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Shrewdness: Learning from the Unprincipled Luke 16:1-13
There's a certain way of doing things in this world: you have to take care of yourself.
The owner of a dry cleaning shop finds a $100 bill in a coat pocket, which places him in an ethical dilemma: should he keep all of it, or split it fifty/fifty with his partner?
One evening while taking a walk, I made an unbelievable discovery. Scattered along the street in front of our house, partially hidden by weeds and bushes, I found some money. A lot of money, in fact. There were ones, fives, tens, and even some $100 bills. When I counted it all up, I had almost $2,000!
I know your next question! "Did you keep it, or did you try to find the owner?"
Well, let me remind you. There's a certain way of doing things in this world. You have to take care of yourself. Besides, you know the saying: "Finders keepers, losers weepers."
What would you have done with the money?
Don't be too quick to answer! At least not until you consider the parable of the shrewd manager. Here Jesus seems to be saying that not only is there a certain way of doing business in the world, but that we ought to participate in it. He seems to be saying that we should live by the ethics of the world. And if that is the case, the last thing you should do is return the money.
The scene described in this parable was common. Many absentee landlords hired managers to oversee their affairs. The catch in this parable is that this manager is about to be fired because he is wasting his master's money. The word translated "wasting" is the same Greek word used of the prodigal son in Luke 15:13 -- "scattering" or "squandering." He obviously has no concern for his master's well-being. Now he is about to be fired. What will he do? He's too proud to beg, and too weak to work. He hits upon a survival scheme. He calls in several of his master's debtors.
"How much do you owe my master?"
"Eight hundred gallons of oil."
"Cross that out and write four hundred."
"And you, how much do you owe?"
"A thousand bushels of wheat."
"Erase that and write eight hundred."
What happens next is very surprising. The master finds out what the manager has done and commends him! You would expect him to be angry, but he congratulates the manager.
The manager's action is not particularly surprising. In a "dog-eat-dog world" you have to take care of yourself. But why does the master commend him? There's an expression: "It takes one to know one." A cutthroat person often admires this trait in other people. This parable is populated by some rather shady characters!
And what about Jesus? He not only commends what the manager did; he actually recommends His followers do the same! That is distressing! Why is Jesus recommending this sort of behavior?
To gain understanding, it will help to know that some parables make their point by similarity, such as: "The kingdom of heaven is like ...." Others use contrast to make their point. The man at the banquet is one example of contrast. When he is thrown out of the banquet for not wearing a wedding garment, listeners get the point -- don't be like this!
This parable makes its point by means of contrast. Verse eight is key. There Jesus essentially says, "Here is the world's way of doing things. The manager was keen, astute, and shrewd in his dealings in order to take care of himself.
"Now," says Jesus, "learn a very important lesson from an unprincipled person. If the people of this world, in order to take care of a future that will not last, are willing to expend every energy, and exhaust every possibility in securing their future, what should be said of the children of the Kingdom who need to secure their eternal future? You need to invest more in eternity than in tomorrow."
But how do we do that?
First, we can invest more in people than in things. The manager used people for his own ends. In contrast we are to use our possessions and resources to bring eternal benefit to others. Verse nine says, "I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings."
Jesus is saying that our worldly goods should be used in ways that go beyond purely material significance. As Ray Summers observes:
To the rich man the most important thing was to look after his needs in this world, even if that involved dishonesty. But Jesus did not agree with that view. His counsel was to his disciples as sons of light in contrast to the dishonest steward as one of the sons of this world. He counseled his disciples to take a different approach.... While you have them, [i.e., worldly goods], use them in such a way that when they have ended their use in this world, they continue working to your advantage.1
Our physical possessions belong to God. We are managers over his goods. His question is, Are you investing what I have given you in things or in people?
There are many ways to do this, but it surely goes beyond feeding the hungry and caring for the hurting.
I know of wealthy people who have invested in the education of young people by paying the college bills of hard-working, poor students. They are investing in people more than in things. And in doing so they are making an investment in something greater than themselves, something that will last.
Second, we can invest more in the soul than in the body. This is in contrast to the manager who was more concerned with security than his soul's integrity.
We live in an era in which great emphasis is placed on physical health. Eating the right foods, getting enough rest, drinking enough water, and exercising regularly all receive much attention. We must equally emphasize the care of the soul.
How different things would be if we paid as much attention to the things that concern the welfare of our souls as we do the welfare of our temporal lives. If we invested as much time, energy and care in the well-being of our spiritual lives as we do in the advancement of our careers, we would be spiritual giants!
Remember the story of the rich man who dreamed he arrived in heaven? Anxious to see his mansion, he asked the angel to take him there. As they walked the golden streets, past mansions beyond description, he kept asking, "Is this it?"
"No," the angel answered.
They walked on to the outskirts of the city, where the mansions were not nearly as nice, then into the suburbs, where they were much more understated. The rich man was certain they had missed his mansion, but the angel assured him they had not. They finally arrived at a small hut in the country. The rich man was flabbergasted to hear the angel say, "Well, this is it. It's all yours."
"Surely there must be some kind of mistake!"
"No, this is yours."
"Why? Why didn't I get a mansion?"
"Well," said the angel, "this was all we could afford to build with what you sent ahead!"
We must invest more in eternity than we do in tomorrow. How? By investing more in people than in things, by investing more in the soul than in the body.
In this parable, Christ clearly states that there are some things that last, and some that don't. Some things are of true value, but others are only of passing value. There is a time for fun and games, and there is a time to be deadly serious about the future. So, he says, don't play games with the future. Invest in the things that count.
If we are to learn from the unprincipled, we must shrewdly learn to invest our energy, wisdom, astuteness in securing the eternal future. We must learn to invest more in eternity than we do in tomorrow.
I still haven't answered your question: What did you do with the money you found in front of your house? Did you keep it?
Well, to be honest with you, yes, I did .... I kept it. For a while. And then I did exactly what you would have done. I took it and went out behind our house, and threw it in the dumpster. Just like you would have done.
After all, I could never secure my future with old, worn out Monopoly money. Nor can you.
1Ray Summers, Commentary on Luke (Waco, TX: Word, 1972), p. 90.
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