• Scott Watkins

Money. Do You Know What It Is For?

Money is powerful. People can fall in love with it and all that it affords them. As a result, they end up serving money rather than God. The unfortunate outcome for some is exchanging true and eternal riches for what Jesus calls very little.

To protect his disciples from this trap, Jesus taught in Luke 16 that worldly wealth’s purpose is for creating eternal rewards. Because they loved money, the Pharisees who heard this teaching treated it with contempt.

I can picture a self-righteous, wealthy, religious leader hearing about the dangers of money and giving a condescending sneer in Jesus’ direction. Assuring themselves and everyone around them, they had achieved righteousness while providing themselves the finer things in life. In response, Jesus delivered this devastating critique. “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.” (Luke 16:15, NIV)

But the disciples who received Jesus’ message learned true riches, eternal welcome and celestial properties would be theirs if they properly managed their worldly wealth.

Jesus taught this message as a parable in ‘The Parable of the Shrewd Manager’.

A manager was fired for being wasteful with a rich man’s possessions. The manager, fearing for his future, devised a plan. Before leaving his job, he reduced the debt of several of the rich man’s debtors (at significant cost to the rich man). In this way, he hoped to secure their support for when he became unemployed.

When the rich man heard about the manager’s actions, he commended him for his shrewdness.

Before digging into this parable, let’s define shrewd. The Greek word is phronimos. When Jesus uses it in other contexts, it is most often interpreted as wise, and it denotes prudence, or a consideration of one’s interests.

Jesus says that the man who built his house on the rock was phronimos (Matthew 7). He built in a way that considered his interests. The manager in charge of feeding his master’s servants and was found diligent when the master unexpectedly returned was phronimos (Matthew 24 and Luke 12). He worked in a way that considered his interests. The five virgins who brought extra oil for their lamps were phronimos (Matthew 25). They prepared in a way that considered their interests.

Twice, Jesus directly commands his followers to be phronimos.

Before sending his disciples to preach, he says, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd [phronimos] as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16, NIV). Paraphrase: there are wolves out there; be mindful of your interests.

His most explicit teaching on phronimos is in the parable from Luke 16. Here, Jesus not only commands his disciples to be phronimos, but gives the clearest picture of what phronimos looks like in his followers.

With that background, let’s look at how Jesus applies this story to his listeners. He begins in verse eight.

“The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. 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, NIV)

First, Jesus explains why the master commended the manager; he commended him for being phronimos. Then, as if anticipating his listeners’ confusion, he explains why this is so.

The people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.

Prudently considering one’s own interests is more common for the people of the world than the people of the light. The people of the world value phronimos. This was likely the very quality the manager had been lacking, which led to his wastefulness (more on this later). So, even though the manager had been wasteful, his crafty plan showed he learned shrewdness and earned his master’s commendation.

There are a few reasons this parable may still seem confusing.

We mistakenly think considering our own interests is a bad thing.

Being considerate of our interests leads us to build our lives on the firm foundation of Jesus’ teachings, rather than the shifting, unstable wisdom of the world. It keeps us diligent in our service to fellow believers in the middle of the long slog of life. And it encourages us to be prepared should Christ’s return be long in coming. This consideration of interests is what Jesus commands from his followers.

We don’t understand the purpose of money.

This parable teaches that a purpose of worldly wealth is to secure true riches for ourselves in the future.

“I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” (Luke 16:9, NIV).

The manager was fired for being wasteful; this word for wasteful implies scattering about. He was not using the rich man's wealth productively. He wasn’t considering future interests; he was squandering. But when he showed he learned the true purpose of wealth, the rich man commended him.

How did the manager learn wealth’s true purpose? He grasped the temporal nature of his current life. For the manager, life as he knew it was ending. Circumstances forced him to plan for his future life. The wealth he managed could not serve him any longer. What could be taken with him was the gratitude for his generosity. He traded worldly wealth to gain friends so that in his next life, he would be blessed.

This parable might seem strange to us because it seems dishonesty is being rewarded.

This is where being clear on words and definitions is important. We have already established that the rich man commended the manager’s shrewdness, and this is not a bad thing for people of the world or people of the light.

In verse eight, Jesus refers to the manager as ‘the dishonest manger’. But I think it’s likely Jesus used this word (which is the same word in Greek interpreted as worldly in the phrase worldly wealth) because he wanted to emphasize that both the rich man and the manager are people of the world rather than people of the light.

So, how are we to think about the manager giving away the rich man’s wealth for his own benefit? On the face of it, this seems a strange thing for Jesus to hold up as a good example of how we should handle money. However, it makes sense when we see this parable as an illustration of our relationship with God and his wealth. All we possess ultimately belongs to him, and he wants us to be shrewd with it. He wants us to consider our own interests with the wealth we manage on his behalf. He says to us, “Yes, give generously from my store of wealth to prepare for yourself a true riches in eternity.”

After telling this parable, Jesus makes several important observations that emphasize the subordinate role wealth should have in our lives.

First, worldly wealth is a “very little” thing, not true riches. (Luke 16:10-11) How one handles the very little thing will determine whether they will be trusted with true riches.

Second, you must prove trustworthy with property belonging to others before you will be given any of your own.

Finally, Jesus puts his finger directly on the issue that prevents us from being wise with our wealth: the love of money. Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Luke 10:13, NIV).

Either money serves you to further your interests, or you will serve money. You cannot do both. Ultimately, Jesus declares, “What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.” (Luke 10:14, NIV). This doesn’t mean God finds money detestable, rather, he finds our high value of it detestable.

People of the light should not be ashamed of prudently considering our interests when our interests properly differ from those of the world. It is our duty to Jesus.

We must build our lives on things that are sturdy. Work like he could come back any moment, but be prepared in case he doesn’t. Make money serve us and build a better eternity for ourselves with the worldly wealth God has entrusted to us. If we do, we can possess true riches in exchange for a very little thing.