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
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?
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj