Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Last month, ESPN College Game Day was in Ames, IA for the Iowa vs. Iowa State game. College Game Day is a sports pregame program that travels the country and designates one college football game as the game of the week. They make a big deal out of it, bring the whole crew there, and do the show live on location. It draws a big crowd – not just of people who show up at the taping, but countless other folks tuned in to ESPN. Most of the crowd that shows up on location is comprised of students from the featured college – they dress up in their school colors, cheerleaders wave pompoms, and a good number of the people in the crowd hold up homemade signs to grab attention. That week back in September in Ames, IA was no different. Most of the signs were predictable – some cheered for Iowa, some went for Iowa State – but one sign right up front drew a lot of attention. It was a white sign, drawn with black Sharpie, and its message was simple: “Busch Light supply needs replenished,” and on the bottom, this young man included his Venmo account, so people who saw his sign could digitally wire him money to accomplish his goal of replenishing his supply of Busch Light. At first glance, you might just assume this was a college kid trying to be funny, or at least an honest attempt at restocking his fridge. But then something remarkable happened. People donated money. A lot of it. Grammatical error on his sign and lack of esthetic design didn’t stop folks from all over from shelling out money – fast. Within a few hours people had sent him $600! At that point, he realized something big was happening, and decided whatever money he raised he would donate to the children’s hospital that overlooks the stadium in Ames, IA. When people heard that, the money started pouring in. Add to that, Anheuser Busch and Venmo (the two companies mentioned on his sign) said they’d match the donations. After all was said and done, the kid that simply asked America for beer money, ended up raising $1,000,000 for an Iowa children’s hospital. That’s a great example of using resources that aren’t really yours to serve a purpose greater than yourself.
I think that’s the point of Jesus’ parable in our gospel lesson today. The story is simple enough. There was a rich man who was so rich that he had to hire full time help to assist him in managing all the different accounts he had – enter the manager. This manager was shady, to put it mildly. Jesus says that this guy was accused of squandering and wasting the master’s assets. So, he got hauled into the boss’ office and was read the riot act, “What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.” The hammer fell swiftly, and this guy was soon to be out on the streets. In a time and culture where there was no unemployment line or social welfare, this manager had to think fast. “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.” Having considered his future money-making opportunities, the manager saw that the prospects were grim. He didn’t like the sound of a shovel digging a ditch and his pride wouldn’t let him pin his prospects on a coin dropping in his beggar’s cup. So he did what any shady, sleazy, and shrewd person might do. He had to think fast and act faster. “I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.” The plan was hatched and the time to act was now. He called in some of the guys who owed money to his boss and slashed their debts significantly. It was a fire sale – 50% off for one debtor, 20% for another. All with the stated purpose that he himself would be well taken care of down the road. It never hurts to have a few people owe you a favor. Like I said, the story is simple enough.
Here’s where things get tricky. You might expect the rich man to be livid with this shady, sleazy, shrewd manager. Instead, listen to what Jesus tells us. The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. Commendation where we’d expect condemnation. The rich man didn’t hand the manager over to the jailers or the executioners. Instead, he praised him! Of course, the boss probably wasn’t too happy about losing money that was rightfully his, but at least he could look at this plan and say, I’ve gotta hand it to you – that was pretty smart. It’s the sort of appreciation people have for someone who pulls off the perfect crime – not that you approve of the fact that they’re stealing, but more so that you can appreciate such careful thought on an intellectual level. It’s like watching movies about the perfect bank robbery or the casino heist, and you find yourself cheering for the criminals! People know it’s wrong to steal, but man, those crooks thought of everything. Every possible contingency was covered. They were thinking big picture thoughts, and were always one step ahead. That’s why the rich man in the parable commends his manager. Even though what he did was wrong – he was thinking ahead, and it was a pretty shrewd play.
Now, here’s where things go from tricky to downright complicated. This isn’t one of Aesop’s fables or a scene from “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.” This is Jesus telling a parable to his disciples and to us. And, what’s more, he seems to commend this shrewd manager, and use this shameful display of dishonesty to teach his followers something. Is Jesus approving of this kind of shady, sleazy, shrewd stealing? Obviously not – there’s a commandment about that. Jesus condemns stealing and dishonesty just like every other sin. So, what are we going to do with this? Just about anyone you ask will tell you that this is probably the most difficult parable of Jesus to get your arms around. So, you can imagine, commentators are all over the map on their interpretation of what this means.
It’s problematic for a number of reasons. Many times, in Jesus’ parables, there’s at least a “good guy,” but here there’s a rich man who approves of shrewdness and the shady manager whose self-interest led to him steal. Even so, there’s something about this shady, sleazy, shrewd manager that Jesus wants his people to imitate. He’s not promoting sin, so what’s his point? Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t leave us casting about in the dark, searching for some higher moral to the story. Instead, he interprets it for us. “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.” There it is. Jesus doesn’t approve of this manager’s sin. This guy had taken liberties with money and possessions that weren’t his for entirely self-serving reasons. So what about this guy is Jesus holding up as an example?
Listen again to what Jesus said, “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” In other words, the people of this world (unbelievers) consistently demonstrate a trait that is sorely lacking in many children of the light (believers). The people of this world, exemplified by the shrewd manager, consistently demonstrate a single-minded focus, an unshakable zeal, and determination to serve their god named Mammon, or money. The shrewd manager only had concern for himself, and he was going to make sure to use whatever resources he had at his disposal to achieve his goal. He got it. You can’t be divided when it comes to your devotion. So, where do I find myself in this parable? Could people identify that same attitude in me – an attitude of single-minded focus, unshakable zeal, and determination not to serve myself or a false god of my own making, but to serve the true God?
We’re ready to want and take God’s gifts, but we don’t always seem to want God’s goal. How am I managing all the gifts that God has entrusted to me? What does it say about my management of God’s gifts when my leisure gets first dibs on my time and my familiarity with the Word of God goes wanting? When I’ll bend over backwards for extracurricular activities, but a stuffy nose seems like a good enough reason to stay away from the house of God? When I send more money each month to Cox Communications to pay my cable bill than I do to support the work of the gospel? When I’m ready and eager to send large percentages of my assets toward my future comfortability of living, when there are people who need to hear the gospel right now? Of course, none of those things are bad, in and of themselves. The trouble comes when those “good things” become “god things.” Really, those are just symptoms of the bigger problem: I’m devoted to something else. When it comes to managing all of God’s gifts, we’re good at receiving his gifts, but not so quick to remember his goal. In this way, the shrewd manager puts us to shame. Even though he was headed in an entirely self-serving direction, at least he was single minded in his focus and devotion. More often than I’d care to admit, I’m straddling the fence, trying to serve both God and Money, which Jesus says is impossible. You and I deserve to hear God say, Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.”
Did you notice how Jesus kept on stressing that this shrewd dude was just a “manager”? He didn’t actually own a thing. Everything belonged to the Master, or in real life terms, to God – and you just manage what he’s entrusted to you. So, it makes some sense for us to consider what God’s goal is when he entrusts us with his gifts. Thankfully here, too, we’re not left wondering. Jesus said it, “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” Even better, “They will welcome you into eternal dwellings (namely, the friends you’ve made with earthly wealth).” God gives the gifts and we get to use them to accomplish God’s ultimate goal of bringing more people to heaven. Before we get too far into this, let’s state the ground truths: You can’t buy your way into heaven. Jesus has paid the way fully by shedding his blood on the cross for your sins and mine. You can’t bring money into heaven, but you can bring people. And that’s the point. Use what is temporary – money, strength, intellect, ability – in service of what is true, real, and eternal – the ultimate gift of God, the gospel of full forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Use whatever God has entrusted to you to make every effort to bring the gospel to more and more people.
And here’s the good news of this parable – you have someone who did exactly that just for you. If anybody could be accused of squandering resources on people who didn’t deserve it, it’s Jesus. Think of it, the One who perfectly managed everything God gave him, and he did it just for you. Every moment of his life was lived in perfect, single-minded devotion to his Father’s will because he knew that you wouldn’t. Fully knowing the cost, Jesus, the perfect Manager, went to the cross to pay for our sins of mismanagement and divided loyalties. With single minded focus, unshakable zeal, and undivided loyalty to his mission, Jesus had only one goal – saving you. Instead of casting us away from his presence forever, he brought us back into the very presence of God through his blood. Don’t be scandalized - Jesus used an illustration about a worldly person using worldly stuff in a worldly way to prove a point. But here’s his greater point: you’re not a child of the world, you’re a child of the Light. In Christ, you are righteous, you are forgiven, and now you can use God’s righteous gifts in a righteous way not just with an eye on your future, but with an eye on your neighbor’s eternity.
Do you see how liberating that is? To know that there really is peace between you and a holy God through Christ? To see all that you are and all that you have as a gift from a gracious God who spared no expense to make you his own? He’s set you free from your sin, from the accusation of the devil, and from slavery to the things of this world. Now he turns you loose to use worldly wealth to gain friends…so that…they will welcome you into eternal dwellings. How does that happen? Come back next Saturday to the LWMS rally and hear about how your gifts go to support mission work both here at home, and abroad – bringing the gospel to more and more people – using what is temporary in service of what is eternal. How do we join together to make friends for eternity? Find one of the several members of this church who have gone through or are going through our Synod’s ministerial education – to prepare for work as pastors and teachers. How do we use worldly wealth to gain friends for eternity? Tap one of the 80 kids who occupy those classrooms and ask them about who Jesus is and what he’s done for them, and I think you’ll start to see it. You can use whatever God has given you to make friends for eternity, because Jesus has made you his friend for eternity. Thank God for the gifts he gives, and thank him for the opportunity to manage those gifts and use them to make friends for eternity.
The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.