Cash and Compassion (Part II), or: Management is All About Forgiveness! (Luke 16:1-18)

Okay. Let’s zoom out for a few minutes and remember where we are in Luke’s bigger story.

Jesus was born. Then, when he came of age — about 30 years old — he was anointed king by John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets.

Then Jesus went to war against the enemy of mankind: Satan, the fallen angel, the ancient snake from the Garden of Eden. Jesus went around healing, casting out demons, and forgiving people: making them clean by speaking to them and touching them. His job was to open all the prison doors and set the captives free.

In Chapter 10, Satan’s army fell apart. Jesus began to march toward Jerusalem. And as he travelled, in Chapter 11 he began to train his disciples in management skills: they are going to help him manage his kingdom. He also fired the previous management, the Pharisees.

But they refused go quietly. So in Chapter 13 Jesus had to interrupt his management training to help the Pharisees clean out their desks. (This is a modern description of what happened).

But now, in Chapter 16, Jesus can finally get back to focusing on his disciples. He can finally get back to his management training.

So, [1] Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions

— and this is where we pause and say, “Hmmmm, this theme sounds familiar.

“Didn’t Jesus already tell us a parable about a master and his bad manager?” 

Yes, he did. Way back in Chapter 12, before the Pharisees interrupted Jesus’ management training, he told a parable about a rich man who put his trusted servant in charge of feeding the rest of the servants, giving them their allowance, all that. And we remember what happened: the Bossman was gone for a long time, the manager began to keep the money for himself and beat the other servants, but the Bossman came back, caught him, and “cut him into pieces”.

That was Jesus’ way of telling his disciples, “Don’t make the same mistake the Pharisees just made!”

So now, after pushing the Pharisees out of the office, Jesus is returning to his management curriculum. He is about to tell a similar story about a rich man and his bad manager; and once again we’re going to see that he is using the Pharisees as an example of what not to do.

All right, back to the story —

— So there’s this rich man who just caught his manager with his hand in the pot. [2] 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.’

[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 beg

and we can all understand this, nobody wants to go work at McDonalds after they’ve been a CEO! —

[4] I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’

[5] “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’

[6] “ ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied.

“The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’

[7] “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.’

And then [8] “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.

What just happened?

Well, this will take a little bit of explanation. See, the manager is accused of wasting his Boss’s possessions, right? To our modern ears this sounds like he was spending the boss’s money carelessly. But the Greek word that is translated “possessions” here means more than just “money in the bank”; it also means “the ability to make money in the future”. In our modern world we might say that this manager is being accused of destroying his Boss’s career: ruining his reputation.

And sure enough, that is what the dishonest manager was doing. The evidence is right here in what he does to save himself: he takes the man’s olive oil bill and cuts it in half. Then he takes the next man’s wheat bill and reduces it by 20%. Why? Because that extra 50% charge on the olive oil, that extra 20% charge on the wheat — that was what we call “corrupsi” here in Malaysia. The manager was charging extra on every bill and lining his pockets.

Scholars have looked at this parable and confirmed that in those days a 50% interest charge on olive oil and a 20% interest charge on wheat were normal market rates in the Roman empire.

But…if those interest rates were normal, why is the manager in trouble?

Because according to God’s Old Testament Law charging interest is forbidden! — and this is a Jewish manager, with a Jewish boss. By charging interest like this the manager is doing what is normal for Romans but against God’s Law for Jews. So he has been secretly ruining his Boss’s good Jewish reputation, and just pocketing the money. In other words he has been getting rich by destroying his boss’s future career!

No wonder the boss is firing him!

But the dishonest manager looks at the situation (his very angry Boss), looks at his resources (the extra interest he is charging), and gives away his resources to gain friends for himself. He forgives the extra debt he added on, so that when he is fired, the people he has forgiven will welcome him into their homes.

No wonder the boss says, “Wah, very action that guy!” He is not praising the manager’s dishonesty; but he is praising the manager for making such a smart move.

Then Jesus makes this very strange comment, beginning in verse 8: “For the people of this world are more shrewd — more clever — in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. [9] I tell you — remember, he is teaching his disciples at this point — use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

What does that mean?

Is Jesus is telling his disciples to use money to make friends, and this will help them get into God’s house?

Mmmmmm, not quite.

In order to understand what Jesus is saying here, we have to remember that he is teaching a course in Kingdom Management Skills. Last time he taught this course, back in Chapter 12, he used managers and money as a metaphor for shepherds and God’s Word. The manager in that parable was supposed to use the master’s money to feed the other servants, just as God’s shepherds — the Pharisees — were supposed to use God’s Word to feed God’s people.

The same metaphor is being used here. The rich man is God the Father. People have borrowed from him; they sinned against him, and they have to pay God back for that. The bills in the story are God’s Law, which tells the people how much they have borrowed: how many Laws they have broken.

— this is, by the way, why we read the Ten Commandments regularly in our worship: it reminds us how much we owe, and how much we have been forgiven! —

The dishonest manager in the story is the Pharisees. They have taken the bills — God’s Law — and added to it. They have made it much, much harder for the people to pay back their debts to God. Why? Because by keeping people in spiritual debt, the Pharisees kept themselves in spiritual control. By making people feel like unforgiven sinners, the Pharisees were able to have power over them.

Does that make sense? It’s just like today: if you owe the bank a lot of money, the bank has a lot of power over you; they can take your property from you if you fail to pay. In the same way the Pharisees, by making sure the people owed “extra” religious duty to God, made sure that they had extra power over those people. If the people failed to perform the extra religious duties, the Pharisees could take their souls!

And by doing all this the Pharisees were ruining God’s reputation! They were making God look like a harsh and demanding ah long, when actually God is a Father who loves to forgive debts!

Now the Pharisees have been fired. And Jesus is saying that if they were smart like the “people of this world”, they would rush out quickly and forgive everyone all the extra interest they have been charging on God’s debt. They would go out and erase all those extra religious details they have been adding on to God’s Law.

In other words: if the Pharisees were smart, they would give up their religious power and show mercy to God’s children, so that later on God’s children will have mercy on them. If they were smart they would join Jesus and preach forgiveness.

So this parable is not really about using money to make friends; it is about forgiveness. It is about giving up power. When Jesus says, “use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves,” he is telling his disciples, “Forgive! If someone sins against you, and they come to repent and pay their debt, don’t charge extra! Don’t use that opportunity to gain power over them! Instead, use that moment to set people free! Preach God’s Word to them: preach the good news of forgiveness!

“If you do this — if you are merciful to those who repent, to those who are in need — then they will be your friends, and in the end God will welcome you into his house!”

This is why Jesus goes on to say, [10] “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. [11] So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? [12] And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?

Remember, he is talking to his disciples, who will be promoted to management soon. They are going to be the first shepherds of the new people of God. They must not be the kind of men who use money and debt and unforgiveness to give themselves power over people. Instead, they must be the kind of men who are generous with God’s money, generous with God’s Word, generous with God’s forgiveness. If they are trustworthy in this life in handling little things like money, preaching, forgiveness, then in the next life they will be rewarded with true riches: property of their very own!

Really, Jesus is repeating his management lesson from Chapter 12: faithful managers will inherit God’s property; unfaithful managers will be cut into pieces and assigned a place with the unbelievers.

[13] “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.”

Those who are called to be shepherds of God’s people must not be the kind of men who crave power and control over others. Men who love power — whether that comes from money, or unforgiveness, or anything else — cannot also love God. Those who use money or unforgiveness or anything else to serve their own ambitions cannot also serve God.

Now, [14] The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.

The Pharisees have made their decision: they love money and power; they do not love God or his Word.

And so they refuse to accept that Jesus has the authority to fire them. They are saying, “You can’t fire us! We have kept the Law in every little detail!”

But [15] He said to them, “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.”

Jesus’ answer is clear: “You can fool people by gathering all these earthly riches and telling everyone that you’re ‘blessed by God’, but you can’t fool God. People might admire you because you’re all religious and rich and powerful, but God is disgusted with your ambition!”

Basically, Jesus just accused them of worshiping idols.

And at this point the Pharisees would have been thinking, “Jesus, you do not have the authority to change God’s Law, and then tell us that we’re failing to keep it. We are the experts in God’s Law, we know what we are doing, and we are doing very well thank you very much!”

So Jesus answers their unspoken objection.

[16] “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it.”

He is saying two things here.

First, he is saying that Moses’ Law and the Prophets were in effect until the time of John. John proclaimed Jesus’ coming, anointed Jesus king, and then the need for Moses’ Law and the Prophets came to an end. Moses’ Law was given to the Jews to prepare them for the Messiah’s coming. The prophets were given to the Jews to prepare them for the Messiah’s coming. Now that the Messiah has arrived, Law and Prophets no need mah!

“Therefore,” Jesus is saying, “the message has changed! Up until John, the message was, ‘Forgiveness is on the way.’ Now, ever since John, the message is, ‘Forgiveness is here!’ And everyone is desperate to get in, but you Pharisees have been standing in the way! Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hintered those who were entering!”

That’s why Jesus has removed them!

However, Jesus wants to clear up one misunderstanding. The Pharisees are accusing him of changing God’s Law. But Jesus goes on here to say, “No, I’m actually not changing anything. [17] It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.”

See, the Law and the Prophets which pointed forward to the compassionate, forgiving Messiah…still point to the compassionate, forgiving Messiah. They will always point to the compassionate, forgiving Messiah.

Jesus is not changing a thing about the Law or the Prophets. Their message is his message.

It is the Pharisees who changed the Law, who turned it into the opposite of compassion and forgiveness. They took it and turned it into a mechanical religion, a checklist. They have no idea that in their efforts to check every box they are actually violating the compassionate heart of the law.

Jesus wants them to understand this, so he finishes here with one example of how the Pharisees have been breaking the spirit of God’s Law, while also keeping the letter of Moses’ Law:

[18] “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Moses’ Law, in Deuteronomy Chapter 24, which we read from today, allows a man to divorce his wife if he finds — and I quote — “something indecent about her”.

Now Moses did not define what “something indecent” means. It could not mean adultery, because two chapters earlier the Law states that the penalty for adultery in ancient Israel was death, not divorce.

Some people have said, “Ah ha! See, God’s Law is not perfect! Moses should have defined that better!” But actually, by not defining the terms clearly, this law became a test of men’s hearts. We all know that if a man is committed to his wife’s happiness he will overlook all kinds of things. But if a man is more committed to his own happiness then he is going to find all kinds of things wrong with his wife!

Sure enough, during Jesus’ time there was a Pharisee named Hillel who taught that a Jewish man could divorce his wife for burning the toast! And apparently a lot of Pharisees took this to heart: they went through woman after woman after woman, all legally married, all legally divorced. They were keeping the Law of God perfectly, and getting to sleep with a bunch of women!

That sounds like the perfect religion! — for men.

But Jesus disagrees. Their divorces may be “legal” according to the written code; but they reveal that the Pharisees are only committed to their own happiness. See, in that world, a divorced woman had limited options. She could return to her father’s house and wait for another man to come along…but since it’s a second marriage her bride-price will be a lot lower, which means she’ll have to take whoever shows up, no matter how creepy or poor he might be. But if her father is dead, or if he is too poor to feed her she’ll have to go out looking for work as a single girl, which is risky. And if there are children involved the situation could get very desperate very quickly…

Divorce was an easy thing for men: it cost them nothing. But it could cost the women everything. So for a man to divorce his wife just because he’s “unhappy” with her — and wants to trade her in for some other model — was actually one of the most uncompassionate things a man could do.

That is why Jesus speaks so strongly here. In fact, he speaks so strongly it sounds like he is contradicting Moses! Moses said a man can divorce his wife and the man and the woman are allowed to marry other people; now Jesus is saying that divorce and remarriage is adultery.

It sounds like Jesus is changing God’s Law, making it more strict!

But he is not. How do we know? Well, first, he just told us that he would not be changing the Law.

Second, and more importantly, is this fact: Moses did not say that divorce and remarriage is not adultery.

Hmmmm. Did you get that? Moses said that a man is allowed to write his wife a certificate of divorce. But he did not say this is a good thing. He also didn’t say that divorce is a bad thing…but that’s because that is pretty obvious. Divorce is a traumatic experience even in the best of times, even for the best of reasons. It breaks a relationship that God never intended to be broken. It breaks a vow, a promise, and just two verses before Moses wrote about divorce, he wrote about how important it is to keep your vows. He says this: “Whatever your lips utter you must be sure to do.”

So even in the Old Testament divorce was permitted only because men’s hearts are hard and inconsiderate. It was still a sin.

Now at this point I know I need to answer a couple of objections. Some people are going to say, “What? God’s Law permitted sin?” And other people are going to say, “Oh no! I’ve been divorced. I’ve been remarried. Does that mean I’m living in unrepentant sin?”

To answer the first objection: No, it would not be right to say that God’s Law permitted sin. But it did make allowances for sin. Many of the Laws of Moses took for granted that people would have to do things in their daily life that would defile them and make them unfit to be God’s people. That’s why there are so many instructions on how to get clean again, from how to wash your dishes properly all the way up to how to sacrifice animals properly so that the whole nation can be forgiven.

And that is actually the answer to the second objection. We all sin. We all break vows. We all commit adultery on one level or another. But you know the beautiful thing about the Law of Moses is that it is also the Law of compassion and forgiveness. Moses permitted divorce not because it is good, but because we live in a world where sometimes things break and they cannot be fixed. Moses permitted divorce not because it is good, but because he knew that one day the Messiah would come and forgive the sins of everyone who calls out to him.

So when Jesus tells the Pharisees that divorce and remarriage is adultery, he is trying to convince them of two things:

First, he is trying to convince them that they have broken God’s Law. He knows they will never listen to him if he tries to convince them that God’s Law is about compassion and forgiveness, and divorce is the opposite of compassion and forgiveness. They don’t care about that. So he is using their checklist system against them. The Pharisees are saying, “My seventh divorce was legal. Check! I am a good man.” And Jesus is saying, “You have just broken another vow. Uncheck! What you are doing is detestable to God.”

The second thing he is trying to say is that, even though they keep breaking God’s Law, God’s Law is not broken. It still works. It is standing by, ready to judge them if they do not repent…ready to forgive them if they do repent.

All they have to do is admit that they are adulterers. All they have to do is ask the mercy of God, and they will receive it.

What an amazing gift!

But the Pharisees are not going to accept it. They will not forgive their wives for burning the toast; they will not forgive the poor and dirty for being poor and dirty; they will not forgive because unforgiveness gives them power. They are blind to the fact that the situation is changing: they are no longer in charge. They should have come to their senses and preached forgiveness as hard as they could while they still could!

But now it is too late. The king has arrived. He has fired them, and is training new managers, new shepherds for God’s people.

And the funny thing is this: even though everything has changed…nothing has changed. The job description for the new shepherds is the same as for the old ones. And the job requirements for the new shepherds are the same as for the old ones.

First, the job description: the new shepherds must manage God’s bills — God’s paperwork — faithfully. That means not adding anything extra to the Law. It also means tearing up the bills of anyone who comes to repent and pay. Every time someone comes to the new shepherds and says, “Hey, I owe the Master a lot, and I don’t know how I’m ever going to pay it back,” the new shepherds are supposed to take that bill and tear it up, and say, “You know what, friend? Your debt is forgiven. The Master’s son has already paid it for you!”

Second, the job requirements: before a shepherd can be promoted into a position of authority, he must prove through the little things of life that he will not abuse his position of authority. He must prove that he is a compassionate, generous, forgiving person. His life must reflect the heart of God’s Law before he can be put in charge of “managing” God’s Law.

And in this chapter Jesus gives his disciples two specific tests, two ways we can tell if a man really understands the heart of God’s Law: how does he treat his money? and: how does he treat his wife?

How does a man use the money God has given him? Does he use it to accumulate power for himself? — or does he use it to serve others? Does he lend it to other people in order to gain control over them? — or does he lend it in order to help people who need an extra boost?

How does a man live with the wife God has given him? Does he treat her as if she exists to serve him and make him look good? — or does he exist to serve her, to lift her up? Is he critical and harsh, unforgiving? Does his wife live in fear of doing the wrong thing and ending up divorced? — or is he kind and understanding? Does his wife live in the contentment of knowing she will never be set aside?

If a man is faithful, compassionate, forgiving with his money and his wife, then he will be a faithful, compassionate, forgiving shepherd to God’s people. And the shepherd who is trustworthy with God’s property will one day be given property of his own.

So: Jesus is clearly training his disciples to be shepherds — pastors — of God’s people.

Most of us are not called to be pastors.

So…does Jesus’ teaching have anything to do with us?

Well, just as we found back in Chapter 12, Jesus’ instructions for the shepherds of his Church also hold true for the sheep. Yes, pastors and teachers of God’s Word will be judged more strictly. But each one of us has been given responsibility for — and power over — someone or something, and we will all have to give an account.

How we use power reveals what is in our hearts. How fathers and mothers interact with their children; how a mistress interacts with her foreign maid; how a person spends or lends their money…all these things are indicators of what is going on inside us. These are all very useful tests for us and for those around us. There is a useful objectivity in asking ourselves the question, “Am I being faithful in the small things? Am I being merciful to those who are under my care?”

In fact, faithfulness in the small things is in some ways harder than faithfulness in the big things. For instance, it’s fairly easy for a man to forgive his buddy. You know: you’re friend comes to you and says, “Hey, uh, sorry man but uh when I was parking downstairs just now I totally scraped your car.” And then you say, “Aiyo! Well, got insurance mah!” But then later your kid draws on the wall and you’re like, “What is wrong with your DNA? That must be your mother’s contribution…”

For instance, growing up I never had a temper, and I felt pretty good about that. Then I had kids. And I discovered that nothing is more irritating than something that is supposed to be under your control and isn’t.

But that is where the true test happens. That is where the true heart of a person is revealed.

So the question is: what do we do with that? What do we do when we look at those moments and realize that we often fail to show compassion and forgiveness to the least among us? What do we do when we look around and realize that in one way or another we are all adulterers, vow breakers, divorced from God’s Law a hundred times every day in a hundred different ways?

What do we do? We return to the Law we have broken. We return, sometimes, expecting punishment. But what do we find? We find that our bills have already been paid.

Friends, this is Jesus’ command for us today, and every day: return. Come back again and again. You will not be rejected.

And what we are going find is that as we keep coming back and tasting the sweetness of total forgiveness again and again, we will be transformed little by little. As we continue to drink deep of our Father’s compassion and forgiveness, we will begin to live lives of compassion and forgiveness. We will gradually grow to be trustworthy in these little things. We will gain friends for ourselves. And we will receive an eternal inheritance.

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