In three decades, from 1985 to the present, seatbelt usage in our country has increased from 14% to 79%. The increase was estimated to have saved 85,000 lives and $3.2 billion in costs to society.  What caused the (positive) shift? Vince and Larry. Vince and Larry were featured in a series of commercials run by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration which vividly depicted what happens when a person is involved in an accident and is not wearing a seatbelt. Oh, did I mention that Vince and Larry were crash test dummies? Knowing that, you maybe remember the campaign tagline: You could learn a lot from a dummy. It was a catchy line and an effective campaign because normally you don’t expect to learn much of anything from a dummy.
In the Word of God before us, Jesus uses a similar approach. He uses the example of a worldly, wicked person – a wasteful but shrewd manager to teach his disciples how to manage earthly wealth. It’s effective because no one would expect Jesus, the one who warns his disciples over and over again not to love the world or anything in the world, to use a despicable example of waste and dishonesty to teach a spiritual lesson. And yet, that’s just what Jesus does this morning as he teaches us Christian wealth management.
The parable before us has generated considerable discussion and confusion because in it Jesus seems to praise wastefulness and deceit. But if you read the parable carefully, you’ll see that the manager was not commended for his dishonesty, but for his shrewdness, his wisdom. Where is this wisdom? See if you notice it: There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 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.” The manager said to himself, “What shall I do now?”
Did you notice the wisdom in that simple question? A foolish manager might have ignored the warning or shrugged off the master’s threat with a flippant, “he’s not serious.” A fool might have thought, “Hey, I’ve got a job today, why worry about tomorrow?” A fool might have tried to argue with his master, accusing him of being unfair in his expectations or being too demanding. But not this manager – he was wise. He was concerned about the future. He knew he had put himself in a bad position and believed that the day would come when he would have to give a full accounting.
That’s the first step in Christian wealth management, too. Jesus wants us to ask, what shall I do because we too are managers of someone else’s possessions. As Paul reminded us in the epistle lesson: we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. (1 Timothy 6:7) All that we have, we confess in the first article of the Apostle’s Creed, belongs to God. This is true of our clothing, shoes, food and drink, our homes and cars, our bodies and souls, our reason and understanding – and it’s true of our money. In his Word, God has outlined four ways that he wants us to manage the wealth he has given us: 1) He wants us to use the best we have, our first fruits, to support the work of his kingdom on earth (1 Cor 16:2); 2) he wants us to take care of our families (1 Timothy 5:8); 3) he wants us to help those in need (1 John 3:17); and 4) he wants us to pay our taxes (Romans 13:6-7). And just like the master in the parable, God has promised that the day will come on which he will demand an accounting of our management.
The question is: do we really believe this? We confessed in the creed that Jesus…will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. And yet, how often, instead of living in view of that day of accounting don’t we think “I’m the master of what I have,” or “I’ve worked hard for what I have and it’s none of God’s business what I do with it?” How many live their lives and spend their money as if there were no day of Judgment, no God who knows our hidden thoughts, no master who will demand an accounting of how we have managed his possessions? How often do we sit down and consider our time, money and everything else God has given us and ask ourselves if we have been faithful in our use of those precious gifts?
And if we do sit down and consider that question, what do we find? Maybe a better question is: how do I know if I’ve been a faithful manager or not? There’s at least one way I can think of. We each (I hope) planned ahead and know what we will be putting in the offering plate this morning. Take that number and multiply by 4. What does that amount tell us? How does it compare to the amount we will spend this month on cable, internet and smart phones? How does it compare to the amount we spend eating out, golfing, fishing, hunting, camping or traveling? As we stand before God with our offering statement in one hand and the bill for our leisure and luxuries in the other, what do they tell God, what do they tell us? What does our monthly budget suggest is nearest and dearest to our hearts? Remember that Jesus also said: where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:21) What holds first place in our hearts? Is it God or Money? That’s the most important question, isn’t it? If this manager’s heart was filled with fear and uncertainty at the thought of losing his job, how should we feel knowing that one day we will have to give account to the One who has the power to destroy both body and soul in hell?
So: what shall [we] do? Let’s start with repentance. Let start by confessing that we have not been faithful managers of God’s possessions because not one of us can say that we have loved God with our whole hearts and demonstrated that in our wealth management. Instead of growing stubborn and angry, with the attitude that it’s none of God’s business what we do with our money, let us fall on our knees in sorrow that we could be so cold toward the God who gives us everything. Let us plead for his forgiveness. And then let us rejoice in his answer, for His answer is “for my Son’s sake, I forgive you.” Jesus has wiped away all evidence of my unfaithful management and yours with his life, death and resurrection. His is the only heart that never followed the god of money. Tempted with all the wealth of the world, Jesus said: away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only. (Matthew 4:10) Paul summed up what it took for Jesus to wash our unfaithful management from God’s accounting books: for you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that through his poverty we might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9) Through faith we can face God’s day of reckoning without fear, because Christ has wiped our records clean with his precious blood.
But not only has Jesus freed us from our sinful mismanagement of the past, he has also freed us to be wise managers of his wealth right now. The dishonest manager had been told that he had to give an account for his management. He knew what that audit would reveal and that he would be out of a job. He contemplated digging or begging for a living, but decided that he wasn’t cut out for either. Then he hit on a plan: I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses. And it’s pretty slick what he did, isn’t it? He adjusted the bills of his master’s debtors so that, instead of owing the master, they owed him. Jesus tells us that there’s a lesson here for us too: I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. Let’s repeat: the manager was not commended for his dishonesty, but for his shrewdness, his wisdom. It wasn’t his fancy working of the books that made him wise, but the fact that with his limited time and his master’s money, he made friends for the future.
Similarly, Jesus encourages us to use our master’s money to make friends for the future. Jesus’ words are a powerful antidote for the tendency we have to think of the work of the church strictly in terms of dollars and cents. Jesus talks about making friends with our money – friends who will greet us in heaven. Sometimes these friends have names we know; just as often, they do not. They are the students who sit at Jesus’ feet in Sunday school, VBS, and area Lutheran day schools because our offerings have given them that opportunity. These friends are the future pastors and teachers who are now studying at MLC and WLS by virtue of the gifts we send to our Synod. These friends are people in Africa, China and dozens of other countries who are able to hear the saving gospel of Jesus Christ through our mission offerings. These friends are people in our own neighborhood, who, if they see a full parking lot or perhaps in the future a building project might wonder: what is so important to these people that they are so generous with their time and money? With these words Jesus invites us to look at the wealth we spend on furthering his kingdom not as money that’s thrown away and lost, but as an investment in immortal souls and heavenly friends.
At the same time, we can’t push this parable too far. There is a point where the similarity of Christians and the manager ends. The manager needed friends so he would have a place to go when he’d lost his job. We could never make enough friends with our worldly wealth to earn a place in heaven when our time here is up. But we do have a place to go when this life is over, a place prepared for us by Jesus by his perfect life, innocent death, and glorious resurrection. There is no room for doubt – we have a place to spend eternity, reserved for us before we were even born by the God who chose us from eternity. We don’t manage our money to make friends to get there. We don’t need them to have eternal life.
And yet, we do need these friends. We need them for the opportunity to give evidence of the saving faith that lives in our hearts. We need them to be able to demonstrate that our love for God is not just lip-service, but genuine love that shows itself in action. We need them to show that as managers of God’s money we believe that he gave us wealth not just to make our own lives comfortable but to carry out his great commission – which we have studied over the past 4 weeks: Go and make disciples of all nations. (Matthew 28:20)
But let’s get to the heart of the issue for a moment. As we contemplate God’s plan for wealth management on one hand and our own desires on the other, we’re going to realize that if we want to manage wealth God’s way, it might mean having to cut back in some places or give other things up completely. The thought of sacrificing our own luxury and leisure for God and his church will fill our stingy, selfish sinful nature with resentment. We will once again want to say: “how I use my money is none of God’s business,” or “I’ve given my part, it’s time for someone else to chip in.” There’s only one cure for that sinful attitude. Remember the friend who didn’t just cut back and didn’t just give up some of what he had to make us friends. He gave up everything. He is the one who said greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13) and then proceeded to Calvary to do just that. That was how much Jesus valued our friendship and our salvation. May his love for us move us to manage our wealth so that more and more people may come to know and believe in Jesus as their dearest friend.
You could learn a lot from a dummy. That was a catchy line from an effective ad campaign. Today, Jesus says: you could learn a lot from the worldly as he teaches us Christian wealth management. May we learn to live as managers who must give an account and let us learn to use our wealth to make friends for heaven. Amen.