The Lord's Day Morning
January 2, 2011
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 16 as we continue our way through the gospel of Luke. This is a hard parable. The commentators sometimes wrestle with this to understand what Jesus is speaking about. It's hard for a number of reasons. One is, in this parable, Jesus commends a dishonest squandering manager as the example to His disciples, and this causes people to ponder. And then it's not quite clear exactly what the manager is doing to extract himself from the situation that he's gotten himself into in this parable. Let me outline it for you and then I want to tell you a few things about it so that you can appreciate the story as we read it.
First of all you will see Jesus’ description of the circumstances of this story in verses 1 and 2. Then you will see the manager, this shrewd but dishonest and squandering manager, thinking to himself in verses 3 and 4 how he's going to get himself out of this mess. Then in verses 5 to 7 you’ll see what he actually does. And then in verse 8, Jesus shows you what the master says about what the manager does and Jesus Himself makes an application of the master's comments and the manager's actions to His disciples. And then in verses 9 to 13, Jesus makes a series of further applications to His disciples. In fact, if you were to count them up, I think you would find Jesus making at least five applications of this story to His own disciples.
Now it's important to note, as we look at this story, who the audience is. Jesus is clearly concerned to speak to His disciples. You see that in the very first words of verse 1 — “He also said to the disciples.” So Jesus’ concern is to speak to His own followers, those who He is edifying and equipping to minister to the church. And His purpose is to instruct them. He clearly has something that He wants them to learn from this story, but the Pharisees are here in the background. You will remember, as we've worked our way through Luke 15, each of the previous three stories are aimed at the Pharisees and this story is too. And the way you know that is, if you’ll sneak a peek down in verse 14 — we're not going to read that verse today; we’ll stop at verse 13 — but verse 14 tells you what the Pharisees thought about this story that Jesus told. They did what? They scoffed at Jesus when He told this story. So He's got them in His sights because, and Luke tells you in verse 14, because why? “The Pharisees were lovers of money.” Jesus deliberately tells this story trying to deal with one of the key heart sins of the Pharisees, but not just to say something about the Pharisees, to say something very important to His own disciples. We could all get together and feel smug and condescending and beat up on Jewish leaders that lived two thousand years ago, but Jesus has us in His sights too. It's not just the Pharisees. He wants His disciples, He wants you and me, to understand the lesson of this story.
Now this fact that He's got the Pharisees in the background and He wants to teach His own disciples something, explains the shocking nature of the story. Jesus is deliberately tweaking the Pharisees’ noses by making a sinful man the hero of His story. His point is not to praise dishonesty. His point is to show that sometimes worldly people are shrewder than people who profess to be God's people in the way that they approach their use of and attitude towards wealth and resources and money. Indeed, Jesus wants His disciples to consider the possibility that worldly people are wiser and shrewder than they are in their use of wealth.
Now here's the background to the story — you have a man who was a steward or a manager or a factor. His job was to take care of money and resources that did not belong to him, money and resources that belonged to his master. His job was to manage them and to deploy them well. But it becomes known early in this story, to the master, that this manager, this steward, is mismanaging his wealth. He's squandering it. And that was considered a great crime in Jesus’ time, to misuse or mismanage someone else's wealth. He may even have been misappropriating funds. Now the owner in this context, when the news comes to him, he immediately fires him. He calls him in and he says, “You’re fired. You’re no longer going to be my manager, but before you go, the last thing you’re going to do is you’re going to settle the accounts and you’re going to show me how much I've lost. You’re going to show me how much you've lost me. You’re going to show me the condition that I'm in financially.”
Now the manager at this point is afraid of several things. He's first of all afraid that he's going to be prosecuted once he's — now he's been dismissed, he's lost his job, he's going to have to give a final account. He's afraid that what's coming next is he's going to be hauled into court. He's also afraid because he's made a lot of enemies in the village there. He has clearly made a lot of money off of what he has been doing in terms of managing his master's funds and he's not very popular in his own community. He wouldn't be welcomed into many homes for a meal and he's thinking of himself. And so he's got to come up with a plan to protect himself from prosecution by his owner and to deal with the clients in such a way that he might find an employment opportunity or at least a free meal in the community once he no longer has a job.
So the man called in all the master's debtors and he allows them to pay off debt at a reduced rate. Now whether he does this by not charging them usury or interest or whether he does this in some other way, I don't know, but somehow he gives them a really good rate in settling their debts, the debts they owe to the master. And when he settles the accounts with the master, the master looks at the bottom line, and having feared the worst, he's pleasantly surprised at the bottom line and he ends up commending this manager for his shrewdness, for the shrewd way in which he operated. Now the parable presents us with a steward who, faced with the loss of employment, protects his future by calling in the bonds and getting the debtors to rewrite them so that they perhaps no longer carried interest.
And Jesus’ point is to show us that even worldly people know how to employ their money and their energy in order to secure their own interests. Now He wants to do two things here. He wants to say, “This shrewd manager understood the accounting that he was about to face, he understood what his interests were, and he knew how to use his resources in order to foster his best interest.” And He's saying to the Pharisees, “You don't understand how to use wealth in the right way. You claim to be people who are concerned about eternal interests, but you don't use money or view money in such a way that says you really care about eternal interests.” And He's saying to His disciples, “Don't be like the Pharisees. Don't be people who lose sight of eternal interests, eternal concerns, eternal things. And don't use your resources like there isn't an eternal accounting and eternal concerns in this life.” And He's pointing to the shrewdness of pagans in how they pursue their interests in this life and saying to His disciples, “We ought to be at least as shrewd as they are about things that eternally matter.”
Now with that background, let's read the Word of God together. Let's pray before we do.
Lord, this is Your Word. We ask that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful truths in it. And we pray that by the Holy Spirit You would apply it to our own hearts. In Jesus' name, amen.
“He also said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.
One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own? 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.’”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Jesus, in this story, shows us the shrewdness of a pagan in securing his own interests by means of money. And then He asks His disciples to ponder this question — Does my use of money, does my attitude towards money and wealth and resources, comport with eternal interests? Does what I say that I believe about eternal life and the kingdom of God and living for His glory, square up with the way that I look at wealth, the way that I think about wealth, the way I use money, wealth, and resources? Or, does my use of wealth and my attitude towards it, suggest that my eyes is not on the ball, that I'm not thinking about eternal things, that I'm not reckoning with the accounting that is going to come and I'm not thinking about the interests of eternal life? That's what Jesus wants His disciples to be thinking about and He gives us several lessons in this passage. I just want to focus on three of them. As I've already suggested, I think He's got at least five applications, but I want you to look at three in particular and you’ll see them in verses 9, 10 and 13.
First, Jesus wants us to look at our use of money in light of eternal interests. You see that in verse 9. Second, Jesus wants us to understand that our use of money may be a small thing but it's not a trivial thing. You know there may be more important things in life than the way we use our money, but it's not trivial how we use our money. And third, and you see this in verse 13, Jesus wants us to understand that our attitude towards and use of money, resources, material benefits and blessings, that our attitude and use of those things shows us who we worship. Now the big points that Jesus is pressing home on His disciples in this passage is that we are to be wholly devoted to the Lord. But He wants to make sure that even the way His disciples use money reflects that we are wholly devoted to the Lord and He wants to protect us from the leaven of the Pharisees which is, in this case, a love of money. And so let's look at the three things that Jesus teaches us in this passage.
First of all, look at what He says in verse 9. He says, “I say to you, make friends for yourselves by the means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails they will receive you into the eternal dwellings.” In other words, Jesus is saying that your use of money in this life ought to have in view your eternal interests. The way that you use money ought to be an indicator of what you believe about eternal life, about what you believe about the accounting to come in the final judgment. And Jesus has in His sights at this point the Pharisees. We’re told in verse 14 that the Pharisees were lovers of money, and Jesus is warning His disciples against this. The Pharisees, you see, used people to gain things and serve themselves. And Jesus is saying to His disciples, “Don't use money that way.” He's saying, “Use things to serve people and to glorify God. Don't use people to get things and to serve yourself. Use things to serve people and to glorify God.” The Pharisees were lovers of money and they used people to gain things, even though they claimed to be spiritual, heavenly-minded, and this is a rebuke to them.
And so Jesus is saying to His disciples and to you and me, “Instead of using people to line your pockets, use your money for kingdom purposes in order to secure eternal wealth. Let your use of money show that you care about eternal things.” Jesus’ point is that every one of His disciples ought to use his or her resources with a view to the glory of God and the good of others. Jesus, in this passage, is saying that our use of money, our use of our resources, is an indicator as to whether we have lost focus on things of eternal value.
Secondly, if you look at verse 10, Jesus makes this point, that your use of money might be a small matter, but it's not a trivial matter. Look at what He says — “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much and one who is dishonest in very little is also dishonest in much.” Jesus is telling us here that our attitude towards and our use of money is an index of our hearts. And so, though money may be in the great scheme of things a relatively small thing, it's not a trivial thing. Why? Because it indicates where our hearts really are. Elsewhere you remember Jesus will say, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” so that what you treasure reveals your heart. And if you’re like the Pharisees and you use things or you use people to gain things and to serve yourself, it shows where your heart really is no matter what you claim to believe with regard to God and eternal things. So Jesus is teaching us here the importance of faithfulness in little things, including the way we use our resources.
I love what J.C. Ryle says — “He guards us against supposing that such conduct about money, as that of the unjust steward, ought ever to be considered a light and trifling thing among Christians. He would have us know that little things are the best test of character and that unfaithfulness about little things is the symptom of a bad state of heart.”
So what does your use of money say about you? Does your use of money say, for instance, that you think that that money is actually yours and that it's to be used for your happiness in any way that you please? Or, does your use of money say that you understand that you are a steward, that the money doesn't belong to you, it belongs to God — God has entrusted you with that money to use for His glory, your good, and the good of others — and do you understand that you will give an account for how you use that money? So have you lost sight of eternal things in the way that you’re using the resources that God has given to you? Jesus is teaching here that your use of money may be a small thing relatively, but it's not a trivial thing and it is an index of our hearts.
But then in verse 13 He tells us a third thing. Notice what He says here. “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Jesus is saying here that your attitude towards and your use of wealth, resources, money, shows who you worship. In this passage, He uses the term “mammon” or wealth. What is that? Money, yes, but the application is much broader than that. It can refer to your stomach, your ease, your sleep, your time, your sports, your pastimes, your worldly honors, your status, your influence, the praise of men, pleasure — and notice that Jesus does not say that we should not serve both God and mammon, but that we cannot serve both God and mammon. The point is, you are always going to love and worship and serve something or someone supremely and there will be no one who can vie with that supreme treasure. And Jesus is saying, “Where's your treasure? Where is your spiritual vision focused? Who is your master? Who do you care about the most? Who do you love the most? Who do you treasure the most? It must be God,” Jesus says. And He turns to the Pharisees and He says to His disciples, “They say that they love God, but what they really love is money. Don't be like that. Love God more than stuff.”
Again, J.C. Ryle has a very searching series of questions that he asks about this parable. Here's what he says — “The parable in this point of view is deeply instructive. It may well raise within us great searchings of hearts. The diligence of worldly men about the things of time should put to shame the coldness of professing Christians about the things of eternity. The zeal and tenacity of men in business, compassing sea and land to get earthly treasures, may well reprove the slackness and indolence of believers about treasures in heaven. The words of our Lord are indeed weighty and solemn. The children of this world are, in their generation, wiser than the children of light. May these words sink into our hearts and bear fruit in our lives.”
You see, Jesus is talking to His disciples about living in such a way that we show that we are wholly devoted to the Lord, that we treasure Him above everything. And He's saying to His disciples, “Your attitude and use of material possessions will give the lie to whether you are wholly devoted to the Lord or not.” We want to be wholly devoted to the Lord. This year, that ought to be a goal, a spiritual aspiration of our hearts. It's a time of year when many people make resolutions. Maybe you've already broken the ones that you've purposed, but here's a resolution, an aspiration, an aim, a goal, a purpose to strive for — let us be wholly devoted to the Lord and let us be wholly devoted to the Lord in the way we use our material resources.
And if I could give this congregation one challenge, it's been very humbling for me to watch you give sacrificially to the on-going ministry of this church even through very hard economic times, but the one thing that has greatly suffered over these last two and a half years that we've been going through this great recession has been missions giving. And it would, I think, be a great testimony of our devotion to the Lord if we were to rectify that in this year to come and continue a great legacy and tradition that our forbearers have passed on down to us here at First Presbyterian Church of not failing to keep the Great Commission and the spreading of the Gospel to the ends of the earth as a priority in our giving and in our ministry in this congregation. And that's the challenge that I would give to you that flows out of what Jesus says to us in this passage.
But the big picture, you see, is very clear. It's that we are to give the whole of ourselves in devotion to the Lord and our use of material resources is an index to that, it's a witness to that, it's an evidence of that. The main thing is to be wholly devoted to the Lord. You know, football coaches often speak, especially after they've won, about their teams having “left it all on the field.” What they mean by that is their players have given everything they had, they couldn't have given another ounce of effort, and they are completely spent. Whatever they had to offer in that game, they have displayed it and put it out on that field. That's how we ought to live the Christian life. We ought to leave it all on the field. We ought to be so focused on eternal interests and eternal things that we deploy all that we have and all that we are in the interests of the kingdom. That's what Jesus is calling His disciples to do in this passage. That's what He's calling you and me to do.
Heavenly Father, at the beginning of this year, we ask the grace of the Holy Spirit that we would live in such a way that we are wholly devoted to the Lord. We want to use the material, the possessions, the resources, the wealth, the money that You've given us for Your glory and others’ good, not just our own wellbeing. We want to use the resources we have with an eye on eternity. We want to be thinking about eternity the same way that worldly businessmen might be thinking about an immediate return on their profits now or shrewd business dealings. We want to have a focus on the kingdom and the Gospel and things that will last forever and we want to use our resources in light of that. But above everything else, we want to live for You. We want to be wholly devoted to you. Whether in life or death, we want Christ to be glorified in our bodies. Help us to do this by the grace of Your Holy Spirit for we are weak and we have a short attention span and we're so distracted by the world around us and carried away by the cares of life. By Your Spirit, help us as a people to be wholly devoted to the Lord Jesus. We ask this in His name. Amen.
Receive now God's blessing. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.