Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 7/23/95
Luke 16:1 Now he was saying to the disciples, “There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and this steward was reported to him as squandering his possessions. 2 And he called him and said, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’ 3 And the steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the stewardship away from me? I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg. 4 I know what I shall do, so that when I am removed from the stewardship, they will receive me into their homes.’ 5 And he summoned each one of his master’s debtors, and he began saying to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7 Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and write down eighty.’ 8 And his master praised the unrighteous steward because he had acted shrewdly; for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. 9 And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the mammon of unrighteousness, that when it fails, they may receive you into the eternal dwellings. 10 He who is faithful in a little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much. 11 If therefore you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous mammon, who will entrust the true riches to you? 12 And if you have not been faithful in the use of that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? 13 No servant can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” 14 Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things, and they were scoffing at him.
Today we come to one of the most misunderstood passages in all of Scripture. If we are not careful, we will think Jesus is praising dishonesty. The steward in question had all the financial records; he was what today we would call an accountant. Therefore, when he falsified the records to curry favor with the master’s debtors, there was no way the master could prove otherwise. What he was doing in effect was embezzlement. But the key to the Lord’s point is verse 8b: “for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. “ In other words, the story illustrates how the unbeliever takes more pains to prepare for the future in this world than the believer does in the next! The point is the relative value of money and spiritual things. Then as now, most people—even if they say they believe otherwise—live as if the things of this world were of supreme and lasting value. And they are wrong!
More than once in this passage Jesus calls money the mammon of unrighteousness, or unrighteous mammon. Why? It cannot be because money is evil in itself. If it were, Jesus would hardly have appointed one of the disciples as treasurer. The Old Testament is quite clear that material wealth is one form that blessing from God can take. Deut. 28:1-5, 11 is very clear, and Deut. 8:16-18 is even more explicit: the very power to make wealth comes from God. “Thou shalt not steal” could not be one of the Ten Commandments unless the Bible recognized a right to private property. And lest we think this is only an Old Testament idea, in Luke 12:16 the wealth of the rich fool is also said to have been a gift from God. The Christian position about our relationship to money is not one of renunciation but of stewardship. We are to be the masters of what God has given us and use it for good rather than being mastered by it for evil.
Nevertheless, there is none of God’s good gifts that so readily lends itself to evil. Paul warns us about this in 1 Tim. 6:5-10. Some depraved people think godliness is a means of gain. It actually is, when it brings contentment, and we should be content if we have food and clothing. “But those who want to get rich fall into temptation . . . for the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil.” Money is not evil in itself, but the love of it is, and so close are the two intertwined for most of us that the Lord anticipates Paul’s warning by noting how easily wealth can lead us into unrighteousness, so easily that we would do well never to forget the connection between the two. Calling the thing by the name the Lord gave it can help us remember this.
There are several reasons why money, though not inherently evil, is nevertheless inherently deceptive and dangerous. First, it comes claiming to have value in itself when it is really only a tool, a means of achieving or attaining other good things that are what is actually valuable. Every coin and bill has what we call a “face value.” It proclaims itself as “worth” so many dollars or pounds or francs or marks (or, today, euros) or pesos. Even in the days when currency was made of or backed by actual precious metals, it was what you could do with the gold or silver to bring goodness and blessing to your family and others that mattered, not the metal itself. And of course today the “value” of money is even farther removed from its physical form. As Traherne reminds us, people “rejoice in a piece of gold more than in the sun, and get a few little glimmering stones and call them jewels, and admire them because they are resplendent like the stars and transparent like the air and pellucid like the sea. But the stars themselves, which are ten thousand times more useful, great, and glorious, they disregard.”
Second, money will try to convince us that it is ours, when in fact we are nothing but its stewards. A steward is a servant who manages the resources of another for the benefit of the master. Now, there are great rewards in being a good and faithful steward. Verse 12 hints at them. If we are faithful in the use of God’s wealth entrusted to us for the support of our families and the advancement of his kingdom, he will give us that which is our own. And what is that? It is our heavenly reward which can never be taken away from us; it is ultimately Himself. Wealth is good only in so far as it is an opportunity to do good, an opportunity to be faithful stewards of God’s property entrusted into our care. When we view it thus it is liberating. When we try to own it, it becomes a ball and chain.
Finally, if we do not watch our money like a hawk and constantly be reminding it that it is our servant, it will quickly come before us masquerading as a master. The Lord speaks of this in verse 13. No man can serve two masters. And then he explains: the two masters are God and Mammon. How subtly does even the smallest amount of wealth switch roles when we are not looking! But it is easiest to see when the amounts grow larger. The story is told of a man giving a testimony in church. “I was destitute. I only had one dollar to my name. But I put it into the offering plate. I gave God everything I had, and he honored that gift, so that today I am a millionaire.” And then a voice from the back pew was heard saying, “Brother, I dare you to do it again!” How is it that we know this is not going to happen? Why do we feel the impossibility in our very bones? Could it be because our own wealth has subtly begun the transformation from servant to master? We even say we work for money—as if money were our boss. Let us look to it. We can only have one Master, and Mammon isn’t it!
Money, a good blessing from God as long as it remains a means to an end and not the end in itself, a good blessing from God as long as it is held in trust from him and not grasped as our own, a good blessing from God as long as it remains a servant and not a master, is most insidious at sneaking from the good side of those equations over to the bad side when we are not looking. Yet we cannot renounce it and still live in this world, much less serve God. So we have to learn to master it, to remember that it is only a means and spiritual things are the end. How can we do that?
It helps to remember that the Christian does not work for money. He works for the glory of God, the good of his family and his fellow man, and the spread of the Gospel, trusting God to supply his needs. God will normally do this through his work and the income it brings him. But as soon as the income becomes the main thing, we are slipping back into the acceptance of all those deceptive lies that money is prone to tell us. If we can keep focused on the proper mentality, though, we are no longer slaves to our jobs or to money, but are set free to use what God gives us in those ways that alone are ultimately fulfilling. We are set free to use what God gives us for his glory.
That is the point of the cryptic advice in verse 9. “And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the mammon of unrighteousness, that when it fails, they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” It starts off sounding parallel to what the unrighteous steward did, but suddenly ends talking not about a cushy retirement on earth but rather the eternal dwellings. In other words, if we are good stewards of God’s wealth, it will have an impact on our eternal reward in heaven. (It doesn’t mean we earn salvation by giving our money away; salvation is a gift, not something that can be earned. So what the Lord is talking about is our reward for faithfulness as his stewards when we get to heaven.) In other words, even though wealth is dangerous and deceptive, God can free us to use it for our enjoyment and his glory in ways that prepare for our mansions in heaven rather than the kind of temporal dwelling the unrighteous steward of the parable was thinking of. What we have here is an argument a fortiori (an argument to the stronger). If wicked men show such dishonest cleverness to provide for their temporal futures, how much more should the Christian use his honest brains to think of ways of providing for his eternal future? We should make it a point to be creative and intelligent in investing what God gives us in the things we believe in. Two brothers got to heaven to discover that one of them had been assigned a mansion that made the Biltmore House look like a hovel, and the other was given a one room shack that was barely standing up. He was floored by the difference. “What is this?” he asked in bewilderment. The angel in charge replied, “I know it’s a bit meager, but we did the best we could with the materials you sent up.”
This is not about feeling guilty every time you spend a cent on yourself. God has given us some of his money to manage for him, and he has told us how he wants us to use it. We are to take care of our families. In the Old Testament this included what was called the “rejoicing tithe,” money you were supposed to set aside so you could go to Jerusalem during the required festivals and have a party: you “bind the money in your hand and exchange it for whatever your heart desires” so you can rejoice before the Lord. This is not about guilt but about freedom. For when we trust God to take care of us, when we see our money as his, held in trust, then we are free to use it in ways that advance his kingdom—and this is a great joy.
Can I make a practical suggestion? Think in terms of a graduated tithe. In other words, figure out how much money you require to live reasonably. When God gives you more than that, instead of automatically spending it on yourself, advance your tithe on the surplus from ten to twenty, thirty, forty percent or more. This will give you the opportunity to do more to support missionaries, Christian schools, etc. than most other people with the same income are free to do. They usually just let their surplus disappear, or spend it to support a lifestyle that isn’t worth what they are putting into it and does not reflect what we Christians say we actually value. We can defeat the deceptiveness of wealth and use it as God intended, we can be the masters of it rather than the servants, but it will take a well thought out and consistently executed lifelong plan if we are to do it. If we take the path of least resistance, we will wake up to find we have been listening to the lies just like everyone else. Instead, let us make friends for ourselves by means of the mammon of unrighteousness, that when it fails, they may receive us into the eternal dwellings.
Do you value material things and spiritual things aright? To answer that question, examine what you are investing in. Are you the master or the slave of your money? If the latter is true and you are a Christian, then you have two masters. This is an intolerable position! Love and hold to God with all your heart—and you will discover that you will be set free to enjoy the money he has given you even more.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams