Gain friends for yourselves

Luke 16:1-13

17 October 2010

Woodley Baptist Church

First morning service


How are you feeling this morning about the prospect of a sermon on "Biblical Foundations of Giving"?

Frankly, I doubt it fills you with great enthusiasm. The whole subject of giving tends to induce a range negative feelings.

For starters, there's often a large cloud of guilt. We already know that we don't give enough.

As good, liberal minded people, we feel uncomfortable being in the top few percent richest people on the planet. According to a website called the Global Rich List, I am around the 36 millionth richest person on the planet based on my income. Which doesn't sound that great, until you realise that it puts me in the top 0.6% globally. That means that 159 out of every 160 people on the planet is poorer than I am — and I don't consider myself at all affluent by UK standards.

From guilt we swing to resentment: after all, it's not my fault I have all this stuff. I was just born here. Why is the burden of supporting the planet's poor being laid on me? I've got enough to worry about, thank you. I've already got the burden of having and maintaining all this stuff, and now you want to burden me with thinking about giving on top of all that?

So we move from resentment to resistance. I'm already doing my bit! You're always asking for money; how dare you ask for more.

And to round off the negative emotions we can add cynicism and complacency. Cynicism, because we feel that whatever we give, it's never going to make any real difference. Complacency, because, frankly, we'd rather just forget about it. We pay our tithe by a standing order we set up years ago, and now we just want the whole thing to go away.

Then we read in the Bible a verse like God loves a cheerful giverref, and it seems so far from where we are.

Does any of that sound familiar, or is it just me?

All of this is why, brothers and sisters, I've been eager to preach this morning on this strange parable in Luke chapter 16.

In this parable, we learn God's intention for us in giving: How does God want you to view your giving?

God's intention is that you invest the wealth he has trusted you with to prepare for your future. Look at verse 9, I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.ref You are to invest the wealth he has trusted you with to prepare for your future.

In this parable, we see strikingly that God has aligned our interests with his interests in the use of wealth. And it is my hope and prayer that it will work to dispel our negative feelings about giving, and instead make us great enthusiasts for the subject.

The parable

So let's look at the parable.

In verse 1 we see that Jesus is primarily addressing the disciples. This is teaching to believers: it's not teaching about how to get to heaven; it is teaching for those who have already decided to follow Jesus.

So, he tells the story of a manager, a man entrusted by his wealthy master with his riches in order to invest them. But this manager is careless and wasteful, and when the master finds out that he is squandering the wealth he gets called in.

'What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.'ref The wealthy master demands that the manager prepares the final accounts and leaves his post.

Verse 3, "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 begref. This soft, white-collar worker cannot face the prospect of physical labour, or the humiliation of begging. What's he going to do? In a flash, he has an idea, I know what I'll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.'ref

And his idea is an extraordinary one. Using the short time he has left, he summons his master's debtors one by one and slashes their debts. Verse 7, 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.'ref

These are huge reductions! We're talking about multiple years worth of salary for one person. And presumably he repeated this with all the other debtors.

The manager knows that, in a culture where a gift creates an obligation, these people will feel obliged to accommodate him for a considerable time when he loses his income.

Now, commentators attempt all sorts of explanations as to why the manager was not really being dishonest here. Perhaps he was only cutting out his own commission. Perhaps he was taking off the illegal, usurious interest charges his master had added to the bills. But we have no real evidence in the parable for these explanations. In fact, verse 8 simply calls him "dishonest". He'd taken the chance while he still could to plan for a soft landing at his master's expense.

And in verse 8, Jesus gives us a startling twist in the tale. His master actually commends him for this! We didn't expect that, did we?

And Jesus presents him as some kind example for us, verses 8 and 9, 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 dwellingsref.

What exactly is he being commended for? In what sense is he an example to us? Clearly not his dishonesty! Well, it's his shrewdness, his wisdom, his astuteness, verse 8: The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdlyref He'd invested the wealth entrusted to him to prepare for his future.

I doubt that the master was pleased that he'd been done-over, but he couldn't help a wry smile. The manager had got the better of him; he's been out-manoeuvred. He had to admit that the manager had acted pretty smartly under difficult circumstances.

So, what are our take-aways from this parable? What exactly are we to learn from this account of the dishonest steward, the shrewd manager?

Well, I think that Jesus deals with two questions here: first, where does wealth come from? and, second, what is wealth for? And I believe that understanding his answers to these will really help us in our giving.

Where does wealth come from?

First, where does wealth come from?

The whole premise of the parable is that our wealth is entrusted to us by God. The manager was not dealing in his own money and possessions: they belonged to his master. That the same applies to us is made explicit in verses 10 to 12. Jesus speaks in verse 12 about his disciples being trusted with someone else's property.

God has entrusted you with his wealth! He has trusted you with all the money and all the possessions you have, which, as we have seen, are very, very considerable in world terms.

God trusts you to look after his stuff! Don't you find that amazing? I have possessions I'd hesitate to trust to anyone else, but God trusts us with everything!

The Lord of the universe has handed over to each of us a portion of his creation to look after. God has put a chunk of his wealth into my hands to invest.

This is so far from how we naturally think of our wealth. We think we deserve it. We think that we've earned it. We think that it belongs to us. If we're particularly religious we might acknowledge that 10% of what comes in ought to be "given back" to God.

But that's all a deception. The whole lot is simply entrusted to us to manage. You don't actually deserve any of it. You may feel like you've earned it. But, since every ability you have and every ounce of energy you have and every breath you take comes from God in the first place, you didn't earn it. It has been entrusted to you.

One of the responsibilities taken on by members of the Church Leadership Team is to become trustees of the church. The trustees are legally entrusted with managing the assets of the church in accordance with the stated mission of the church. It's very clear that these assets do not belong to me or any of the other trustees. I think you'd be quite upset if we even began to imagine treating them as our own.

And this is the attitude we should have with regard to all the possessions and wealth that are in our trust. They simply don't belong to us, so let's stop acting as if they do!

Incidentally, this is a terrifically liberating way of thinking about things. It is reported that John Wesley, on hearing that his house had been destroyed by fire, exclaimed, "The Lord's house burned. One less responsibility for me!" Wouldn't you like to hold so lightly to the things you have?

Where does wealth come from? It is all entrusted to us by God.

But note, like the manager in the parable, we are going to be held accountable for that trust, which brings us on to the second question: what is wealth for?

What is wealth for?

Verse 9: I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.ref

God has entrusted you with all these resources. What does he want you to do with them? He wants you to invest the wealth he has trusted you with to prepare for your future.

When the dishonest manager saw the writing on the wall, he looked out for number one. He acted in his own best interest and prepared for his future. Business people in the world are good at that: they know very well how to go about preparing a comfortable future for themselves. According to Jesus, better than we are in the church, verse 8, the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.ref

Like this shrewd manager we should act now with the ultimate end in view. You should invest the wealth God has trusted you with to prepare for your future.

What does that mean? Jesus speaks several times of storing up treasure in heavenref, which is usually linked to giving to the poor.

But how does that work? How does giving to the poor store up for ourselves treasure in heaven? How can giving stuff away be any kind of investment?

Well, this parable explains it for us. Verse 9 once again, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.ref

Obviously, we cannot buy our way into heaven. But we can ensure a terrific welcome when we get there.

The advice of Jesus is to invest our resources in people coming to faith, people with whom we will spend eternity, people we will rejoice to be with forever: friends.

Imagine being welcomed into heaven by a family from Burma. You've never met them before, but they thank you excitedly because you supported the work that translated the Bible into a language they could read.

Imagine being welcomed into eternity by a crowd of Romanians. They greet you like a king: you supported their pastor and helped to build their church. Many of them came to Christ through that church's work.

Imagine being welcomed with tears of joy by a family from Pakistan. They became believers when Christians helped to feed them after the floods. You paid for the food.

A small crowd from Belarus is eager to meet you. As a child, one of them had received a Christmas shoebox full of gifts with a little gospel tract. He'd believed in Jesus and brought his friends to faith. Now they're eager to meet the one who'd so kindly sent it over.

A North Korean man wants to see you, all the bruises and torture wounds on his body now healed. With a huge smile he tells you how the Bible you paid for was smuggled to him; how it sustained his faith through the years of darkness.

And of course there's the Woodley crowd, some of whom you recognise, many of whom you've never met directly. But all connected with you in friendship, because you chose to invest your worldly wealth in the work of the Kingdom.

And on, and on: thousands and thousands of friends to welcome you, whose lives you have touched with your giving.

I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.ref

I believe that one implication of this, brothers and sisters, is that we should primarily be giving to Christian charities. Charities that explicitly seek to work through churches and to make friends for Jesus, like TEAR fund and Barnabas fund and many others.


To conclude, can you see why I think this parable puts a different perspective on giving?

The manager in the parable made earthly friends for himself using money not his own. We are to make eternal friends for ourselves by using money that is not our own. And God will commend us for it! Not because we've got one over on him, but because these friends will also be his friends: it's what the money is for. Can you see how, in giving, God has aligned our interests with his interests?

So let's stop thinking about giving in terms of "I've got to get rid of my 10%, and then I've done my bit." Let's be actively on the look-out for ways we can use our worldly wealth to make eternal friends for ourselves. Actively invest the wealth God has trusted you with to prepare for your future.

A final remark. You may be thinking, actually I'm not that wealthy at all. This is all for someone else. If so, then verse 10 is for you. Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.ref. It doesn't matter how much you have, it matters what you do with it.

Quite recently we've started giving Hannah and Rebekah a very little bit of pocket money. It's fascinating to see how they want to use it, and how they are approaching the idea of giving. How you handle even 63 pence a week says something important about your heart.

Invest the wealth he has trusted you with, whether great or small, to prepare for your future.