The items in and of themselves are not important, but what they represent is very important. You see, our calendars and our checkbooks give the best snapshot of what really matters to us. We can say something is really important to us, but if we do not make any time for it nor spend any resources towards it, it probably doesn’t really matter.
An Odd Story of Time and Money
This morning we are going to take a look at the importance of time and money by working through a story Jesus told his disciples. In Luke 16:1-6 Jesus is on a journey that will take him to Jerusalem. On the way to this key city, Jesus pauses to tell the story of a wealthy landowner, a corrupt steward, and a group of debtors who work the lands of the wealthy landowner.
There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’ (Luke 16:1-2)
We are introduced to two of the main characters in the story: a rich man and a manager/steward. In order to better appreciate the significance of the situation, it is necessary to understand some background information concerning these particular roles in the ancient world. The role of manager/steward for a wealthy household was greatly desired because it provided a place of security and power. So much so, that quite often people would sell themselves into slavery in order to gain these positions. In the role of manager, the person would act on behalf of the wealthy landowner and all agreements made were binding as though they were made by the owner. Another benefit of this position was that the manager would receive side payments from those who owed money to the owner, which was acceptable and expected in the culture.
In the ancient world, wealth was held in the hands of a few powerful families within each land. They usually held a majority of the land and wealth of a particular region. Quite often people would place themselves into financial obligations with the wealthy landowners in order to work the land and receive a portion of the produce produced by the land. These financial commitments were made through the manager who would authorize the agreements and take his cut during this process. These people, called debtors in the story, were in a special relationship with the wealthy landowner because he/she would be considered a client of the wealthy person who would be their benefactor.
The Embezzling Accountant
In our story, the wealthy landowner discovers that the manager has been stealing from him and he confronts the manager and removes him from his position. We learn at this point that the wealthy landowner is both just and merciful. The manager could have been thrown into jail, but the manager is simply removed from his position. The manager does not answer the rich man’s accusations which is telling.
The manager said to himself, ‘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— I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses. (Luke 16:3-4)
The manager wisely understands the reality of what is going to happen to him after he loses his job. He will be disgraced in the community and no one will help or support him. As he begins to reflect on his options, he crafts a brilliant plan that will benefit him in the future.
A Systematic Plan
At this point in the story, the manager must act very quickly to implement his plan. Why the pressure? Until the information gets out to the public, the manager is still the official representative of the owner. The manager develops a wise plan that will insure his future: he is going to wager everything on the owner’s mercy
So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ ‘Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.’ Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’ ‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied. He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’ (Luke 16:5-7)
In order to understand what the manager is about to do, it is necessary to explain the agreement process that initially sets the produce owed to the wealthy landowner. In the ancient world, wealthy landowners would lease their lands to others who would work the land for a season and be charged an agreed upon amount of the natural resource received. These amounts would be determined prior to the growing season and would be binding on the individual making the agreement. If a person was unable to provide the amount agreed upon, they could end up as slaves or placed in prison. How does this fact shape our story?
The manager’s plan is simple: since the community still believes I am working in the name of the wealthy landowner, I will bring all the debtors in and reduce all of their bills. I will let them know that I have been working on their behalf and the wealthy landowner has agreed to my recommendations.
Systematically, the manager brings each of the debtors in and significantly reduces each of the original agreements. The manager understands the culture of reciprocity and that when he loses his job, people will remember what he did for them and will look on him with kindness and provide him with resources.
Banking on Mercy
How will the wealthy landowner respond?
The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. (Luke 16:8)
For modern readers this must seem like a really strange response. How can the wealthy landowner approve of what the manager did? We are not given this information in the story, but in the ancient world, once word began to spread that the agreements had been reduced, the community would have thrown a celebration proclaiming the goodness and honor of the wealthy landowner.
Now the wealthy landowner is in a difficult position: do I correct the situation by sharing that the manager had been fired and was not authorized to make this deal, which would then turn the praise of the community to curses, which would lower his honor; or does let the manager get away with it and simply accept the elevation of his honor? The wealthy landowner chooses to let the matter go and commends the manager for his wise move. You see, the manager was counting on the mercy of his master.
Jesus concludes his story, and makes the following statement:
For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. (Luke 16:8)
Jesus challenges his disciples, and us, to become much wiser in our use of time and money. The manager realized that judgment was quickly approaching and that he needed to act quickly before he would lose everything. Realizing the time was short, he made the most of his time and the resources at his disposal to insure that all would be well for him after the loss of his job.
This story is very confusing, which I love, because Jesus uses the example of a crooked manager to make his point. In our world, it would be like taking the character of an embezzling accountant and making him the hero of the story. Why does Jesus do this?
The steward understood the cultural setting, his role, and his present situation and based on this acted wisely to insure his livelihood in the future. Jesus’ challenge is that we should understand our place (time) in the Kingdom of God and how we should use our wealth (money) based upon that reality.
We are to use our wealth for issues that will further the Kingdom and meet the mission of the Kingdom. The manager got into trouble because he began to treat the wealthy landowner’s resources as though they were his own resources. The challenge with time and money that we face is whether or not we are living like the unjust steward and using God’s resources as though they are our own.
Listen to the podcast of this sermon for more thoughts from Pastor Chuck on how we should be thinking about our time and money.