I read a story from the Queensland Court Rooms of a man who had been charged with cattle stealing and had been putting his own brands on cattle but the jury that tried him had also done quite a bit of cattle stealing, and so their verdict was after a few minutes – “Not guilty but he has to give the cattle back”. The judge was furious at this and said “you do not set the conditions as a jury, I just want a simple ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ ” And they went out and 5 minutes later they came back and said, “OK not guilty and he can keep the rotten cattle!”
I don’t know if it’s a true story or not but it’s a great picture of a sort of minor dishonesty in the legal world and we come to a passage in Luke 16 which seems to deal with dishonesty and commends it. That’s what unusual about this parable. The famous parable of Luke 16, and I want to look at it with you under two headings this morning – Learning from the businessman (and we need to) and then Warnings to the businessman.
Learning from the Businessman
I’ll remind you of the story which we had read for us so helpfully that a man is about to be fired from work and so what does he do? He thinks ahead, there’s no social security when the job is gone, he doesn’t want to dig, he doesn’t want to beg and he creates a plan whereby he’ll be very popular with other people. He goes around reducing the debt that people owe the boss. It’s what we would call an ‘amended loan agreement’. And the boss applauds him interestingly for his cleverness. The boss says: “that was clever”.
Now Jesus’ conclusion in verse 9 is a really extraordinary one. He says “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves so that when it is gone, you’ll be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” Now if you are a genius, you’ll know exactly what to do with that verse now, but for the normal person like me, we have to struggle with these things. And so I asked myself what is obvious about this story? What is the plain fact of the matter? And I can see two things:
First of all that this steward or manager is coming up to a day of accounting just as indeed everybody, every disciple is coming up to the day of accounting, a day when we will give account for our stewardship. If you believe in Jesus Christ and you trust Him and His work for you on the cross, your eternity is secure. Judgment is gone because it is past, but if you are a believer in Jesus Christ and a follower of Jesus Christ, you’ve been given certain stewardship. Sometimes, some resources, some opportunities and in a loving but serious way we will give account and so the Bible says in Romans 14 “each of us even believers will give an account” Hebrews 4 “we must give an account”. Hebrews 13 “church leaders must give an account”
So the first thing we see which is evident from this parable is that the manager knows there’s a day coming of accounting.
The second thing which is obvious is that he decided to make friends in the long term. His motive was not so honourable – it was quite dishonest. But his method was clever because he did make friends for himself in the long term. And you can imagine the people in debt as he comes to their house and says “what do you owe? Oh you owe 800, well make it 400”, and they say “is this really true? This is wonderful, how kind you are. What a thoughtful man. What a generous man. We really appreciate you. You’re our friend forever”. So he makes friends for himself. And therefore we can conclude on the plain reading of this parable that it is about a forward-looking man. He knows that he will give account and he plans to go beyond the day of accounting.
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Those of you who have been challenged by the world to think about your retirement would do well to go back to the Bible and think beyond your retirement. Because if a person in this world thinks of their retirement as though that’s their real goal of life, what a tragedy. Everybody is going to give account, and we need to think beyond that and we need to ask ourselves the question ‘if I’m a Christian and I give account for my stewardship, I hope there is much joy beyond that, not just by being in heaven, but by being able to rejoice at things that God enabled me to do”. So I hope that you will think further beyond just your retirement as the world does.
Now I want to ask a more difficult question of this parable: “Is Jesus evangelising his disciples? Is he gospelling them? Is He saying to them something like this? – “Pagans think ahead for their business, you think ahead for your soul”. Here is a clever man who thought ahead. You be smart and think ahead for your eternal welfare. Here is a man, says Jesus, in my story who worked out how he would get long-term hospitality. You work out how you’ll get eternal hospitality. That wouldn’t be a bad message, wouldn’t it? Or is Jesus enlisting his disciples? Is He saying a pagan knows how to cancel debts? You disciples are involved in the greater work of cancelling debts. Is He speaking to the disciples – look this man in my story got a welcome from new friends, you live in such a way that when you get to heaven, you’ll get a welcome from people who are grateful for your ministry.
I don’t want to confuse you this morning. I want you to work out once you have got over the shock of Jesus using a businessman to teach shrewdness, you have to ask yourself the question – is he teaching the disciples to plan their eternity? In which case most people here this morning will say, tick the box, done that, or is He enlisting the disciples and saying to them ‘join in the mission’? In which case I think most disciples will say that’s something I need to work on and re-think and plan more and more carefully.
A big part of your decision whether you go with gospelling the disciples or enlisting them for the mission is going to hang on what is said in the very 3rd verse of the gospel, chapter 1:3. This is what it says: “I have written” says Luke “an orderly account” This is a very important verse when it comes to reading Luke’s gospel and trying to work out whether Luke’s gospel is just a hotchpotch which a whole lot of people have thrown together or whether it’s actually a very brilliant systematic argument. I want to urge you on the basis of Luke 1:3 to take Luke extremely seriously and never fall into the trap of standing over the passage and saying ‘that’s weird, that’s really silly, that’s confusing, that must have come in from somewhere else, this must have been a real scissors and paste exercise’. Just be very careful before you do that because Luke says he’s written an orderly account. To say nothing of the fact that the Holy Spirit super-intends the writing of the gospels, so we not only get them in a certain order but we also get them in the content. We not only get the content but we also get the order.
Now if we do put Luke 16 into it’s setting, this is where it comes. We just had chapter 14 on the call to people to God’s banquet, many of you will remember that. We then had in chapter 15 the joy in Heaven when people respond to God.
14: Come to the banquet
15: God rejoices over the found
A parable about stewardship and then in case we miss the point, verses 10,11,12,13, on stewardship. So I am suggesting to you don’t think of this parable as being a gospel message to disciples. Plan your eternity. That, of course, is important but this is a passage which says – ‘if you are a disciple join the mission, be a steward of what you’ve received.
Next week we’ll see how there is a message to the Pharisees that they have to take in what they have not yet received, but this first half of chapter 16 is a parable on using well what you have received. Friends if you are a Christian here this morning, like me, you’ve received plenty. Now we have to ask yourself the question – “am I willing to be a good steward?” and if the answer is ‘yes’ we say “Lord, you’ve given me a new day and you’ve given me a certain amount of resources, please help me to be a good steward today and every day”.
Before we leave the parable, and it’s a straightforward point, which means be a steward for eternal good, I want to acknowledge with you how clever the world is in its own areas. What Jesus said in verse 8A is true. The master commends the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly, but the people of this world are more shrewd, that’s true. The world is brilliant at planning. There are men and women here who have got very great brains and gifts and have expanded their business brilliantly. – You really have. You’ve thought, you’ve worked, you’ve done good.
I was watching on the news yesterday a little item in the news on food packaging. The principle of the little item on the news was this: that when you go to the supermarket, you’ll see a package on the shelf. The package is actually more than a single serve. So you think that will do me. But it’s actually one and a half meals or maybe even two meals. This is designed so that your appetite will grow and your belly will grow, and you will want more. So they are giving you more food, more drink than you need. Not only that, they will write on the back of the package: Fat per serving 24…whatever. But the packet that you’ve got in your hand is more than one serving: it’s one and a half or two, and so the fat content is one and a half or twice what it says on the back, and this is an absolute piece of genius I think that there is a food company that is managing to produce packets of food.
This is going to be the most exciting part of this sermon for you this morning, isn’t it? You’re going to forget everything else except your supermarket shopping! I shouldn’t have told you this story! You go to the supermarket, you take the little packet off and think that meal will do me,you’re actually buying one and a half or two meals for yourself. Not only that you read the “Fat” on the back and you think great, that’s pretty ordinary, but you’re actually taking in one and a half or twice as much as it says. Now could you do better than that if you are a food producing company? You’ve actually expanded the appetite of the person walking down the aisle, they are now dependent upon you for more food, they’ve sold you more than you need, they’ve given you more fat that you can cope with, and you thought it was less than they said. You can’t really do better than that can you? That is a piece of genius. And we could multiply this story a billion times.
What Jesus says is exactly right – the world is a genius, the world is brilliant. But I want to ask you why is 8B such a damning verse for the church? Why is it that the world is more shrewd in dealing with their own issues than the believers, the people of the light. That is a damning verse, isn’t it? And the reason, of course, is that Christians are much too pagan.
Warnings to Businessmen
I want to suggest to you that what He is doing is He is helping everybody who finds it difficult to stop elevating things that they can see, touch, taste and handle and who finds it difficult to start elevating things that last. Isn’t that you? Don’t you find it difficult to stop elevating things that will ultimately perish and don’t you find it difficult to start elevating things that will last? So what Jesus does in these verses 10,11 & 12 is He says I’m going to teach you about the difference between the temporary and the eternal. And this is what He says about the temporary: The temporary is little, it’s worldly, it’s someone else’s. The eternal, He says, is much and it’s true, and it’s your own.
He’s trying you see to help us to re-think what’s important. Let’s take a few seconds on these;
In verse 10, imagine a man who has an income or a woman who has an income. They’ve got some possessions, they’ve got some stocks, they’ve got some assets. Jesus says you’ve been given a little by the standards of the world. You’ve been given a little by the standards of the universe, but if you’re trustworthy, verse 10 in your little for the good of the gospel, you’ll be trusted with much. This is just common sense, isn’t it? If you are in the world and you are reliable, you get promoted, and if you are a Christian and you are reliable, you get entrusted with more. Show me the person who’s good at the little they have, and that’s the person that God almost inevitably gives more responsibility to.
The reverse is true in verse 10 that if you’re dishonest with little, you’ll be dishonest with much. So not only is this a very comforting principle because some here today do have little, you don’t have a lot of extra to play with, but if you’re trustworthy with what you’ve got and you do set apart for the gospel what you can, God honours you. And of course, this is very challenging because if you’ve got what you’ve got, but you don’t invest anything in what will really last, you have to ask yourself the question whether God will give you much more to deal with. So that’s the first thing. Little and much.
The second thing in verse 11 – this is a discernment issue. This is the difference between “worldly” and “true”. Jesus is asking you whether you can see the difference between temporary stuff which is really worldly and eternal stuff which is really true. The word for “worldly” in the Greek is actually “unrighteous”. And of course, people have always assumed from that, that the Bible is very negative about possessions. The Bible is not negative about possessions because God has given us all things richly to enjoy. He’s given us plenty to enjoy and we ought to enjoy and give thanks for the things we have. We’ve to stay good stewards. We’ve got to make sure the eternal dominates the temporary and not vice versa. And the danger of course with worldly wealth or unrighteous wealth is that it’s very hypnotic. It becomes an opiate. And so as long, friends, as you can put your possessions in the place of service you are in a pretty good position. As long as you are free from secret devotion to temporary things, you are in a good position.
I want to urge you more and more to have a good laugh at stuff that will pass. In some ways, you ought to insult and mock and keep your distance from that which is going to go to dust. You remember the old illustration if I give you two boxes of stickers, one is green, and one is red and I ask you to go out of church this morning and put a red sticker on everything that will disappear and a green sticker on everything that will last – you’ve got to put a green sticker on people, and you’ve got a green sticker on the Scriptures. There’re the things that will last. But you’ve got to put a red sticker on the cars in the car park and the houses in the streets, and the boats in the water and all the other things which are going to disappear and you and I have got to be discerning; otherwise, we will be really fooled by this. Whereas in fact, we know perfectly well that eternity is an eternity and the passing is the passing.
So that’s what Jesus says here. Just notice that not only is the temporary stuff little but it’s worldly and notice that the eternal is not only much, but it’s true – it’s lasting.
The third in verse 12 – the most shocking of all the verses I think – if you have not been trustworthy with some else’s property, who will give you property of your own?. The temporary stuff is never yours anyway. The eternal stuff is yours forever. Imagine a man looking out on his farm, his vineyards, and his cattle and his sheep and then he goes inside, and he looks at the paintings on the wall, and the magnificent furniture that he has collected and his house is absolutely wonderful, and he says “it’s all mine”. That’s not his at all, is it? He just gets to walk in and sits on the chair for a bit, and pretty soon he or the place will disappear. Nothing in this world you see is ever really ours. The only thing that we can really own is what Christ gives us which goes into the soul and what we give him which is forever.
Martin Luther said, “I’ve held many things in my hand, and I’ve lost them all, but whatever I’ve placed in his hands I still possess”. And Jesus is just asking us to re-think what we’ve got and to say in the end it’s really some else’s, and probably I think it’s capital ‘S’ – someone else’s. It’s God’s, but the stuff that we will really own is what God gives us for eternity through Christ.
Peter says you’ve got an inheritance that can never perish kept in heaven for you. That’s what we’ve really got to value.
Now you might say I agree with all of this. I’m pretty happy. I’m still enjoying what I’ve got, and I’ve got the next world as well. Now the crunch comes in verse 13 – Why is that some people don’t seem to be good stewards for eternity? Verse 13. “No servant can serve two masters. Either he’ll hate the one and love the other, or he’ll be devoted to one and despise the other – you cannot serve both God and money”. “Oh,” says the Christian, “that’s not true – I love God and money” No you can talk like that, but you can’t walk like that. In the end, you’ll walk God’s way for eternity, and the eternal light will shine on everything you have, or you’ll walk the worldly way, and the eternal stuff will be just a little sub-set of life. Verse 13 is a real crunch, isn’t it?
You notice what Jesus is saying to his disciples – He’s saying to them three things – Can you be shrewd with the eternal things? Second, Can you see what’s important? And third, If you can’t see what’s important, is it because you’re divided in the heart?
I think this is a very sobering passage for disciples. One friend of mine said it is a brutal passage. I want to finish by asking some questions for us?
Can you see Christian friends the backdrop that God is very generous to us, incredibly generous to us?. In a thousand years from now we will say to Him we were given stuff that we couldn’t even understand how good it was. How generous He’s been to us. And what a costly search He has made for us.
Can you see that your involvement in the long-term mission of the kingdom in the gospel is actually going to see people around the world lose much greater debts than oil or wheat.? They will lose the debts of sin. What an incredible debt to have cancelled through the gospel. And not only that do you realise there will be many people because of your generosity and there are many here today who have been very generous. Do you realise that there will be many people that you don’t even know about because a lot of ministry just does not get acknowledged in this life who will welcome you in eternity with great thankfulness who will thank God for you, that’s our privilege?
Have you settled in your mind that unlike the world you will and are prepared to lose many temporary pleasures in order to be faithful, trustworthy with greater and eternal things? Are you ready to lose many eternal things? Have you settled in your mind that you just won’t get to visit all the great sights of the world? And you’ll pay that price because you know that heaven is better. If you don’t or can’t think like this, is it because you are trying to serve two masters and God is really getting the leftovers?
Have you adjusted your giving as your income has changed? Or do you still have a standard offertory that is really a bit of an insult and not gratitude at all? That’s a good question. Do you think that God may have entrusted huge riches to this church for a critical time? And that we really could and should be great stewards for the Kingdom?. Do you spend anything for the gospel like what you spend on holidays and houses? Who in the church is going to show the lead on being shrewd?
And finally, if and when you enjoy the gift of heaven, will you perhaps wish that you had invested more in eternity, but it will be too late? So better to do it while we can.
Well, that’s the challenge of Luke 16.
Let’s pray for God’s grace to be wise – “Our heavenly Father, we thank you for this message to disciples. We pray that you would put away from us the idea that this is a message for someone else, and we pray that You would help us to hear it for ourselves and to think of all the temporary in the light of eternity and to contribute as good stewards in a way which will honour You and bless many and ultimately be very joyful. Please help us to be wise stewards, individually and corporately, and we ask it in Jesus’ Name – Amen.”