"No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money." Lk.16:13
How keen should you be?
We’re always being encouraged to plan for the future:
Our young are urged to go to university on the grounds that with a degree under their belt they’ll earn much more during their working life than if they didn’t have one.
Bread winners are encouraged to take out life insurance so that should anything happen to them those left behind wouldn’t be hit too hard financially.
Oh yes and thinking of death what about a prepaid funeral plan?
Or, more optimistically, what about your pension pot? Will you have enough to live on and can you afford to retire?
These matters are all important and we do well not to bury our heads in the sand but to think about them.
Jesus told lots of stories where money figured prominently and the parable we’re looking at this morning is one of those. It is a story about a man who did take very great care to ensure that his future in this life was as good as he could make it.
In some ways it is a surprising parable, particularly if we only cast a casual glance at it. But we don’t want to content ourselves with a superficial reading or hearing of this story and so our task today is to try to understand what it was that Jesus intended to teach by it.
Let’s get started on it.
The Target Audience
The preceding three stories that Jesus told about the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Lost Sons were taught to the Pharisees and scribes. He told those stories because these men were grumbling about his readiness to receive and welcome "sinners".
Now here in chapter 16 Jesus told this story to the disciples (though it becomes clear in v.14 that at least some of the Pharisees were still hanging around listening to what he continued to teach). The word disciple refers to those who were following Jesus and it is used not only of the 12 but of all those who professed some sort of allegiance to Jesus and his teaching. If the word is used in that wider sense here then the crowd to whom Jesus spoke may well have contained some folk with a pretty colourful life experience. Luke has already told us about some of the folk Jesus was prepared to rub shoulders with see for example Lk.5:27-32 where Jesus called Levi a tax collector to follow him. Levi then organised a feast for others just like him to meet with Jesus.
It is quite likely then that many in the crowd would have known all about the type of sharp practice that Jesus was about to describe in his parable.
The Parable of the Unjust Steward, the Dishonest Manager
Before we attempt to understand what Jesus intended to teach by this means of this parable we must take care that we do not draw lessons from it that the story was never meant to teach.
The steward/manager is not a model example that we are to follow in every detail – he is no pattern of morality. We must realise that Jesus was not sanctioning dishonesty, nor was he giving his approval to sharp business practice. The manager was shrewd and far-seeing but also thoroughly dishonest.
No, we must remember that parables generally have one principal lesson to teach – the manager is commended for one thing – his shrewdness, his astuteness. Faced with a difficult situation he had used his wits to the full. But more of this in a moment...
And now to the story itself: the details are clear and straightforward:
A rich man had employed a manager to oversee his affairs
This manager wasn’t very good at his job and he "wasted" his employer’s possessions. (We’ve met that word before: it is the same word that Jesus used to describe the way in which the prodigal son squandered the property his father had given him.)
The manager was not necessarily guilty at this stage of fraudulent behaviour but he was quite simply careless and inefficient in carrying out his responsibilities.
His employer is informed and gives him notice. He’s to get the books ready and then hand them over. His days as manager here are over.
At this point the manager realises that he faces a bleak future:
There are no tribunals for unfair dismissal to which he may appeal
There are no unions to stand up for him
There is no social security net to catch him
What then shall he do? So he contemplates the options that he can think of and the job market was obviously not strong because he could only think of a couple of possibilities. Quickly he dismisses them both: he doesn’t think he is cut out for manual labour and he is too proud to go to the local food bank and to ask for handouts. But he knows he has to do something. The matter is urgent and he comes up with a solution.
His plan wasn’t good morally, in fact it was downright dishonest and he knew it. Not only that but he knowingly involved others in his dishonest scheming too.
Jesus could not commend him for this dishonesty, nor did he.
What did the manager’s plan involve?
He had a few hours left and decided that he would them to ingratiate himself with others so that when he was turned out of his job they would look favourably upon him. This is what he did:
He called in his employers debtors
One by one he told them to rewrite their bills - he was permitting them to write-off some of what they owed. Now some have suggested this was the regular practice of discounting in order perhaps to bring in a quick supply of capital. But it was nothing of the sort. Had it been a regular discount then the gratitude would have been felt towards the rich man himself. No, the manager has operated in an underhanded manner designed to up his popularity stakes and everyone knew it. Perhaps there was even a bit a pressure too – if these debtors weren’t kind to him then maybe he’d tell the whole story and their reputations would be shot down.
It was a cunning plan! Faced with an uncertain future this man had shown great resolve and ingenuity in order to feather his own nest. And it is for this shrewdness that he is commended!
The point of Jesus’ story now becomes evident:
If men of this world will act so quickly and with such smartness in order simply to secure their temporal material well-being in the here and now how much more should men be serious about their eternal security!
Jesus followed up his parable with further comments and words of explanation building upon the central truth taught by his story.
In doing so he referred to the way in which men will pursue worldly/unrighteous wealth.
In speaking about unrighteous wealth what Jesus probably had in mind would have included the following:
The dubious methods employed in the pursuit of wealth
The dubious and/or selfish use of such wealth once acquired
The way the pursuit of wealth can for so many become an all-consuming passion that takes precedence over every other consideration.
Instead of this pursuit of unrighteous wealth Jesus taught that we ought to relate to wealth in a totally different manner. And he gave his reasons.
As we all know money will be of no use to us when we’ve died – we all know that we can’t take it with us when we go – and so we should live our lives accordingly. We should use what money we have in a way that will speak a positive word in our favour. Jesus is commending generosity and the recipients of our generosity will testify on our behalf that our faith and our commitment to our God were indeed genuine.
Is generosity something that characterises us?
John Wesley is reputed to have said that:
"The last part of a man to be converted is his wallet."
Whether or not he was right is a moot point but according to Jesus for a man to be truly converted his wallet must be too!
The final verses we’re considering this morning underline once more that Jesus must not be understood as encouraging wrong behaviour. He calls a spade a spade or in this case he draws a distinction between faithful action and dishonest behaviour. Indeed he says that if we can’t show ourselves to have been faithful in small matters then no-one will ever entrust us with those things that really count.
And so Jesus summed up what he wanted to say in one very simple yet very challenging statement. You can see it there in v.13:
"No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money."
Or in the familiar words of the KJV:
"Ye cannot serve God and mammon."
The word itself means more than just money though it does include it. Mammon means money, wealth, assets etc. Mammon is the deification of the pursuit and service of wealth and possessions. It is a false god that, while finding a place in the hearts and lives of many as a rival to the One True Living God, is ultimately unable to satisfy. Those who serve at his altar are doomed to failure.
Jesus’ words are easy to understand but rather more difficult to put into practice. Further it is unlikely to be a once-for-all decision that resolves the question for all time. Our lives as followers of Jesus Christ are lived out one day at a time and a victory won one day does not mean that we will never have to fight further battles on the same ground. Our hearts though renewed by the Spirit of God are nevertheless not yet perfect and we will be confronted with temptations of all kinds including the temptation to shift our focus to worldly possessions.
And yet we have the Spirit so we are not doomed to failure but we need to be warned and we need to be resolute in our desire to follow the Saviour. We are not to allow another rival to usurp Jesus’ rightful place in our lives.
Of course others may well look at us with our scruples and laugh at us. They may say it’s all nonsense and of course there’s no danger here at all. But I’ll tell you something about that type of critic: they tend to have an unhealthy interest and focus for all things worldly. They are the ones who tend to feel most uncomfortable when they hear Jesus’ call to radical discipleship.
There were people in the crowd that day who heard all that Jesus so carefully taught and reacted by dismissing it all. They were the Pharisees – the ones who loved to make a great show of their religion or, should we say, religiosity but their hearts were all wrong before God. Surely none of us wants to try to emulate them!
Well may God himself enable us, having saved us, to go on and on serving him. Let us be devoted to the God who didn’t hesitate to send his Son into the world to die on the cross to deal with the problem of our sin.
And may God be glorified as by his grace we live to his honour!