children of light,” people who’ve come out of the darkness of sin to seek God and His ways. And He implies that the good folks just aren’t shrewd enough, just aren’t very clever in their dealings.

         Verse 9 makes it all worse. Jesus tells us directly to use “dishonest wealth” or “unrighteous money” to make friends so that we can get into “eternal homes.” It sounds like we’re supposed to use ill-gotten gain to buy a ticket to heaven, just like that dishonest manager took his master’s money to buy his way into places to live on earth.

         It’s not surprising that a lot of Bible students identify this as the most difficult to understand parable of them all. There are all sorts of attempts to try and straighten it out and make it sound better.

         One approach is to argue Jesus didn’t say it. That’s how folks like the Jesus Seminar of a few years ago handle all sorts of passages. Just lop off whatever you think Jesus wouldn’t say. But that’s really dumb for a text like this. Why? Because this parable is so weird, so hard to understand, so convoluted, that really the only possible reason Luke would put it in his Gospel is if Jesus actually said it. If you were going to put words in Jesus’ mouth, you would choose words that are easier to understand than this.

         So, assuming this is the real thing, the ipsissima verba, the very words of Jesus, other interpreters try to turn the dishonest manager into a good guy after all. They suggest that the discounts on the debts were reduced by the amount of the manager’s own commission. He didn’t give up his master’s money, only his own. But if the manager had been making commissions of that size, he would have been a wealthy man himself. He wouldn’t have needed to worry about losing his job.

         Another suggestion is that the rich man charged interest, which was illegal according to Jewish law. And the interest was excessive. So his manager simply dropped the illegal finance charges, and kept his master from committing a crime. But why would the master have praised him for not doing what he wanted, even if it was wrong?

         No, we need to take what Jesus says at face value. It’s just impossible to see this shrewd character as an honest man. Nothing encourages us to thinks of him as a repentant sinner. Verse 8 calls him “dishonest” after he cut his retirement deals. Jesus really did tell us a story with a crook as our example. So what should we be learning here?

         One word: shrewd. The master commended the manager for being shrewd. It’s shrewdness that Jesus says the children of the world have more of than the children of light. It’s the shrewdness we ought to imitate, not the dishonesty. The Greek term here is phronimos. It’s means not just “shrewd,” but “practical,” even “wise.”

         We are not supposed to admire this crook’s crookedness. Jesus wants us to admire his shrewdness, his practical wisdom in dealing with people and his own future. That’s why we like George Clooney as Danny Ocean in “Ocean’s Eleven” or Paul Newman in the “The Sting.” It’s not their character’s dishonesty. It’s that they are so coolly clever. They plan their crimes with brilliance. Jesus wants us to plan our futures with brilliance.

         Specifically, Jesus wants you and I to use our money brilliantly, cleverly, shrewdly, not to win friends and influence people in this life, but to prepare for what is to come, to be ready for the next life. In the parable there is coming a day when the manager would no longer have his job. For us there is coming a day when you and I no longer have this life or any of our possessions. So how are you planning for that?

         There was an old miser who wanted to take his wealth with him. So when he was dying he had his wife take two pillow cases, stuff them with cash and then put them in the attic right above his bed. He figured he would grab his bags of loot on the way up to heaven.

         The miser died and after the funeral his wife went home and checked the attic. The pillow cases with the money in them were still there. “That old fool!” she said, “I knew I should have put those bags under his bed.”

         In whichever direction you are headed after this life is over, none of it is going with you. So why not, Jesus asked us here, use what you have now to make your situation better in that new life?

         Jesus told us in verse 9 to prepare for the future just like manager did, to make friends, to use money to make friends. The manager did it in a dishonest way, seeking friends who would take care of him in this life. But Jesus asked us to use what He calls “dishonest” money in honest, generous ways that will produce friendships which will take care of us in the next life.

         Money is dishonest because it leads to so many temptations. Money promises what it cannot deliver in the end. Look at advertising for casinos and lotteries. They want you to imagine what your life would be like if you won a big prize: freedom, friends, cars and boats and lots of leisure time. In the end, though, none of that lasts, none of that makes any difference when the diagnosis is terminal.

         Jesus taught this parable to teach us to live like children of a different age, like citizens of a different country. This world and whatever stuff we bought with our money will come to an end. All that will matter is the next world, the world of light, and the relationships we formed now, the friendships which last beyond death.

         Verse 9 talks about “friends” who will “welcome you into the eternal homes.” Who are they? Some interpreters think they are angels, who come in disguise seeking our hospitality and care like we read in Hebrews 13:2. Or maybe they are the poor we can help with our money. When they are welcomed into God’s kingdom ahead of us, they will bring us in because we befriended them with love and generosity.

         But there is only one Friend who is truly able to welcome you into those eternal homes, into those dwellings He told us in John 14 that He was going to prepare for us. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” The only Friend who can get you into the kingdom is the King. Only Jesus Christ can open the doors for us. If we want to be truly shrewd about the future, about eternity, we will use our money, and everything else we have, to make ourselves friends of Jesus Christ.

         That’s why in verse 10 Jesus pulls back from His parable to give us more general warnings about our attitude toward money. Verse 10 talks about being faithful in little so you can be trusted with more. If you work as bank teller and your drawer never balances at the end of the day, there’s no way they will move you up to manager or branch vice-president. As verse 11 says, if you can’t handle a little, no one will trust with a lot.

         God gives us all a little bit of wealth in this world, some more, some less, but still just a little in comparison to the riches of His eternal kingdom. But those worldly riches are given to see if we can be trusted with the “true riches,” the wealth of everlasting life and an eternal relationship with the Lord and His people. Verse 12 wonders if we are going to be faithful with those things which actually and in truth belong to God. The question is not how you are going to handle your money, but how you will handle God’s money.

         Watch cop shows or read mystery novels, and you learn one of the primary rules for investigating criminal activity: “follow the money.” In the real world, that’s exactly how the FBI tracked down the identities of the 9/11 hijackers. Plane tickets led to credit cards which led to bank accounts which led to records of the names, addresses and even photos of the men involved. The scent of money leaves a trail.

         If someone followed your use of money, where would it lead? Would it lead to eternal life and friendship with God? Or would it lead to dead ends like your own pleasure, security, or hoards of stuff you can’t take with you. Where does your money lead? To the generous works of love and kindness for which God created you? To a home in God’s kingdom? To friendship with Jesus? Or to friendship with the world and its darkness?

         The dishonest manager was a crook, but he had one thing right. He needed more than money to be secure. He needed friends. He needed relationships he could fall back on when times got tough. And he used money to build those relationships. Jesus asks you and me to do the same with our money, with everything we have. Use our time, talent and treasure to establish eternal relationships, to build friendships which will last forever.

         Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In other words, “follow the money” if you want to find out where your heart is at. Giving generously to God’s work, to His service and to people in need, won’t save you, but it will tell you in which direction you’re headed.

         In verse 13, Jesus says you cannot serve two masters. You cannot serve God and money. He doesn’t mean you cannot love God if you have money. He doesn’t mean that you cannot make a good living. But we cannot serve money. If you give your heart primarily to money and things, it’s not practical, not shrewd. The really shrewd deal is to place your money in God’s hands and work on an eternal friendship with Jesus Christ.

         Most of us don’t have the means or calling to be superheroes of generosity. Not too many give up everything to serve in foreign country. Only a few can endow a Christian college or fund a medical clinic. One or two of us might give away all our possessions and go and live and minister in a slum. But anyone can be shrewd with what you have. Anyone can point your money and your heart toward God.

         Scripture gives us guidelines for using money to become friends of God. One of those guidelines is a regular gift of a percentage of your income, a tithe, a tenth of what you make. Take that unrighteous, tempting money and put it to righteous use. It’s a way to say each week, each month, that God is your Friend, not money, not all the stuff of this world.

         As we will hear again in next week’s parable, Jesus asks us to make eternal friends in other ways too. Buy a street person a burger or a cup of coffee. Write a note to an absent church member. Walk across the street and invite someone to worship. Teach Sunday School. Visit a nursing home. Feed your neighbor’s cat. Be faithful in all those little ways.

         Don’t just give money or service, though. Form relationships with the people to whom  you give, whom you serve. Make some friends, real, eternal friends. Most of all, seek the eternal Friend who will never leave you. That’s pretty shrewd dealing. May you be shrewd enough to have Jesus as your Friend. Then He will welcome you home forever. Amen.

         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated September 22, 2013