If you’ve ever Googled a location in Wichita you’ve probably seen results for a town called Wichita Falls in North-Central Texas. On the corner of Seventh and LaSalle streets in Wichita Falls is an unusual red brick structure called the Newby-McMahon building. The building is 40 feet tall, 18 feet long and 10 feet wide.
According to local history the building was the brainchild of a structural engineer named JD McMahon. In the early 1900s the discovery of a Petroleum reservoir in Wichita county created a population boom, attracting the attention of investors and their capital. In 1919 JD McMahon saw an opportunity and proposed the construction of a skyscraper to accommodate the rapidly growing population. A group of investors put together $200,000, which in modern currency would be about $2.9 million dollars, for the project.
Expecting a 480 foot tall, 40 story high rise – the group was flabbergasted when an unusually small 4 story structure took shape. In the subsequent lawsuit, McMahon successfully defended his case by providing signed paperwork detailing an agreement for the construction of a 480 inch tall high rise.
He then skipped town with his proceeds, leaving the investment group to enjoy their new ownership of the worlds smallest skyscraper. In addition to the property, he left them the challenge of sorting out legal matters with the owner of the land upon which their investment sat, who was not JD McMahon and had not given consent for any construction on her property.
It may surprise you to know that the lesson of our Parable this morning is that Jesus wants you to be more like JD McMahon.
This is the final week of our Storyteller series.
I considered finishing with one of the universally known and beloved parables – the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan. But I think that it is fitting to close at this time of year with what some consider to be the worst of Jesus’ parables. Turn with me to Luke chapter 16.
The setting in Luke 16 is that striking moment in the speaking ministry of Jesus when he had attracted a crowd of what my kids would call sketchy people. Tax collectors and sinners in Luke’s words. These types of people were coming around to listen to Jesus. As they watched Jesus interact with these sinners in friendly conversation, the religious leaders in the crowd condemned him for his choice of company.
In response, Jesus told a series of stories starting with the three parables about the joy of someone who has recovered something valuable to them which had been lost. He then told the parable we will read this morning.
Read Luke 16:1-13.
It’s an interesting one, isn’t it?
There doesn’t seem to be a single good character in this story, nor a single good act. What was Jesus about with this story?
Let’s break down the story.
A rich man hired a manager to run his estate so he could focus on his leisure time. After a while he begins to hear stories about how his hire has been wasting his possessions. (The word wasting can also be translated squandered, which is how it is used earlier in the story of the Prodigal son.) The manager seems to be enjoying some leisure of his own. The rich man calls his employee to turn in his books and be dehired.
If you have ever been fired or faced the threat of a layoff, you know something of what this man felt in that moment. Jesus takes us into the man’s feelings in verse 3 as he begins to work through his options. Without training in a trade, the man faced the two options of the unskilled and occupationally flexible – bend his back in the fields or bend his pride on the street corner begging.
This moment of constraint provides a spark of creativity. I know what I’ll do! In the ancient Mediterranean, one of the most firmly established social norms was reciprocity. “Generous or benevolent acts brought with them the expectation that they would be repaid.” The desperate manager makes good use of that custom, calling in his former employer’s debtors while he still had the books.
The first owes a debt of 100 measures of oil. A hundred measures was about 800-900 gallons of oil. This debtor was probably the caretaker of an olive orchard who kept some byproduct but turned over most of his finished product to the owner. 100 measures was a massive amount. Commentaries say we’re talking about 3 years of salary, or 6 figures worth of oil. With the mark of a pen the manager just cut that debt in half. You can imagine the gratitude of his new friend.
The next man owes a debt of 100 measures of wheat. A hundred measures of wheat was 1100 bushels, which I’m told is about 7.5 years wages. And just like that, the manager has bought, with $50,000 of his former employers money, another lifelong friend.
As far as we can tell, this guy isn’t even trying to hide what he’s doing. The parable ends with the former employers surprising response.
The interpretation of this parable is more diverse than any other I have studied. One commentary outlines 16 different ways of interpreting this story. As is always the case, the right interpretation is the plain one.
The key word in this parable is shrewd. It’s used twice, in different forms, in verse 8. If you are making notes in your Bible, I recommend that you circle it.
The Greek Word in Luke is phronesis. It was one of several words the Greeks used for wisdom. The distinct quality of phronesis wisdom is practicality. It is practical wisdom. It comes from real world experience. It is the wisdom of business and politics. In modern English we might say street smarts.
Shrewdness involves motivation. Drive. An inner compulsion. Hustle. And it involves adaptation. A shrewd person is driven and creative.
This man’s shrewdness came from two things:
- An acute awareness of his future destiny.
- A keen sense of the connection between his present choices and that future destiny.
The plain reading of the parable is that Jesus is calling his disciples to imitate the manager not in his unfaithfulness or his dishonesty, but in his practical wisdom. In his creativity and his hustle. Listen with me to John Calvin’s summary:
“But Christ only meant what he adds a little afterwards, that ungodly and worldly men are more industrious and skillful in conducting the affairs of this fading life, than the children of God are anxious to obtain the heavenly and eternal life, or careful to make it the subject of their study and meditation.
By this comparison he charges us with highly criminal indifference, in not providing for the future, with at least as much earnestness as ungodly men display by attending to their own interests in this world. How disgraceful is it that the children of light, whom God enlightens by his Spirit and word, should slumber and neglect the hope of eternal blessedness held out to them, while worldly men are so eagerly bent on their own accommodations, and so provident and sagacious! Hence we infer, that our Lord does not intend to compare the wisdom of the Spirit to the wisdom of the flesh, (which could not have been done without pouring contempt on God himself,) but only to arouse believers to consider more attentively what belongs to the future life, and not to shut their eyes against the light of the Gospel, when they perceive that even the blind, amidst their darkness, see more clearly. And, indeed, the children of light ought to be more powerfully excited, when they behold the children of this world making provision against a distant period, for a life which is fading, and which passes in a moment.”
Jesus wants us to be more wise, more shrewd with our resources. We can break that down into three points.
1. Be wise with your resources, because they will fail.
A day is coming when everything you have built for yourself in this life, all of the wealth you have gathered, all of the toys will fail. It will do no good for you when death comes.
It may come at the end of a long, happy retirement.
It may come at the end of a long battle with illness.
It may come at the beginning of your prime like my friend who died last week of heart attack on the eve of his 42nd birthday.
When that day comes, there will be no more 2nd chances. There will be no more opportunities to think about your soul or to consider God and eternity. Your earthly story will be concluded.
2. Be wise with your resources, because your eternal future is intimately connected to your present choices.
Sinclair Ferguson explains what the reality of our future destiny means for our daily experience as Christians:
“Worldly people employ what they possess in the light of what they think is their destiny. Christian people often fail to do so.
The destiny of the Christian believer is eternal glory.
Therefore the principle that drives what the Christian believer does with what he or she possesses in every situation he or she finds herself, is how do I bring the horizon of my eternal destiny to bear on what I am now doing. How do I use in general terms the wealth the Lord has given me. May be material wealth. Mental wealth. The wealth of our church. The talents we have. The people we know. The spheres in which God has led us. How am I going to employ all of these things in light of the fact that my destiny lasts infinitely longer than my present life.
Once you’re in this kingdom, every detail in your life should be marked by the fact that you have an eternal destiny with the Lord Jesus Christ.”
I often think of a quote I heard years ago about the reality of eternity:
“There are 3 things that will last forever: God, the Word of God and the souls of men and women. To the extent that you are involved in these three things, you will be involved in eternity.”
3. Be wise with your resources, because wealth requires hustle.
When it comes to the practical use of money and resources, we tend to err on the side of two extremes. On one side are shrewd people like the main character of our parable. They think often of money and are very diligent and skilled at calculating how to leverage their opportunities now for more money later.
On the other side there is the person who has a suspicion of money, an aversion which comes from the recognition that greed and envy are destructive impulses of sin and idolatry. This person tends to be complacent when it comes to using the resources of this world. They are happy to shop at thrift stores, they could care less about the condition of their possessions or of their bank account. Jesus says to this person you need to consider the motivation and the adaptation, the hustle and industry, of the shrewd man you despise.
Jesus says, I wish you were more like them.
The mindset Jesus is looking for takes the hustle and practical wisdom of the worldly person and directs it in light of the overwhelming reality of eternity.
What should we do with this parable? How do I apply it tomorrow morning?
Make friends who will receive you into eternal dwellings.
Wise and generous use of resources can win friends and favor. That friendship and favor can be used to win souls to Jesus. Those who wisely and generously use their resources to win friendships that win souls to Jesus will experience eternal friendships and favor in heaven.
The wise Christian will use their money and resources to win friends. They will be generous at Christmas time with gifts of baked goods and thoughtful purchases for neighbors and friends. They will host parties for their friends. They will leverage the season of goodwill to win favor and influence
Is this a call to be mercenary in our friendship? Like some weird form of spiritual scalp hunting?
When religious conversion is an ulterior motive to acts of friendship, something is gross.
When the eternal salvation of human soul is the ultimate motive of our friendship, that’s love and that’s beautiful.
There will always be a place in my home for the two men who won my friendship with their time and resources, and through that friendship introduced me to Christ.
I have a debt of gratitude and affection that will never be repaid. One of the great riches of heaven will be the wealth of friendship we carry with us.
It’s not a call to mercenary friendship. It’s a call to urgent love.
Not only is our time short, friends. Our friends’ time is short. Last week the door was shut forever on my opportunities to win my friend Ryan to Christ.
Don’t let that happen to your relationships with those you love.
Let’s show some hustle this Christmas season and invest in eternal friendship.
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown