A PERPLEXING PARABLE
By Pastor Glenn Pease
Have you ever heard or read of such a unique and perfectly planned crime that you said to yourself, "That was really clever"? For example, was it not amazing that that group of men in England could steal millions of dollars without firing a shot? We have to admit it was a bad thing well done. They knew what they were doing, and were dedicated to their plan. We do not approve of their crime, but we admire their commitment. They were willing to sacrifice their life for the goal they have chosen. Does this sound like blasphemy to be admiring the dedication of clever crooks and their evil schemes? If it does, it may be because we have forgotten how seldom Jesus used people with halos to illustrate His teachings.
Do you remember the story of the mean old judge who would not help a poor old widow? But she kept bothering him till he finally gave in, and what Christ was teaching was this: If a stubborn unjust judge will help a widow just to get rid of her, how much more will God help those who call upon Him because He loves them? Or what of the story of the man wanting bread who goes to his neighbor who is in bed? He tries to get him to go away, but finally just to get rid of him he gets up and gives him bread. The point is, if a man will be kind in order to get rid of a nuisance, how much more will God be kind to those who come to Him in need?
We are now considering a parable that has perplexed many people, and has caused some critics to say that Jesus taught it was wise to cheat if you are smart enough to get by with it. The hero of the story is an outright crook, and Jesus uses him as an example for His disciples. Jesus was not limited to saints for His illustrations. Jews could not loan money for interest, so they hired Gentile stewards to do it for them. The steward was completely in charge, and he kept all the books. He would loan to farmers to get them going, and they would pay back so much of a percent of their crops. He was one who made sure they paid back the right percentage.
This particular steward was wasting his master's profits (no doubt in wickedness, for the word is the same as that used of the Prodigal who wasted his substance in riotous living). When his master heard of it, he called him and told him to give an account. When he saw that the books were false he fired him. The steward faced the consequences and pictured the future. He was not able to dig or beg, so he came up with a clever plan. He called his lord's debtors and gave them all a big discount so they would be his friends when he lost his job, and in gratitude would take him in. It was so clever that even his lord, when he heard of it, said that the man was really sharp. It is a shame to lose a man with such a good head on his shoulders. Jesus then comments on this story and teaches us some lessons from this unjust steward. First we see-
I. A LESSON ON THE WISDOM OF THE WORLD. v.8
In World War II, Leslie Weatherhead was in a battalion located in a bend of the Tigris River. They were constantly annoyed by the cleverest thieves in the world-the Arabs. The men would sleep with revolvers under their pillows and have them stolen in the night. They even tried to bury their rifles under the surface of the ground and fasten straps to their wrists. After a night of unbroken slumber they would wake to find them stolen. Two of his fellow officers were so angry they were determined to shoot any Arab on sight, and so with rifles loaded they laid out in the desert all night to keep watch. They did not hear or see anything, but when they came back to their tent in the morning, the entire contents had been looted. They were absolute experts in the field of crime.
'Twas the night before Thanksgiving,
And all through the plane
Not a stewardess was smiling,
Or serving champagne.
The reason was because a skyjacker by the name of Don Copper had flashed a bomb and demanded 200,000 and four parachutes. In Seattle the demand was me, and the passengers were allowed to leave the plane. He then ordered the pilot to fly to Mexico. Somewhere between Seattle and Reno he opened the rear door and bailed out with the money. Law enforcement agencies combed the area, but no trace of him could be found. The reaction of the American people was one of amazement at his cleverness. He was admired as a hero, for he outwitted the system. The majority of people interviewed hoped he would get away because he was so clever.
Jesus is saying to His disciples that they can learn from non-Christian dedication, even the dedication of crooks. Look at the world and learn something from their commitment to their evil goals. Jesus is not approving of their actions. He is simply pointing out that they are often more devoted to, and consistent with their ungodliness than Christians are with their profession of faith. In the long run the worldly are fools, but in the short run they are often wiser in attaining their goals than believers are in attaining theirs.
Why should we not be as dedicated to God as the world is to their idols? They devote their time and money to their idols. They are not hypocritical saying that they love their idol, and then give only one or two hours a week to it. What would you think of a man who said his god was sports, and then only went to one sporting event a week. You would denounce him as a hypocrite. If sports was his god, he would be into some sort of sport everyday, and when not doing it, he would be reading about it and talking about it. A truly religious sports fanatic has no limit to his love, for it penetrates into his very being, and he exists for it. The true sports worshiper will deny himself, his family, his friends and relatives, and give up all other values to be loyal to his first love. Sure he is a fool, but Jesus would say even his folly shows you what true commitment is to ones highest values.
They are relatively wise and absolutely foolish, but we can learn from them anyway. An ancient proverb says, "It is lawful to learn from an enemy." Jesus said, "Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves." It is the one characteristic or quality of the serpent we are to learn from, and not be like the serpent in its evil ways. When Jesus said He would come as a thief in the night He was not identifying Himself with the evil motives of the thief, but just the one quality of suddenness. He is not saying we should be like crooks, but that we should learn from their commitment to false gods what our commitment ought to be to the true God. Look at some of the values we see in this unjust steward.
1. FORESIGHT-v. 3. He pictured the day of judgment for him, and he faced the consequences. We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, and how foolish not to face that fact, and consider the consequences of living a half-hearted Christian life. We ought to fear to stand before Him with a life as fruitless as an iceberg. When Jesus said we are to take no thought for the morrow, He meant we are not to worry about where our next meal is coming from. He did not mean we are not to plan ahead. Nothing is so strange as people who want to go to heaven but who do not want to learn of Christ now, and serve Him with all their energy. It is wisdom to see the future and plan, as did this thief, on how to deal with negative consequences in a positive way.
2. DETERMINATION-v. 4. The man of the world says, here is what I want, and here is how to get it. Jesus would have us learn that success in anything demands determined and concentrated effort. The safe cracker spends many years training his ears and fingers to be sensitive. He needs to develop the tools necessary for his trade. If it takes so much effort and energy to be a good crook, how much more ought you to expect to take to become a good Christian? Many think it is a snap to be a Christian, but this is not so for those who want to be all that Christ wants them to be. This calls for everything you've got.
The Christian life is a joy, but also a job.
The Christian life is a feast, but also a fight.
The Christian life is banquet, but also a battle.
You can't expect to be successful in the Christian life if you are not willing to exert the energy necessary. Alexander Maclaren said to his large congregation, "Why, a boy, will spend more pains in learning to whistle than half of you do in trying to cultivate your Christian character." A man who spends 6 hours a week on the golf course and only one in pursuit of the things of Christ will likely be a better golfer than he is a Christian. A man reveals his real hunger and thirst by the way he spends his time. If he seldom considers God and His Word, and is always involved with other things, he is a worldly Christian. No one is as unhappy as a half-hearted Christian. He is too good to enjoy the sins of the world, and not good enough to experience the joys of full Christian commitment.
This committed crook of our text did not have anyone to consult with. He was a self-starter. He said to himself, here is the picture of what I am facing, and here is what I want to do about it. If more Christians would just say that, and get to doing things for Christ, they could make a big difference. Ted Engstrom, the president of World Vision, told of how he one day got a long distance call from a young man who said he wanted to work with World Vision. Ted told him its not that easy, but he said he wanted to meet with Ted in person. They arranged to do so, and Ted tried to tell him he probably would not fit into their organization. But he would not take no for an answer. Ted asked him what he would like to do, and he said he liked to solve problems. So Ted said he would give him a thousand dollars for a month to help solve problems. He was so good at it he helped them solves one problem after another. He got the love loaf program going that took in over 15 million to feed the hungry. Bob Biehl was determined to use his gifts for the kingdom of God, and he did it.
Allen Gardiner was a missionary to Patagonia. His life is a record of terrible sufferings and privations. He was found at last lying dead alongside an overturned boat on the shore. In his hand was his diary that told of his hardships of hunger, thirst, wounds, and loneliness, but his last words which he scribbled before he died, with a hand so weak it could hardly be read, were, "I am overwhelmed with a sense of the goodness of God." One does not die with a faith like that unless his life has been dedicated to the service of God. Men will sacrifice, murder, and steal, to gain some earthly goal. Jesus says, look at that and learn. How much more ought ye to sacrifice and serve for an eternal goal? Just look at your unsaved friends, neighbors, and relatives, and see to what extent they give themselves to their gods of pleasure, and compare it to your commitment to Christ. You will see how well Christ knew what He was saying when He taught this lesson. Secondly we see-
II. A LESSON ON USING MONEY AS A MEANS. v. 9.
The meaning of this verse is illustrated in the other parable in this chapter about Lazarus and Dives. If Dives had used his money wisely he would have been welcomed into heaven by Lazarus. But instead of using it as a means he used it as an end in itself, or as a means to a selfish end, and he found himself in hell without a friend. The steward had enough sense to sacrifice present funds in order to secure future friends. He could have collected the total and kept some for himself, but then he would be alone in the world, and no one would trust him. When his money gave out he would have to beg, and so he gave the farmers his commission by cutting it off their debt, and thereby he made friends who could help him out when he lost his job. That was a good investment.
Jesus says to His own, don't be less wise than a crook, but use your money to lay up treasures in heaven. Use it to make friends who will welcome you when you enter glory. There is a mystery here that we know little about, but what we do know makes sense. There is a saying of the Rabbi's that goes, "The rich help the poor in this world, the poor help the rich in the world to come." Jesus never taught that one could be saved by his use of money, but he did say that the saved can lay up treasure in heaven. Paul said, "I know in whom I have believed and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day." How could Christ keep it if he had not committed it, and how do we commit our treasure to Christ? It is by the way we use our material wealth.
Jesus said that at the judgment He will say, "I was naked and you clothed me, hungry and you fed me, in prison and you visited me." Then when we ask when we did this, He will say, "As you did it unto one of the least of these my brethren you did it unto me." Put this all together, and what Jesus is saying is that the man who has used his wealth on earth as a means by which to help and lift others, and to bring them into the kingdom of God, will one day die and lose all his earthly possessions, but will find a multitude of friends welcoming him to glory. All though eternity he will have the reward of fellowship with those he helped to win. This ought to be one of the greatest incentives in our lives to use our wealth to win men. It implies that those who go on before us learn who was responsible for their salvation.
John Wesley said that the Christian philosophy in regard to money is: Make all you can; save all you can, and give all you can. He practiced what he preached, and even though he made a fortune by writing books, he died with only loose change in his pockets. This does not mean we go handing out money to all who are in need. When we went to skid row on Gospel teams we were warned not to give any money for cups of coffee, for it is known that it all goes to alcohol. Here again we are to learn from the world. They know how to invest money wisely for the best results.
At the battle of Waterloo, Nathan Meyer Rothschild was a spectator from a shot proof tent. At sunset when he saw Napoleon's soldiers giving way, he jumped in the saddle and galloped all night. He reached the English Channel at daybreak. He bribed a fisherman to take him across. He reached London 36 hours before anyone heard the news of the victory. He used those hours to trade in the stock exchange to such an advantage that he gained nearly 2 million pounds. Here was a man who was clever and dedicated to making money. How much more ought Christians to be dedicated to bearing fruit for the kingdom of God?
Let us be clear, however, that the use of our money is not a means of salvation for self, but it can be for others. Jesus is speaking to His disciples, and it is assumed that they are already children of light in contrast to the children of darkness. Only the Christian who has committed his life to Christ can hope to gain anything by his use of money as a means of helping others. But once a Christian, we dare not underestimate how significant this factor can be. The evangelization of the world is, in a very real sense, dependent upon material wealth. That which shall perish is essential to secure that which is permanent. That is what Jesus is trying to get us to realize. Money is not an end in itself, as the miser is deceived into thinking, but its only value is in what it can purchase. You have a choice of values you can use it to secure. The passing values of the world or the permanent values of eternity. Jesus says, be wise and let God be your investment counselor, and use what you have for the greatest interest of the kingdom of God. Thirdly-
III. A LESSON ON FAITHFULNESS IN LITTLE THINGS. v. 10-12.
The chain of thought here is still dealing with the use of money, but since the principle was true in all areas of life we want to include everything. Jesus gets right down to earth here. Some people think He only talked about spiritual and other worldly things, but that is not so. Jesus says Christianity is a spirit that is to infiltrate your whole life right down to the way you buy your groceries. If you can't handle your money right, you are not having success in spiritual matters either.
Helmut Thielicke, who was one of the great preachers of the world, said, "Our destiny with God is rarely decided by our reflecting upon dogmas and all kinds of others worldly problems. Our destiny is rather decided by what we do with the all together real worldly questions and temporal problems which play a part in our life. Such as sex, money, and personal relations." We don't have to major in minors, but we had better master them. How many of you ever have trouble with your wife over systematic theology? It is more likely to be the grocery bill, or how you squeeze the toothpaste. Jesus makes it clear that we don't get to the top except by starting at the bottom. You don't get to be surgeon, and then learn how to clean your fingernails. Nor do you get to manage the riches of God until you learn to be faithful with the things of earth. We can't handle the trigonometry of the spiritual if we haven't learned the simple math of the physical.
Two men met on a train and discovered they were both Christians. One said to the other, "What do you do as a Christian?" He said, "I make shoes." The other replied, "I mean what do you do as a Christian?" The other repeated, "I make shoes." You may say he was not very spiritual. On the contrary, he had an insight that all of us need. He was far more pleasing in the sight of God by making a good quality shoe than one who does a sloppy job and spends his evenings handing out tracks. If we are not faithful in our work, it is not likely we will succeed in our witness.
Jesus wants us to see that there is no such thing as the insignificant in our lives. It is a great thing to be a hero in battle. It is a great thing to command a large post in the world of business. It is a great thing to be famous in the world of sports. It is a great thing to be able to preach a sermon to the masses. But Jesus says that we don't know what real greatness is until we have learned to be Christian in our everyday, incidental, seemingly insignificant tasks of life. When it is put that way, none of us escape. Many are they who have died in the flames and given their bodies to be tortured, but how few are there of the truly great who have applied their Christianity to the petty things of life?
A friend once saw Michaelangelo at work on one of his statues. Sometime later he saw him again and said, "You have so little done. Have you been idle since I saw you last?" "By no means," he replied. "I have retouched this part and polished that. I have given some expression to this lip and more energy to this limb." "Well, well," said the friend. "All these are mere trifles." "It may be so," he responded. "But recollect that trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle." He was a master, and his works live forever because he recognized the value of little things.
Let us all give heed to Christ, and wake up to the fact that the way we use the least determines what we will have of the best. Commit your life, your money, your everyday tasks and experiences to Christ. Let us learn from the best of the world how to be our best for Christ.