1 He also said to His disciples: “There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and an accusation was brought to him that this man was wasting his goods. 2 So he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’
3 “Then the steward said within himself, ‘What shall I do? For my master is taking the stewardship away from me. I cannot dig; I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have resolved what to do, that when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.’
5 “So he called every one of his master’s debtors to him, and said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ So he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7 Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ So he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ 8 So the master commended the unjust steward because he had dealt shrewdly. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light. 9 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.
10 “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. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? 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.”
Last time we looked at the parable of the man with the two lost sons. When Jesus told that parable, he was talking to Pharisees and tax collectors and sinners, and I think his main reason for telling that parable was to correct the mistake that they were all making in thinking that God would accept the Pharisees and punish the sinners based on how well they kept the rules. The main point was that God’s love toward us does not depend on our performance; it’s all about His grace.
I can imagine the disciples hearing that and thinking “ok, so we don’t need to obey all these rules like the older brother for God to accept us, but it can’t be good for us to go out and devour our property prostitutes like the younger brother, can it? How are we supposed to live? Or does it really not matter at all?” I think Jesus is addressing those sorts of questions in Luke 16. He tells us that our actions in this life do affect what happens in eternity, and he tells us how to be faithful in this life.
I picked out 4 points to look at, but we only got through 3 of them on Sunday, so I think I’ll save the 4th one for later.
So firstly, I think Jesus calls us to be Shrewd Stewards, secondly we’re to be Shrewd Investors, and thirdly we’re to Spread the Wealth.
In verse 1, we’re told that Jesus is talking to his disciples, and I think Jesus’ instructions to his disciples also apply to Christians in the 21st Century (although not necessarily in exactly the same way). With parables, it can be difficult to know how far we’re meant to push the analogy, and some people had difficulty accepting that the steward represents disciples and the rich man represents God, given the dishonesty of the steward and the commendation from his master, and I don’t think I changed those people’s minds, but given the instruction in v9, to “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth” I think we are to follow the steward’s example in several respects. I guess you will have to judge for yourselves whether you think I’ve taken it too far, but first we’ll define stewardship.
a) We are stewards, as opposed to owners.
We do not own our possessions, they are God’s. All our money, time, talents have been given us by God to use for his purposes. I think everyone at BoABC is pretty familiar with that concept, but something I didn’t really notice before I studied this passage is that, because we don’t have our own possessions but are stewards of God’s possessions, any time in the Bible where God tells us to do something with our possessions, or money, or gifts, or time, he’s actually saying “this is how I want you to steward my possessions for me.” I never thought of it quite like that before, but it’s important later on.
a) We are to be shrewd, as opposed to glory-stealers.
This is not so much the point of this passage, but a brief recap of part of the last study. Before we get on to trying to live faithful lives, we need to remember what God created us for. We’ll struggle to live as God wants us to if we don’t understand His ultimate goal for our lives.
In v8, the steward is not commended for doing something great for his master, just for being shrewd. He didn’t earn anyone’s respect by his actions, he just made use of his master’s stuff.
Last time I referred to Ephesians 2, where we’re told about God’s aim to show the immeasurable riches of his grace; He’s not glorified by us doing things for Him; He’s not served by human hands (Acts 17:25). If we ever somehow managed to do something for God that he couldn’t do for himself, that would make us deserving of some glory. We can never do that anyway, because God’s given us everything we have to start with, but even if we could, God’s purpose for our lives is not for us to earn glory for ourselves, we’re to use what He’s given us to show how glorious He is. So as we try to live faithfully, the point is not to show how faithful we are, but to show how gracious he is.
What God does for us far outweighs anything we give up for Him. Matt 13:44 says “the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” The man doesn’t think “I’ve given up so much for this”; he’s so wowed by the value of the treasure that he joyfully gives up everything he had before in order to get his hands on it. To him, giving up all his earthly possessions was a shrewd investment, because the treasure he got in return was much more valuable. We’re not meant to look at that text and think how faithful that man was, he was just shrewd; we’re meant to think “wow, that’s some valuable treasure, the kingdom of heaven must be amazing”. That way the glory goes to God, not man.
For this reason, I’m not personally a big fan of the word “Challenge” in relation to the Christian life, as in “that was a really challenging sermon”, because to me, a challenge focuses on what we do – kind of like the Olympics. The Olympics are not really about the little bits of Gold, Silver & Bronze that they give out. In terms of the value of the gold, the people who win them don’t make a profit on the amount of sacrifice they made. The metal is not worth that much; the medal is really just symbolic, it represents “I worked really hard and made a lot of sacrifices and I’m now officially the best in the world at completing this particular challenge.” But for Christians, the prize we get is so ridiculously far out of proportion to any effort and sacrifices we make that it’s not worth comparing (Rom 8:18). We’re not going to look at our rewards in heaven and think they’re merely symbolic of all the challenges we went through in our Earthly lives, we’ll be so in awe of how gracious God has been to us that the challenges will seem totally insignificant. If you want some gold, you could work really hard and try to win a Gold medal at the Olympics, but it would be more shrewd to just go to a shop and buy some gold. Going to the Olympics is not the shrewd way to get a few grams of gold, but Christianity is a very shrewd investment, and that glorifies God, because no one will look at us and think we’re worthy winners of our reward, they’ll look God and see how immeasurably gracious He is. So I personally prefer the word “motivate”. I hope we’ll be motivated to live faithfully because we’ve got our eyes on the heavenly reward, not on ourselves.
(Sometimes we also use the word challenge when we’re faced with a command that we realise we haven’t been obeying; in those cases I think “convict” is more appropriate.)
Why was what the steward did shrewd? v3-4: “the steward said within himself, ‘What shall I do? For my master is taking the stewardship away from me… I have resolved what to do, that when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.’” He realises his stewardship is going to end, so he makes sure he’ll be looked after when that day comes. And in v9 we’re told to do something similar, so that when our earthly lives end we’ll be received into eternal dwellings.
When I was looking at v13 I found that the same words (“No servant can serve two masters…”) are recorded in Matt 6:24, and looking at the context there, in v19-21 you find a similar message about investing in where you’re going to be when this life ends. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” And Luke 12:19-21 is similar as well, where a rich man says ““Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.”’ 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’ 21 “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.””
We have the option of either laying up treasure in heaven, where it will last for eternity, or laying up treasure here, where, even if it does last until we die, we can’t take it with us. How foolish are we to choose the latter?
Francis Chan illustrates this point well with a rope.
Spread the Wealth
What does being a good steward of God’s possessions involve? How should we invest in eternity?
v5-7 “So he called every one of his master’s debtors to him, and said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ So he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7 Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ So he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’”
v9 “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.”
This steward invests in his future by making friends for himself by basically giving his master’s stuff away for free. Is that a good example for us to follow in the way we steward God’s possessions? Is that really what Jesus means when he talks in v10-12 about “being faithful with that which is another’s” (i.e. faithful with that which is God’s)?
Well, Yes! Remember that we don’t have any of our own possessions, we are only stewards of God’s possessions, so when God gives us commands about what to do with our possessions, he’s actually saying “this is what I want you to do with my possessions.” Now look at what Jesus tells his disciples to do in Luke 6v35: “lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High”. “Lend, expecting nothing in return” – that’s a lot like what the steward did in Luke 16. Jesus is not saying lend your own money expecting nothing in return; we don’t have any of our own money. All the money and possessions we have are what God has given us to manage for him, and Jesus tells us to lend it expecting nothing in return!
This is not commending stealing. We’re not meant to apply this to the way we treat our earthly bosses’ stuff. If I was to give my employers’ resources away for free without their permission, that would be stealing. But God specifically tells us to give his resources away: “lend, expecting nothing in return”. If we’re doing exactly what God’s told us to do with his stuff, that’s not stealing; it’s obedience.
And that’s not just a one-off verse…
I already mentioned Luke 12 with the man who’d laid up many goods for many years but was not rich toward God, and then in v33-34 Jesus says “Sell your possessions (i.e. God’s possessions) and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with money bags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail,”
Luke 14:12-14 “When you give a dinner or a banquet (remember all the food is God’s food), do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
Luke 18:22 “Sell all that you have (i.e. all that God has given you to steward) and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven…”
Do you get the impression Jesus may have been trying to tell us something? Could he have made it much clearer? It’s crazy how we can read our Bible regularly and still think it’s a good idea to collect earthly possessions. I mean really, it’s insane! And did you notice that all of these passages reiterate the promise that, if we give God’s possessions away to those in need, we will be rewarded in heaven? So this is where the shrewdness comes in: it’s shrewd for us to give our things away to the poor because we’ll be rewarded later.
Notice also from the 2nd part of v9 that the aim is to make friends who will be able to receive us into eternal dwellings. Our new friends won’t be able to do that if they’re not in heaven themselves, so while we help people with material needs, we’ll also need to explain the gospel to them.
Of course the gospel by itself is more valuable than any earthly possession. Knowing the kind of teaching we’ve had at this church, you probably don’t need me to tell you that, but we do need to keep it in mind. Sometimes it’s easy to help people materially but then not do anything to help them spiritually. But then perhaps there’s also the opposite tendency, thinking that because the gospel is more important than helping people with material needs, it’s ok to hold onto our possessions as long as we preach to people. The Bible is clear that we’re to do both, share the gospel AND share our material wealth with those who need it.
Do we actually take what Jesus says about giving to the poor seriously? How many of us have recently invited someone to eat with us who was poor enough that they won’t be able to repay us in this life? I’m convicted, but please don’t use my hypocrisy as an excuse for you to do the same, let’s stir each other up to actually live this out.
I have another quote from Francis Chan. This is not a Francis Chan study. I didn’t expect to be quoting him when I chose this passage, but I think what he says is really relevant to what this passage is saying. And this quote could really apply to anything that Jesus commands us to do, but I find it particularly convicting in relation to this type of command that Jesus gives to use our money, time and possessions for the benefit of other people.
Let’s not mess about, trying to invest the minimum amount we can get away with in the kingdom of God while also trying to enjoy a nice comfortable life here on Earth, let’s invest everything God’s given us in laying up treasure in heaven that will never fail.
2 Cor 9v6: “whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”
Some people would say I’ve gone too far in applying the steward’s actions to the way we’re to steward God’s possessions; that this is just a parable about shrewdness. In some ways I might say it doesn’t matter because other passages clearly teach that we are to give to the poor and that we’ll be rewarded in heaven for doing so, but to me it does matter, because although what I’ve said may not be wrong, I wasn’t aiming to give an inspiring message about giving to the poor, I was aiming to explain this passage. That would be the difference between exposition and just using the text to say what I wanted to say.
I guess one day I’ll find out for sure whether I was right or not, but for now, I’ll make do with saying that, if I have got it wrong, I’m in pretty good company, because while I followed some of David Murray’s advice in preparing this in that I left looking at commentaries until the end of my preparation, I was pleased when I got to that stage to find that John Calvin said of this passage: “The leading object of this parable is, to show that we ought to deal kindly and generously with our neighbours; that, when we come to the judgement seat of God, we may reap the fruit of our liberality.”