Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, November 15, 2019
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Being Wise With Wealth

Luke 16:1-13

I like this parable for two reasons. One is that it’s quite challenging. Some of the parables of Jesus are rather simple. And that’s fine. But I like that this one takes some work to decipher and some time to think through it.

I also like that it teaches a valuable lesson that we must keep in mind in order to be found faithful. That lesson is that we are to be shrewd, or in other words, wise, with the Master’s resources.

Now, it can be tricky. We could misunderstand this parable. One of the mistakes we can make with parables is to think that every single aspect of a parable is useful to teach a moral lesson. If we were to do that with this parable, then we might come to the conclusion it’s okay to cheat or be dishonest in order to further our own well-being. That conclusion would be antithetical to the rest of Jesus’ teachings and to the rest of Scripture in general. So, not a good conclusion!

The story begins with a rich man hiring a manager to tend to his affairs. Now, in the first century, Galilee and Judea had many “absentee landlords,” rich men who owned large tracts of land but didn’t actually live there. Maybe they lived in Antioch or Jerusalem or Alexandria or wherever. And they would then hire or appoint managers to tend to their lands and business while they’re off in a hot tub somewhere. Many of these managers were slaves, but this one is a free man.

A rumor reaches the master’s ears that the manager is being dishonest and stealing for himself. Is it true? We don’t know, but the master believes it. He calls the manager in and says, “Get your report together because you are out of here!” The manager is living on borrowed time. He’s had his two weeks’ notice. And in a sense, that’s all of us. We’re all living on borrowed time! We just don’t know how much.

The manager says, “What can I do? I’m not fit for digging ditches!” Digging ditches meant the same thing in the first century as it does today. “Stay in school or you’ll end up digging ditches!” Except now most people dig ditches with a backhoe. If he is fired for dishonesty, then he certainly won’t get another job as a manager. He’ll be lucky to get any job.

So he sets out to use what time he has to secure his future. He calls in the master’s debtors. These are men who farm parts of the master’s land in exchange for a

share of the produce. Given the amounts of money involved, it’s fair to say that they are also wealthy. Each one of them is forgiven for about 500 denarii worth of goods. The denarius was the minimum daily wage of the day, so 500 denarii in today’s economy would be on the order of tens of thousands of dollars, about a year and a half’s wages.

The manager writes off part of each debtor’s bill. In doing so, he gains favor with the debtors for himself. But he also gains favor for his master in the process. Because, of course, the debtors would assume that it’s really the master behind this act of benevolence. Sometimes landlords would forgive part of debts, especially in difficult times like droughts, for the sake of being seen as generous.

So now the master is in a difficult position. If he fires the manager, then he will lose his reputation of being generous and will instead be seen as petty and mean. And of course, if the manager does get fired, then he’ll have some well-to-do friends who owe him one, and maybe one of them will hire him on.

Now, normally in the parables of Jesus, the master is a picture of God. So, it’s okay to cheat God? Not the best interpretation. But I do think the language of master and manager should remind us of our position in God’s economy: We are stewards. We don’t own anything. We are only entrusted to use it for a time. In the end, the earth is the Lord’s, and so is everything in it, as the Psalmist said. We own nothing. We are stewards entrusted to use God’s resources wisely.

At the end of the parable, Jesus makes several statements about it. I wonder if verse 8 is meant to be understood as a lament: “The citizens of this world are more shrewd than the godly are.” I wonder if the lament is that people put far more energy and thought into gaining worldly wealth than they do into gaining the Kingdom of God. If only we were so devoted to the Kingdom!

Verse 9, I think, is easier to understand: “Use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends. In this way, your generosity stores up a reward for you in heaven.” We should use wealth to build relationships. That is contrary to the prevailing custom of the world where people use relationships to build wealth. It’s called “networking,” getting to know people so you have “business contacts.”

Certainly we should use our worldly resources to build relationships with others for ourselves. But more than that, we should use resources to build relationships between others and God. When we see a place where people are meeting Jesus, being

drawn into deeper relationship with God, deepening their life of discipleship, and learning what God wants them to be doing, then we should invest in that place. Give generously to ministries that do those things.

This is the reason why our bishop started the Camping Initiative in 2017. She looked around our Conference and said, “Where are people meeting Jesus and going deeper in their faith?” The answer was in our camping and retreat ministries. So let’s invest resources in those places.

In verses 10-12, Jesus teaches a principle that he stated in other places, as well: Faithfulness in small and temporary things leads to us being entrusted with greater and eternal things. This includes the “riches of heaven.” What are they? I don’t know. I don’t know what “riches” or “treasures” in heaven are. But I’d like to find out!

Verse 13 is the last word: You can’t serve two masters.

If we aren’t careful, wealth can become our master. What does it look like when wealth and material things have become our master? Well, first of all, we worry excessively about those things. We become obsessed with earning more, even to the point of doing what is wrong or neglecting to do what is right. We are reluctant to give anything away. Or it could look like excessive debt in our search for more possessions.

As I said at the beginning, I think this is a difficult parable but a necessary one. It’s necessary because we use wealth daily. We can’t avoid using it for long. So how we use wealth is a necessary part of discipleship.

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