September 18, 2016

On The Use Of Wealth

Passage: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, Psalm 79:1-9 1, Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13
Service Type:

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.

Philip Henry was a nonconformist clergyman in seventeenth century England; nonconformist were protestant Christians who did not “conform” to the governance and usages of the established Church of England. In 1662 the Act of Uniformity was passed that required clergymen to use all rites and ceremonies as prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer. (Prayer book of the Church of England). Consequently, nearly 2000 clergymen were ejected from the church for refusing to comply with the provisions of the act—Philip Henry among them. This meant immediate loss of income and housing for these clergy and further, were treated with suspicion as being disloyal to the crown. Henry, along with thirteen others, were imprisoned for four days on suspicion of an insurrection plot.

Philip Henry wrote: "He is no fool who parts with that which he cannot keep, when he is sure to be recompensed with that which he cannot lose."

Jim Elliot was a missionary who went to Ecuador in 1952. He had a burning passion to share the good news of Jesus Christ with people who had never heard our Lord’s name. On January 8, 1956 Elliot along with four other missionaries were killed by warriors from the tribe of people they had earlier made contact with and had returned on that day to meet and continue their work. I am not sure if Elliot had known the writings of Philip Henry but a quote often attributed to him expressed an identical sentiment to that of Henry. “He is no fool who gives that which he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.”

Admittedly, interpreting our Lord’s parable of a dishonest manager presents us with a number of challenges. However, I believe that the point these two Christian leaders make about values in life—Henry in the seventeenth century and Elliot in the twentieth century—expresses the heart of what Jesus taught his disciples that day. This idea that we live life now valuing life in the present in light of a future that we cannot lose gets to the point Jesus makes. “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.”

1. Perhaps you too have had the experience of being fired from a job. When I was fifteen years old I got a job working Saturdays in the service area of a car dealership; two weeks in to this experience at the end of the day the owner came to me and said the relationship was at an end. (I recall being surprised but not entirely disappointed.) But the experience of being fired from a part-time job at 15 years of age pales in comparison to being dismissed at forty years of age from a job whose salary underwrites a significant portion of family life.

Even in those times when you are fired without cause. For instance, on the occasion when new leadership takes over and a kind of house cleaning is done; even though compensation is made to allow time for transition to something else it still hurts. In modern offices when people are dismissed from their employment (with our without cause) they are typically escorted from the building so they cannot do the kind of thing that the manager in Jesus’ parable did; no time allowed to contact customers to take them with you for future work. Something, by the way, that the owner commended him for doing and, to make matters more difficult for interpretation, Jesus said his followers would do well to take this page out of his playbook.

The manager in Jesus’ parable was apparently living large on the owner’s dime. Perhaps you recall some of the activities expensed to taxpayers by some of Canada’s Senators—perhaps a window onto this manager’s actions. It is a temptation, by the way, that is not limited to government officials or first century property managers. This is not said to excuse such behaviour but to recognize how easy it is to slide into such behaviour. It starts with small things long before it escalates to the point when it comes to the owner’s attention that their property is being squandered. As Jesus went on to point out—“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.”

In a previous sermon on this text we made the observation that Jesus was not commending this manager’s dishonesty but his resourcefulness. Our translation says that he acted shrewdly—the Greek word translated here is used consistently in the New Testament in a positive light. He had a lot of very practical savvy. He could look to his future job loss, understand that he was too old to dig and didn’t want to end up a beggar, and do something with the financial resources still at his disposal in the present to prepare for that future. He called in those people who had outstanding debts and reduced their bills so they would welcome him into their homes. Now some scholars understand that this manger forgave his commission on these outstanding amounts. However we read the nature of the action of this manager, Jesus commends to us his resourcefulness in making future friends with the resources at his disposal.

Jesus does not commend the manager for his dishonesty. Jesus does, however, draw our attention to his resourcefulness as he says to us, “If a dishonest manager can be that resourceful in ‘feathering his own nest’, can’t you be equally resourceful in the service of the kingdom? Can’t you be that imaginative, that daring, that ingenious?”

2. Luke tells us that Jesus said this to the disciples. It is teaching aimed first at his followers. The context, I believe, shows us that while Jesus teaching here has application beyond the use of wealth or money he is thinking about wealth in particular. Luke goes on to tell us that “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.” In this context Jesus is counselling his disciples to a way of living with regard to wealth that is counter what they will hear from many of the Pharisees.

In John Wesley’s sermon on this text of scripture he writes that “An excellent branch of Christian wisdom is here inculcated by our Lord on all his followers, namely, the right use of money.” Jesus makes the comment with respect to this subject that “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” The children on this age, Jesus intimates, deal with money in practical fashion consistent with their goals in life; a practicality his followers could learn from. He is not commending their goals in life, rather his followers ought to be just a practical with respect to the goals of this life shaped by the future of eternal life. In other words, the gospel, the good news that is Jesus Christ, shapes how we treat wealth.

There is this tendency in Christian faith to regard talk of money and wealth and possessions as unspiritual. Money is almost regarded as a dirty word. Yet in the course of Jesus’ ministry he has a lot to say about it. Here in our text Jesus speaks about “dishonest wealth.” This is not to say that all wealth is dishonestly gained nor that we should employ dishonesty in gaining wealth. Jesus speaks about its use. We might acknowledge that our public casinos are examples of dishonest gain and yet a person may be employed by a company that has a contract to build a hospital partly funded by the avails of such gambling. How should you use the money you earn from your contracting job—this is what our Lord addresses.

In some Christian circles it is thought that we should eschew money and ownership. It is thought by many that money or wealth is the source of evil; as we like to say, “follow the money.” But our Lord does not say that here. To quote Wesley again, “For, let the world be as corrupt as it will, is gold or silver to blame? "The love of money," we know, "is the root of all evil"—but not the thing itself. The fault does not lie in the money, but in them that use it. It may be used ill—and what may not? But it may likewise be used well. It is full as applicable to the best, as to the worst uses. It is of unspeakable service to all civilized nations, in all the common affairs of life. It is a most compendious instrument of transacting all manner of business, and (if we use it according to Christian wisdom) of doing all manner of good.”

I remind you of the headings in Wesley’s teaching on the right use of money: Gain all you can; Save all you can; Give all you can.

3. 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. Whatever we think about the methods of the dishonest manager or his self-interested motives, he uses the resources at his disposal to reduce people’s financial debts to debts of gratitude. He was commended for taking this action.

Now, our Lord calls us to live in the present in light of that future we cannot lose because it is secured in him. He is not suggesting that we can buy our way into heaven. But we can use our money in a way that reflects our commitment that nothing rises to greater significance than our Lord’s love of people and his commitment that all should be saved.

There are many things money can't buy, but there are some things of eternal significance that money can buy. Money can buy Bibles and Sunday School materials; money can support missionaries, pastors, and evangelists; it can keep the lights on so the church can house gospel proclamation; money can feed and clothe the poor; money can fund a block party and build bridges between neighbors; money can encourage somebody who thinks God has forgotten her.

Across the New Testament the church on earth and the church in heaven are one church. Here our Lord intimates the same when he speaks about those “who may welcome you into the eternal home.” The picture Jesus paints for us is that because of action you take today one day in that great future he has imagined and secured for us someone will walk up you and thank you. You don’t see it today all the people our Lord uses your witness to touch. There is a great tapestry that he is weaving and the treads connect in ways we cannot imagine. One day someone will thank you for donating to a project that directly blessed their life is such a way as to assure them that God had not forgotten them.

Of course your resources are not limited to your money; wealth is not your most important resource; but it is one that can be used for the kingdom. Use the resources at your disposal to reduce people’s financial debts to debts of gratitude. We restate that to say, use the resources at your disposal to reduce people’s burdens. Bear one another’s burdens; a harvest of joy awaits.

In 2013 The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby had a conversation with the head of the payday loan company Wonga and said “we’re not trying to legislate you out of existence, we’re trying to compete you out of existence.” The Archbishop is a former oil company executive and he is leading the church into the lending business. He wants to develop an alternative to payday money lenders.

Wonga has operations in Canada, along with other payday loan operations. Under Ontario law limits are set for how much interest they can charge, currently not more than 21% for a loan. So if you went for a payday loan of $100 you can be charged $21 for a two week period. That means that that same $100 loaned for the 26 two week periods of the year generates $546. An effective annual rate in excess of 500%. I admire the initiative of the Archbishop and many other organizations who endeavour to bless the poor with micro-credit that builds life. There are many ways to use our resources for the kingdom that reflect the eternal values that faith in Jesus Christ fosters.

4. We have already intimated that the savvy that Jesus calls us to use with respect to wealth extends to other resources at our disposal. As each generation of Christ’s people arises, that generation has to adapt “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3) Note that the faith, the substance, the deposit of what we believe, has been delivered “once for all.” It doesn’t change. But circumstances are always changing. Therefore we have to adapt unchanging truth to changing circumstances. At the same time, as each generation of Christ’s people arises, that generation must never adopt the mindset of world.

This fall we our small group study will use video material delivered electronically. We have joined Media, a web-based content provider that was first described to me as like Netflix with Christian content. The video material is available to anyone in our congregation 24/7 on any web linked device. Besides the content for small group study there is a wide range of children’s material for teaching the Bible and Christian faith. Parents could use this in their homes for education in the Christian life.

I mention that here because I think this an example of the resourcefulness Christ’s calls from us as his followers. Here is a group of people who have put this website together adapting the technology available to us today for the purpose of bearing the good news.

5. One final note. “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.” Underline “when it is gone.” When it comes to wealth we all know that we can’t take any of it with us. “He is no fool who gives that which he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.”