Being Shrewd for God

Luke 16:1-13
New Hope Fellowship
September 22, 2019
Brent Beasley

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position 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 dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

This is worst parable in the Bible.

Rudolph Bultmann, one of the leading New Testament scholars of the past century, called the parable before us this morning, “the problem child” of parables. It is really just impossible.

A man was accused of squandering a rich man’s property. In response to this and out of fear of being fired, the steward goes around to the people who owe his master money and, without getting permission, from his master, reduces the amount they have to pay back so that they will feel like they owe him a favor after he gets fired.

And Jesus says that when the master finds out, he commends the steward for his shrewdness. And then Jesus offers this puzzling statement that no one seems to be able to make sense of: Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

I mean, what in the world is that supposed to mean. And then in the verses that follow, there are assorted other statements about money that seem to have nothing to do with this parable. It’s as if Luke did a Google search for the words “Jesus” and “money” and threw in all the results there in the last four verses.

Let’s focus on what we do know first. In ancient Palestine, the steward was the middle man between the landholder and the merchants and tenants in the exchange of goods and services such as buying and selling grain, oil, and crops and collecting rents.

If the steward was able to get an additional take for himself in these transactions, the master didn’t mind; in fact he expected it. As long as the master’s profits kept rolling in and the steward did not get too conspicuous in his consumption, the master was fine with the steward’s benefiting from each deal. The merchants and tenants were in a relatively powerless position.

The steward’s position in this complex social network was both privileged and vulnerable. He had a relatively high standard of living, a benefit of his being able to read and write and his training by the master, but he was completely dependent on the goodwill of the master. He himself states it in verse 16:3. What will I do now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. We might assume that he is whining here, selfishly unwilling to engage in honest labor.

Maybe he is actually just stating the fact that he is not prepared by physical training or by the habit of hardship, to compete with the peasant labor pool for the hardest, most menial of jobs: digging. And he feared that his only other alternative was to beg. He’s desperate, but still acts shrewdly.

He calls the debtors in one by one, not giving them the chance to compare notes and collaborate against him ahead of time. He knows that his reduction of what they owe will not ensure their permanent goodwill and hospitality toward him. At best it may postpone his poverty for a short time as they invite him to a couple of meals.

He may be hoping his actions could make it possible for him to secure another position as a steward for another member of the landowning elite, thereby saving him from a life of hard labor. A better outcome still is the one that actually occurs, according to the parable. Not only are those who have their debts reduced pleased, but the master actually seems to be pleased with the steward’s resourcefulness as well. [Alyce McKenzie, “Watermelon Rugby with the Shrewd Manager: Lectionary Reflection on Luke 16:1-13,” Patheos, September 12, 2010]

And Jesus, in telling this parable, seems to commend this shrewd steward, and he sums up by saying this: For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. What does that mean? What is Jesus trying to tell us? What are we supposed to make of this?

My first answer is, I don’t know. My second answer is that I’ve got to at least take a stab at it. I don’t think fifteen minutes of silence at this point in the service is an option.

I think I have one basic insight. And that is this: I think Jesus may be saying, I wish the children of light, I wish the people of God were as shrewd for the gospel as the wheeler-dealers out there in the world are shrewd for themselves.

In other words, there are a whole lot of people out there in the culture who get up every morning scheming for a buck, focusing every ounce of energy on feathering their nests, working in overdrive to save themselves and to scramble to the top of the heap. I wish God’s people, I think Jesus may be saying, would be just as focused and energetic for the kingdom of God.

In one of the traditional liturgies for the ordination of a minister, there is this question of the candidate for ministry: Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?

Tom Long says that what Jesus may be saying is something like this, Look, Jack Welch got up every morning of his career focusing all of his energy, imagination, intelligence, and passion for the bottom line at General Electric; Steve Jobs got up every morning focusing all of his
intelligence, and
on how make the best and most creative products for Apple. How dare the people of God do any less for the things of God?
[Long, Thomas G., “Making Friends,” Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2007, pp. 52-7]

What if we were just as shrewd, just as resourceful in working for the kingdom of God as we are in working for success in business and with money?

Or what about this? I don’t know a lot about business. I do know something about sports. A good percentage of the time I spent with my kids as they grew up revolved around sports. Playing, watching, talking about games and teams.

One time my son Sam and I were having a serious conversation. I said something that I thought was pretty meaningful. There was a pause, a little silence as we pondered what was said. Then Sam said, Did you know Trent Richardson got traded to the Colts? So much for the deep conversation.

And just yesterday Jamie and I were saying, Who would have thought a few years ago that we would be spending so much time doing soccer with my stepdaughter Marley’s team? Marley is on one of the best and most competitive soccer teams in north Texas. We spend a lot of time and energy and money on that.

When my daughter Ivy was playing basketball at Paschal one time at a parents meeting in the fall the coach handed out a four page document detailing the purpose and goals of the girls basketball program at Paschal, the program philosophies, and program rules and regulations.

In this document there’s talk about positive attitude and competition. There’s a description of practice times, which, for the freshman, which Ivy was at the time, will be every day at 6:45 am along with the very clear expectation that you cannot miss practice.

There are clearly stated expectations about alcohol and drugs, and a whole section on social media. The coach says they will not tolerate inappropriate activity on any of the players’ personal social media accounts, such as in appropriate pictures, language, anything unbecoming of a young woman or basketball player.

No negative language directed toward teammates or other students or teachers. No bullying. There is a lot of talk about expectations for these young women regarding their grades.

There is a section about expectations for the parents, which is basically that you will show up for the games and be positive. Nothing else is acceptable.

I was struck by how much this coach was asking of these girls. He was asking them to commit about eleven months out of their year to this.

And he was asking a lot of them in their time, their effort, their attitude, their behavior. This coach was asking these girls to focus their energy, imagination, intelligence, and passion on the game of basketball, this team, and, really, on being a good and responsible person.

And I’m not trying to score any cheap points on the importance we put on sports here, but I am asking myself, Why don’t we feel like we can realistically make these kinds of stringent demands and expectations of those of us in church for our Christian lives?

Marley was baptized last Sunday at Broadway Baptist Church. Maybe, when someone says they want to be baptized, we ought to give him or her a four-page document detailing exactly the kind of focus and time and energy that are required to be a follower of Jesus.

What if we were just as shrewd, just as focused and resourceful in dealing with things of eternal significance as we are everyday in our jobs, in our business, in our athletics, in our bands and orchestras?

To use Jesus’ language, what if the children of light were just as shrewd and resourceful and committed as the children of this age? I wish God’s people, I think Jesus may be saying, would be just as focused and energetic for the kingdom of God.

Are you and I willing to get up early every morning focusing all of our
intelligence, and
the ways of peace,
the paths of justice,
the mission of mercy,
the building up of the Body of Christ, and
the hope of the gospel?
What business are we really in?

In southwest Oklahoma, near the Washita Creek there is a little community named for General Custer, who massacred an Indian tribe who lived there: Custer City. Fred Craddock was pastor there for a few years. The population when he was there was about 450 on a good day.

There were four churches: a Methodist church, a Baptist church, a Nazarene church, and a Christian church. Each had its share of the population, and on Wednesday nights and Sundays, each church had a small group of teenagers. The attendance at the churches rose and fell according to the weather and whether it was time to harvest the wheat.

The best and most consistent attendance in town on Sundays, however, was at the little café where all the pickup trucks were parked and all the men were inside discussing the weather and the cattle and the wheat bugs and the hail and the wind and whether they were going to have a crop, while their wives and sons and daughters were in one of those four churches.

The churches had good attendance some days and bad attendance other days, but that café had consistently good attendance. Better attendance than some of the churches. Men were always there.

Once in a while they would lose a member there at the café because his wife finally got him, or maybe his kids did. So you would see him go off sheepishly to one of the churches.

But the men at the café still felt that they were the biggest and strongest group in town, and so they met on Wednesdays and Sundays and every other day to discuss the weather and such.

They were not bad men. Actually, they were good men, family men, hard-working men. The patron saint of the group at the café was Frank. Frank was seventy-seven years old. He was a good man, a strong man, a pioneer, a rancher, a farmer, and a cattleman.

He had been born in a sod house, and he had prospered; he had done well. He had his credentials, and all the men there at the café considered him their patron saint. Old Frank will never go to church, they said.

One day Fred Craddock met Frank on the street. They shook hands and visited for a minute. Frank knew that he was a preacher, and he took the offensive. He said, I work hard and I take care of my family and I mind my own business. He said that as far as he was concerned, everything else is fluff. He was saying, Leave me alone; I’m not a prospect.

So the preacher didn’t bother Frank. That’s why he was so surprised, actually the church was surprised and the whole town was surprised and the men at the café church were completely surprised when old Frank, seventy-seven years old, presented himself at the front of the church one Sunday morning for baptism. They baptized him a few weeks later.

Some in the community said that Frank must be sick, that he must be scared to meet his maker. Some said, He’s got heart trouble, going up to be baptized. I never thought old Frank would do that, but I guess when you get scared. . . . There were all kinds of stories.

But this is the way Frank told it to the preacher. They were talking the day after his baptism, and the preacher said, Frank, do you remember that little saying you used to give me so much? “I work hard, I take care of my family, and I mind my own business.”

He said, Yeah, I remember. I said that a lot.

Do you still say that?


Then what’s the difference?

He said, I didn’t know then what my business was.

Maybe it’s time for you and me—at age 17, age 47, or age 77—to figure out what your real business is. And so you start letting your life be guided by a different set of questions.
What do I want to be remembered for?
How much is enough?
Am I living a life that is consistent with what I say are my values and beliefs?
What really matters in life?
What is the purpose of my life?
What are your deepest gifts and desires?
Am I dedicating my full energy and resourcefulness to that which is most significant?

And you begin to lead a life worthy of the business, the vocation, to which you have been called.

Jesus looks at world and at the amazing things that people are doing in so many areas of life, the amazing capacity for work and creativity and passion and resourcefulness that is exhibited all over the place, and Jesus says, I wish my people would be that way for the kingdom of God.

I wish….

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