Alfred Place Baptist Church

16:1-13 The Parable of the Unrighteous Manager

Luke 16:1-13 “Jesus told his disciples: ‘There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, “What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.” The manager said to himself, “What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg. I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.” So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” “Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,” he replied. The manager told him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.” Then he asked the second, “And how much do you owe?” “A thousand bushels of wheat,” he replied. He told him, “Take your bill and make it eight hundred.” The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. 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. 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? No servant can serve two masters. 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 both God and money.’”

What a remarkable parable. Little known, it hardly seems to be a story that could have been told by the Lord Jesus Christ. Did Almighty God his Father actually send him from heaven to declare to mankind the words that are before us? Clearly he did, and so we ought to know what these thirteen verses are saying. What is their theme, and how can they help us? Right on the heels of the best known parable of all, that of the Prodigal Son, comes this one, which is amongst the least known and understood of the parables, and the only gap between the two parables are these four words, “Jesus told his disciples . . . ” In other words the focus of this message shifts so that now it is not the tax-collectors and the crowd of lawless men and women (with the Pharisees and lawyers also in a gang on another side watching and listening). This parable was one that the Lord Jesus gave to his own disciples whom we can think of as being in a group sitting in the front. Jesus would be addressing some of those 500 people who’d been converted under his ministry to whom he appeared after his resurrection. So this is not an evangelistic parable; it is a message for Christians, to those who have confessed that Jesus is the Messiah. They are his followers and he is saying, “Now let me tell you this parable . . . Let me tell you how you are to live day by day. Let me help you to understand more about the distinctive lifestyle of all who claim that they are coming to God through me, and again I’ll use a story whose characters are well known to you.” So our Lord is here exhorting those who believed in him, though not neglecting the sinners and the Pharisees. They have not disappeared; they are still around and listening (cp.v.14). Let them also hear; they’ll not understand his story but they’ll remember it, and should the Holy Spirit regenerate them then they will grasp its message. One member of my family tells me that she enjoys hearing sermons that encourage her to live the Christian life, to do things better, or to do things she hasn’t been doing at all, or to stop doing other things. “I like to do things after a sermon,” she says. That is the goal of this parable. It is a surprising educational and motivational tool.

This new parable is based on commercial practices at the time of Christ We know that Jews were not allowed to take interest from fellow Jews when they lent them money. So how could they get around this and make some profit out of giving loans to people? What they did was this, they employed men, ‘stewards’ or ‘managers’ who would be book-keepers, keeping the accounts of how much money their debtors had been loaned. What these accountants did was this, they would incorporate into the sum of money at the bottom of the page a certain amount of unspecified ‘interest.’ That would be built into the account, but it would not be written separately under the heading ‘interest.’ There would be no reference to interest at all. So something like this would take place. A man would be loaned 80 measures of wheat, but on the official piece of papyrus spelling out this loan the manager (who handled the business side of this rich man) would write down not 80 measures of wheat but 100. It was a legal fiction, recognized by everyone. It allowed the rich Jewish money-lender to get around the Mosaic prohibition against usury. All the borrower got was 80 measures, but he was charged for 100.

THE CRIMINAL BEHAVIOUR OF ONE SUCH MANAGER.

Jesus introduces us to one such money-lender, an absentee landlord, maybe a man who lived in a villa overlooking the Med. He put all his affairs in the hands of his manager – his enterprises and considerable legal powers, all were handed over to this manager. Money kept coming into his bank account and he was contented. So he gave the manager a free hand to deal with his affairs. Then one day he had a rude awakening as someone told him that the manager had been cheating, lining his pockets with his money, fiddling the books, in effect stealing from this boss. When he received the news and some proof that this was going on he sent for the manager and challenged him with what he had heard, asking him for the facts; “What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer” (v.2). The guy was fired. His books were required for his successor to study so that an exact statement could be obtained to see how much money the manager had abducted. He had to give account of his theft and his cheating.

THE CUNNING RESPONSE OF THIS MANAGER.

i] The craftiness of the man. What could he do now that he was unemployed? Dig ditches? That was hard work. He’d had a desk job for years. His hands were soft. He’d been a stranger to manual toil. What about begging outside the temple or at the city gates holding a placard saying, “Jobless; penniless; wife and four children to keep; will work if offered any”? Yuk! He was too proud and too ashamed to do that. How the mighty had fallen! What could he do so that he could still keep up some circle of acquaintances, men who would continue to invite him into their homes for a feast and offer him other employment? So he, like Blackadder, ‘devised a cunning plan.’ He called on those merchants whom he’d had dealings with in his former employment whom he knew had borrowed money from his boss, and he asked them one by one how much they were in debt to his boss.

The first replied to him that he owed the money-lender for “Eight hundred gallons of olive oil.” The manager said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.” That very probably meant that the original amount the merchant had borrowed was only worth the purchase of four hundred gallons of oil. The manager – you understand – wouldn’t touch the principal because then he could be legally challenged. What he did was eliminate the high interest due from this particular merchant. The merchant, of course, was thrilled with this. The second merchant then told the accountant that he was in debt to the boss for a thousand bushels of wheat. “O.K. Make it 800,” the manager told him. The second merchant had to pay a greater percentage than the first one, and one reason for that would be that it was easier to cheat with oil than wheat. You could add water to the oil diluting it. So here was another satisfied customer! And in such ways the manager went around as many of his boss’s debtors as he could find and one by one he repeated this action, greatly reducing their debts and gaining many thankful clients. They all remained beyond the reach of the law because he marked them down to the cost of their original purchase. He had simply removed the additional high interest. Each of those men then were in a debt of gratitude to him; they ‘owed him one’ we say. This crafty manager then could say to himself, “I can see that they ‘will welcome me into their houses’ ” (v.4). He could see a means of employment and provision coming from many of those men whom he’d helped.

ii] His boss’s rueful appreciation of what he had done. I am referring to these words in verse eight; “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” There is an ambiguity in these words both in the original and thankfully it has been preserved in the translation, so that it is uncertain who this ‘master’ is. Is it the Lord Jesus who is the master and commending the unrighteous manager, or is the master the rich boss? Grammatically it could refer to either. Is this Luke speaking, or is it Christ speaking about the boss? Virtually all commentators (Calvin, J.C.Ryle, Hendriksen, Marshall, Geldenhuys, Ryken, Green, Bock) are confident that this is the voice of his boss. The word ‘master’ earlier in this parable on a number of occasions does refer to the boss. His boss is trapped, isn’t he? He can’t expose his manager and take him to court without acknowledging that he has been guilty of charging high interest rates on the money he loaned. So he is rueful; he has been outsmarted by this rogue, and he expresses his appreciation for the cunning of this sinful man (not for the sin of this cunning man) who had worked for him for so long, even this unrighteous man who had been acting in an unrighteous fashion but he had showed a shrewdness that his boss was constrained to acknowledge. Look at his whole career, his criminal actions, and yet how, Houdini-like, he had made his escape from destitution, poverty, shame, ditch-digging and begging – by his own wits. Our Lord is not praising the man’s morality. He is not pleased with the man. He’s telling us that his boss had to admire the craftiness of this accountant of his, how he had acted in this clever, worldly way.

Now we can begin to see the connection between this parable and the previous parable of the Prodigal Son. That story is left opened ended. Grace has transformed the status of the Prodigal and we hope the father’s compassion to his hurting, critical older son will transform him too. But what happened next? What was the future of these two boys? Does life go on as it did before the divine pity accepted them, expostulated and pleaded with them? No. It transforms everything. Henceforth neither boy is to live so foolishly as they’ve both been living. They are to live wisely.

HOW THEN ARE THE LORD’S DISCIPLES TO LIVE?

i] We should be thoughtful and prudent people. Our Lord Jesus is exhorting us to be people who want to learn, to learn from everyone, from the energy and relative wisdom and shrewdness of non-Christians. Aren’t they made in the image and likeness of God? More than that, they have a conscience and intelligence. More than that, there has been an earlier grace in the land which has left a legacy of common sense that shows itself in people in the world who ignore the Bible and who don’t have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Think of fine school teachers we had who made sciences and languages come alive; think of management consultants who have taught us about our roles and leadership skills. Shrewd men. Give credit to where credit is due. Some of you have husbands who are not yet Christians but they can see many things more practically and helpfully than you see them, and so you thank God for your non-Christian husbands. You are in a flap about some tensions in the office, or in what teachers are requiring of your children in school, and your husband says to you, “Now calm down. Why not do it like this . . .?” Jesus says to us all, “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light” (v.8). Think of the folly of this prodigal son running off from such a father to waste his money on trivia. He could have invested that money and started businesses and employed more and more men and transformed their lives. How immature were some of the disciples of Christ. When they were beginning to follow him they wanted the Lord Jesus to call down fire from heaven and destroy a Samaritan village that had rejected their message. What foolishness! Following Christ, yes, but only as baby Christians, petulant, wanting their own way, and angry when they didn’t get it. Peter would take on the entire Jerusalem police force with his sword. He succeeded in giving terrible pain to one man by slicing off his ear. That’s after three years of listening to Christ’s preaching and seeing his example, having his feet washed by our Lord, and seeing Jesus’ miracles. Peter is a kind of teenage disciple with all the zeal and inexperience and impetuosity of teenagers. Jesus says that unbelieving people can be more clever and more energetic in taking care of their state in this world than we Christians are in taking care of our eternal state in glory.

We have seen the folly of religious people. We have seen more of it than we’d like to talk about. How much preferable is the presence and conversation of sensible, kind, intelligent, moral men and women to the fantasies of some religious folk – though they are my brothers . . . . my unwise and immature brothers! Some announce to the world the date of the second coming, though God has not told anyone the date. What shameful folly. Others of them have read of the extraordinary ways God has provided for Christians in the past. Those old believers had responsibility for running an orphanage and providing food for 100 boys and girls each day. They prayed and trusted God and the money for the food came in the post week by week. That is how it seemed. A couple of Bible College students – my brothers – read that, and then in the next months they hear about a conference with some famous speakers in Derbyshire. They are determined to go. They are certain that it is God’s will for them to go, but they have no money. “God will provide,” they say. That is their mantra for the next days, right up to the morning of their departure for the conference. They pack; they walk to the station; they join the queue of people waiting for tickets in the booking office; they have no money, but they are praying that God will provide them in a miraculous way with the finances. Finally they are standing in front of the clerk but without money, and they say to her, “What time is the train to Derbyshire?” and they walk out and walk home with their tails between their legs. They are baby Christians. They are having to learn that it is not God’s will for them to go to every conference, or to buy every Christian book. People in the world can’t get everything they’d long to have and they accept that fact, and so must we. God will supply our needs not our wants. If we cannot afford to buy everything that catches our eye in the supermarket then don’t fill your trolley imagining that some anonymous Christian is going to give you fifty pounds in the super-market before you stand before the check out girl. The greatest gift you can have after the saving grace of God is common sense, and it is not a gift that some Christians conspicuously possess.

Learn from the hard work, and energy that people in the world put into their vocations and investments and savings. They study; they work long hours; they carefully nurture their assets, and they build their businesses from the ground floor. They do all that for temporal, temporary, material gain from this world. They are shrewd and energetic and decisive on behalf of stuff no one can take with him. Do you see what Jesus is saying to us? How much more should we, who have experienced the Lord’s restoring grace and have been made sons of God, who know the purpose of life, and know who we are, and know our own hearts and know God’s provision – how much more should we manifest energy, and focus, and zeal, and wisdom, and decisiveness for eternal and everlasting ends – not for fantasies about sensual life in a distant city. The men of the world live like that for their own comfort and luxury and the joy of making profits. How much more should we invest in the good of our souls, and the kingdom of God, and the glory of God? Alas, this is not always how it is. The sons of this age outdo the sons of light.

John Calvin, preaching to his Geneva congregation, said to them, “Heathen and worldly men are more industrious and clever in taking care of the ways and means of this fleeting world than God’s children are in caring for the heavenly eternal life . . . The Lord is reproving our worse-than-spineless laziness, that we don’t have the same eye to the future that heathen men have in feathering their nests in this world.” Irreligious men can show more energy in building earthly treasures than believers display in building heavenly treasures? J. C. Ryle laments, “The diligence of worldly men about the things of time should put to shame the coldness of professing Christians about the things of eternity.”

Whatever our hands do we are to do it with all of our might. We are not to be men-pleasers but God-pleasers. We are to be men of self-control, single-mindedness, discipline, energy, focus, zeal and decisiveness. We are to give ourselves to God in the public ministry of the word, sacrament, and prayer. We are not to neglect private devotions and family devotions. We must pursue holiness without which no one will see the Lord. That is the word to the prodigal son, and that is the word to the older brother and that is the word to us. The manager in this parable is commended because he showed great prudence in the use which he made of his few opportunities as a means of providing for the future. Let’s do the same. A man on his death bed talked to a minister friend of mine. He was a businessman and a wealthy man, and though he was dying this was still his interest. He said to my friend ‘There’s a lot of money to be made out there.’ Believers ought to show similar zeal on the edge of eternity, but on our death beds we ought to be full of the heavens of treasure. We should be suggesting to our loved ones about where acorns of grace should be planted the next day. So let the prodigal son and his brother become thoughtful and prudent people.

ii] We should be wise in our stewardship. I am thinking now of Jesus’ next words, “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (v.9). Again you can see how it applies to the characters in the parable in the previous chapter. You have some money; you have your home; you have a car; you have your computer; you have a family and a network of friends; you have your wages and pension. This is your worldly wealth, what you have accumulated in this fallen and sinful world, and none of it is without some sin. All of it, as all you are and do, is touched by sin. Pride and greed and covetousness – however tiny – is there in all our wealth and so it is ‘worldly’ wealth. But we are to use it to gain friends, a fellowship of friends which will survive beyond death. In other words make sure that you are putting to some spiritual use your worldly wealth. Give regularly to Keith Underhill in Kenya. I signal him out because he gives us a week by week description of what he is doing and where he is going and the people he is influencing, and how he spends the money we send him.

We had our church’s Annual General Meeting this past week, and there behind the columns of figures of worldly wealth, our income and our expenditure, carefully set out and checked by an auditor are us, the people of this congregation. The money did not come from the government, or from the National Lottery. These are not pennies from heaven mysteriously appearing in the offering boxes. This is worldly wealth that is being used by you to gain a ring of friends in Aberystwyth and Kenya and Latvia and Japan and so on. You belong to them. You support them. You identify with them. You pray for them. You welcome them when they visit us, and you even go to see them and get a first hand picture of their work bringing more and more people into the eternal dwellings where no seas will separate us, and no barriers of language and race will divide us, but we are eternally one in Christ Jesus for evermore. One day it will be all over; you will be unable to spend any more money because you are on your death bed, angels will welcome you and the people who have become your friends into the eternal dwellings.

Here was this cunning manager, and he so worked over his former contacts that he got a list of homes he could visit, and men who were friendly with him who would offer him a job. You Christians on the other hand, by your using your worldly wealth for making friends for yourselves, will secure a blessed home in eternity, the mansions that Jesus has prepared for us. There will be a Kenyan you will meet in heaven, and you paid for his education and he got a job and married and was a responsible member of a church – you will acknowledge one another in the eternal dwellings. There was a godly congregation whom you supported so that from its pulpit free grace in Jesus was preached and many in that church will get to heaven saved by the precious life and death of the Lord Jesus and we will be eternal brothers and sisters there. Be wise stewards of all that God has given to you. Give more to God than the price of a meal out. Give more to Kenyan Christians than you pay your newsagent each month for your papers to be delivered to you. So quickly a newspaper ends up in the recycling bin, but we are talking of eternal dwellings. Use every means to spread the gospel of grace and mercy in Jesus Christ. Your priority is the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Remember the vital words of our Master, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19&20). If an unrighteous manager used fraudulent means for a mere temporal end and he was commended by the master he had defrauded for shrewdly preparing for his future how much more should we as wise stewards use honest means to take ourselves and many others with us to the eternal dwellings?

iii] We should faithful in whatever God brings into our lives. I am building this on the words of Jesus, “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” (v.10). The suggestion is that the prodigal had not been trustworthy in little things before he’d run off. Trustworthiness begins in little things and it results in trustworthiness in great challenges. It starts with little. A pastor friend of mine was interviewing two boys for baptism and church membership. They were barely teenagers, but had a firm grasp of the heart of the gospel. They were not ashamed of it and they wanted now to confess the Lord as their own Saviour. “Are there any changes in your life that would lead us to be persuaded that you have become a true Christian?” said the pastor to them. One said that when his mother would ask him to brush his teeth he’d turn on the tap and move the tooth brush under the water and then turn it off. Now he was a Christian he brushed his teeth every day. The other said that his parents gave him some vitamin tablets to take but he generally threw them down the toilet. Now he faithfully took his vitamins each day. Little things, but so often it is in the little things in our lives that we are being tested. Being trustworthy in little things, in saying thank-you, in getting to church on time, in seeing if other people at the table have been offered everything before you start to eat; such little things sweeten life. Work as hard when people are not watching as when they are. Never stop praying for the help of the Spirit of God; without him you can do nothing. Be grateful for every sign of God’s blessing. Don’t give in to little temptations to impurity. Keep your promises. Fulfil your commitments. Respond to letters. Finish what you start.

Do you understand that this is not a matter of personality – being faithful in little things. In other words, it is not that you happen to be a rather happy-go-lucky man who generally goes for the big picture ignoring the details while someone else is more scrupulous in little things because that is his personality. It has nothing at all to do with personality. A man who can’t be trusted in little things indicates that he has a sinful personality and he must change. Faithfulness is no accident. It arises out of what a man is through and through.

iv] We should be reliable and conscientious in our daily duties. “So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?”(v.11). This is the veiled rebuke to the prodigal son and all like him who neglect their first vocation. Here is a preacher who spends his time buying and selling houses. What is he doing that for? You cannot do that and be a preacher. He is not stirring up the gift that is in him. He is not consecrating himself to his calling. How can God fill him with his Spirit when the preacher is using his precious time to increase his worldly wealth? You can imagine the Son saying to the Spirit, “We can’t entrust that man with the true riches of the gospel. The Spirit can’t be sent to empower him.” Jesus adds in the twelfth verse (and you can see the application again to the prodigal son), “And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?” There is Judas Iscariot standing in the front with the other disciples listening to Jesus telling this very parable, but we know that Judas was putting his hand in the disciples’ money bag and stealing from it. “If you are untrustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?” Judas became a stranger to the true riches of the kingdom of God. Judas betrayed Jesus. He could not be trusted in very little – looking after the gifts widows gave the disciples to buy food – and so he was faithless in what is supreme, looking after the Son of God.

How is your witness going to count in your place of work if you’re not trustworthy? If you are often taking days off, if you can’t do your job properly, if you leave before the end of the day, if you’re unreliable and others have to work extra hours to make up for your failures. The first basis for a good testimony is conscientiousness in the work you are being paid to do day by day.

v] We should not make money our master, but the Lord Jesus Christ. So the parable begins with this exhortation to be wise and shrewd like this unrighteous manager in planning a way to survive after being fired for wasting his master’s possessions. So you might think that our Lord has some sympathy for the health and wealth message, and that he is encouraging us to be entrepreneurs and businessmen. Yet we come to the close of this discourse and our Lord repeats those familiar words from the Sermon on the Mount which he must have preached on many occasions: “No servant can serve two masters. 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 both God and money” (v.13).

It is the great question as to whether it is possible to belong partly to God, and if it is then which parts are we going to allow him to be the Lord of. Then, when we begin to think like that, we soon come to realise that God is not our Lord if we are delegating to him just some of our time and gifts, and giving to him some duties towards us. We either belong to God totally and altogether, or we don’t belong to him at all. You cannot go on serving two such different conflicting masters. One master says, “Get all the money you can from the old man and go off to the distant city and satisfy all your tastes there.” The other master is saying, “Honour your father and your mother.” You have to choose which one you are gong to obey. You cannot be at the absolute disposal of both God and mammon. You have to make a choice. You are soon going to prefer one to the other. It is impossible to be one slave to two different masters. Each has his own plans and agenda. You’re not going to be a servile disciple of money and material things are you? Here is our beautiful Lord Jesus who has come to make God known to us, and taught us the Sermon on the Mount, and made himself a sacrifice on Golgotha to propitiate the holy wrath of God revealed towards our sins. How can you serve him while at the same time be serving your income and possessions and investments and shares? In all things he must have the preeminence.

There is no middle ground here. You might like to serve them both, money and God, but that’s impossible. You have to choose. There can be only one dominating love in your life. This affection, and this affection alone, you will serve. Bring yourself under the mastery of Jesus Christ. Bring your possessions under the mastery of Christ. Remember how much wealth he laid aside when he came into the world for you. Love so amazing so divine demands you soul, your life and your all.

19th June 2011 GEOFF THOMAS