Who Knew?

How should one look at money?  For many people, the question is easily answered: Money is a good thing that makes happiness happen.  But there are other voices out there that would question such an enthusiastic perspective.  For instance, Paul calls the love of money the root of all evil.  And he is not alone.  Winston Churchill once said, “We are stripped bare by the curse of plenty.”  Yikes!  Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying: “Golden shackles are far worse than iron ones.”  GK Chesterton wrote: “To be clever enough to get a great deal of money, one must be stupid enough to want it.”  And just to paint the darkest picture, just listen to what Martin Luther said: “A man that depends on the riches and honors of this world, forgetting God and the welfare of his own soul, is like a little child that holds a fair apple of agreeable exterior, promising goodness, but within it is rotten and full of worms.”  Double yikes! Here’s today’s question: how did Jesus look at money?  According to the parable in Luke 16 (the one about the dishonest manager), he liked it.

Here’s the basic storyline of the parable.  There is a rich man who hires a manager to handle his accounts (make investments, make loans, gain interest, find tax loopholes, make more money—those sorts of things).  Unfortunately, one day the rich man figures out that his trusted manager is a crook.  He has been wasting some of the rich man’s money and probably profiting from (read, “syphoning off”) his master’s fortune.  Interestingly, the word “waste” here is the same word used to describe how the prodigal son squandered the money entrusted to him.  Both these men were careless and neglectful and used the money given to them in trust to party the night away.  And both get found out.   And so the rich man calls the manager in and demands to see the books (read, “You’re fired!”).  Now, the manager is beside himself.  He says, “What shall I do now?  I am not strong enough to be a day laborer and I am ashamed to beg.”  Or in the New Scouting Version, “If I lose this job, I’m up the creek without a paddle!”  But then he has an idea.  He calls in everyone who owes his master money (all the people to whom he made a loan on behalf of his master), and he asks them how much they owe the boss.  And they all reply some huge amount (things like 800 gallons of olive oil or a thousand bushels of wheat).  And the manager says to them, “I’ve got a deal for you.  You no longer owe that amount.  Instead, you now owe only half that amount.”  And so it was.  The manager eliminates a huge proportion of everyone’s debt, and everyone goes home happy (imagine if someone cut your mortgage payment or car loan in half—that’s the kind of happy we are talking about here).  Now, when the rich man hears about this debt reduction, we expect him to blow a gasket and get his sharpest knife.  But no!  Instead, he commends the dishonest manager because he had acted wisely.  Now, that doesn’t seem to make much sense to us.  How could the rich man applaud the manager when the manager just ripped him off for millions of dollars?

The answer must be that whatever the manager did after he was fired was extremely commendable and wise (he is only called “the dishonest manager” in the parable because of what he did before he got caught).   In other words, what he did afterwards in reducing every one’s debt was wise and good and gracious, even exemplary.   How could this be?  While it sounds like stealing to us or maybe a case of embezzlement, what the manager was actually doing was subtracting his commission from every loan. Instead, of charging 20-50% interest on every transaction, he forgave that amount and only required that these people pay back the actual amount they borrowed. In so doing, he made many new friends and earned the commendation of the rich man who saw that he had learned his lesson and had used his resources wisely.  Instead of thinking only about getting, the manager realized he could get the most out of his money if he gave it away.

That’s the end of the parable, but Jesus adds a few comments to make sure we get the point. He says (16:8b-9): For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.  Let me paraphrase that.  Jesus says, “I like money when it is used wisely to advance my kingdom purposes. I like money when it is used compassionately, thoughtfully, and used in alignment with eternity.”  Who knew?  Jesus liked money.

Not only does this passage have lots to say to us about giving, it is actually surrounded by several other passages about money.  So if we are interested in coming to grips with what Jesus thinks about giving, we need to wrestle with this whole chapter.  But after the parable, things are pretty straightforward.  Now, that is not necessarily good news because the text is rather direct.  It basically asks us four questions.

First question:  Are we are using our “resources” to their greatest spiritual advantage (vs. 1-9)?  Note that when Jesus interprets the parable, he talks about two groups of people.  He talks about “people of this world” and “people of the light.”  His point is two-fold.  First, he wants to remind us that we do not belong to the world.  As such, we need to use all of our resources as “children of the light.”  In other words, who we are dictates how we should use our money.  But second, Jesus uses this contrast to motivate us.  He says look at how devoted the people of the world are at using their money to serve their purposes.  They are diligent and hard-working and extremely focused when it comes to their money.  They want to get the most out of every single penny.  And we ought to have that same focus, not so we can use our resources selfishly, but so that we can advance the kingdom of God strategically. Here’s what I think.  Many people in the church believe that Christ-followers should not be thinking about money at all (after all, it leads to all sorts of sins).  But Jesus would disagree.  He wants us to think very carefully about our money so that we can make the greatest impact possible for the Kingdom of God.  He wants us to think through our resources very strategically so that we can get the most kingdom bang for our worldly buck. He wants us to think through how we use our riches so that it reflects who we are and whose we are.  How should we use our money?  Jesus would say we need to act out of compassion, not greed.  We need to create good will and not strife or jealousy.  We need to demonstrate love and not selfishness.  And we need to give and not horde. In short, we are to devote ourselves to use our finances to create opportunities for God’s kingdom to flourish.  Here’s the question: are we using all of our resources to their greatest spiritual advantage?

Second question: Are we being faithful with the wealth we already have?  In verses 10-12 Jesus says (I’ve highlighted the parallels here because you might not notice them otherwise): “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?  And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?” The parallels are quite telling.  Jesus says, “If we can’t be trusted with how we use our wealth, how can we be trusted with true riches?”  (You also get the opinion that Jesus thinks that how we use our wealth is a rather simple test akin to chewing gum and walking at the same time.)  New Testament scholar John Morris says, “Faithfulness is no accident.  It arises out of what a person is through and through.”  Bottom line: we see what we truly are and what we truly value by looking at how we use our money.  If you want to see what you truly love, just look at your spending habits (or if you are Scottish, your saving habits).  Here’s the question: “Are we being faithful with the wealth we already have?”  We like to say “We will start tomorrow,” but wisdom always looks at today.

Third question: Who are we serving with our wealth?  Verse 13: No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. We wish it could be different, but it can’t.  Money is the great beguiler.  I love that quote from CS Lewis: “Prosperity knits a man to the world. He feels that he is finding his place in it, while really it is finding its place in him.”  If that isn’t a kick in the pants, nothing is.  Here’s the question: who are we serving with our wealth?

Last question: What do you truly love?  Verses 14-15 say it all: 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.’” Ask a Pharisee what he loves, and he would say all the right things (I love God, the Law, my country, etc.). Ask us the same question, and we would probably give a similar answer. But Jesus knows their (and our) hearts.  He knows something about them that they don’t even know.  They love money.  Never underestimate the power of self-deception.  It affects all of us.  Want to see if it affects you?  Read Jesus’ words in Luke 12 and see how you react.  Jesus says (vs. 33): Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. How did you do?  Yeah, me too.  I love money because selling all that I have and giving it to the poor sounds way over the top. Here’s the question we all need to answer: what is truly going on in our hearts?

There used to be a commercial where two people sat together having a conversation over lunch.  They are talking about investments; and while they could be overheard by everyone in the near vicinity, no one seems very interested.  But then one of them says, “Well my broker is EF Hutton, and he says. . . .“ And suddenly everyone stops—everyone—the waiter, the other patrons in the restaurant, the cooks, the people walking on the sidewalk, even the bird flying overhead—everyone—because everyone wants to know what EF Hutton says about what we should do with our money.  I hope Jesus never asks if we are that devoted to hear what he says we ought to do with our wealth.