Many of you have learned, by now, that I am fascinated with presidential history. Some of you have gone as far as to admire my book collection from various presidents. My goal is to collect at least one book regarding each president. I’m getting there, but it will be a process.
One of the most fascinating presidents to study is Thomas Jefferson. The architect of Monticello and the University of Virginia was a Founding Father was an early, a passionate writer, diplomat, and an enigma who is, even today, hard to fully understand.
Jefferson was known for many things, but one of his most unique and, within religious circles, controversial contributions to society was his book “The Jefferson Bible.” Originally entitled “The Life and Morals of Jesus,” it was not allowed to be published during his lifetime. The book focused on the passages of Scripture Jefferson believed were spoken by Jesus. Jefferson cut out anything that challenged his views that miracles and the Trinity were not acceptable or his deistic view of faith that claim God was absent in human affairs. The Jefferson Bible was an expression of Jefferson’s own views more than it was an attempt to articulate the life of Christ.
It was an edited version of Scripture to fit his life and the way he wanted to see the world. I wonder if we do this. I wonder if we ignore passages of Scripture that challenge us or, even, go as far as wishing certain passages were never in the Bible. Maybe we don’t write books on what Scripture passages we like or don’t like. There are certainly, however, passages we struggle with understanding or coming to terms with what Jesus is saying to us through them. This might be one of those passages that we struggle with or wish was edited from Scripture.
The Parable of the Shrewd or Dishonest Manager has long been considered one of the most difficult stories that Jesus shares. A parable was often Jesus’ preferred way of conveying challenging and necessary truths about what it meant to follow in his footsteps. In this parable, we find Jesus telling the story of a rich man who gets a report about one of his employees. An employee who had squandered all of the rich man’s resources. The following encounter leads to a challenging story and, perhaps, an even more challenging word that Jesus gives those who seek to walk with him.
Our parable begins as the rich man confronts his financial manager regarding his financial practices. In the Greco-Roman world, those with financial means would often have household managers to look over their affairs. This was likely the case in this story. A manager was to be responsible and trustworthy, and yet this one was not. The parable comes after the story of the young son who squanders all his inheritance only to be later welcomed back into his family’s care.
The manager has done just that. He has squandered all of the money he was entrusted with. The rich man calls for the accounts, based upon the actions of his manager, and prepares to fire him. When this happens, the manager does not know how to handle the situation. He cannot dig ditches, he says, nor does he want to beg for money. His life is ruined.
That is until he comes up with a plan. He goes to all of his boss’s creditors to make a deal with the hopes of securing future promises of care for himself. It is worth noting that part of the act of squandering likely meant charging more for items than what was required. There was a common practice, in those days and even today, of taking advantage of others for financial gain, such as tax collectors who would charge twice the tax rate in order to fatten their own pockets. The manager does to the creditors and renegotiates all of the deals on the table. The effort works even to the point that his soon-to-be-former boss admires what he has done.
Even Jesus admires what the manager did. I believe this catches us all off guard. It catches me off guard. When we read it, we get the sense that Jesus is commending the acts of a self-focused individual who used some very underhanded tactics. This manager wasn’t so much interested in protecting the interests of these clients as we trying to make sure his own needs were met.
So, what is Jesus doing here? That is what confounds us. I’m not sure he is as commending the actions of the manager as much as he is pointing to something that can be seen within his actions. A model, if you will, for how we are to live our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. Followers of Jesus Christ are called to make wise decisions with how we make use of the money that we are entrusted with in order to live as citizens of the kingdom of God.
Money, and really any conversation about finances and our resources, is a discipleship matter. It was a common theme for Jesus and the Scripture writers, especially Luke. There is a calling within Jesus’ words to be faithful in our stewardship and care for the resources God has given us, because all that we have is not ours to begin with. It is God’s resources and we are simply the mangers of the resources.
We struggle when the topic of money comes up in church, especially in worship and in the sermon. It is one of those topics we believe are “off limits” for conversation. When it comes up, we immediately believe the pastor is “meddling.” Why is that? Why is it that if Jesus talks about something, we would rather not hear about it? Because money, and many of the other meddling topics, have taken a place in our lives where we can easily be controlled and manipulated by our desires for more and use it for our own means.
To be a disciple of Jesus Christ means everything in our life comes under his lordship and guidance. This includes how we use the resources that are entrusted to us. Jesus says that we have to be careful about not letting money become a master in our lives. We cannot be consumed by our finances, or lack thereof, and be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.
Money and our finances have the ability to both bless and curse. When it curses, it dominates our thoughts, our actions, and motivations. It can separate people into classes based on how much they have. We make assumptions about others based upon our perceptions of what they have or do not have. As well, we remove faith from our conversations about money. Instead of basing our actions upon trust and confidence, we base conversations about money on business practices that are geared towards holding back instead of moving forward. In all of this, we are consumed by what we have, what we don’t have, and what we wish we have. Money becomes the master of the church and our lives.
Jesus calls us to consider how we use our finances. We are not to be consumed by our finances to the point that they control us. Instead, we are to be faithful stewards of what we have been given. Whether we have much or little, disciples of Jesus Christ are called to make wise decisions with what we have and to live within the principles of faith. We are to live responsibly, wisely, and to remember that what we have is not ours.
That is easy to say. It is another thing to live it out. So, how do we live out this mantra to be faithful stewards of these resources, so that we give our complete devotion to God and not our finances. This is why we have to take seriously to talk about the things that may make us uncomfortable. If we don’t, we are more apt to be guided by the ways of the world and try to squeeze the idolatry of the world as it comes to money, politics, or anything else into our faith. Yet, a disciple of Jesus Christ ponders upon the deep and difficult questions of life in such a way that it calls attention to how Christ calls us to live and what it means for us.
So, again, how might we be a good steward of our finances? This is where John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, might come in handy. Our doctrinal standards include what is known as the “52 Standard Sermons.” These are sermons that highlight the depths of Wesleyan theology within the Christian faith. Among those 52 sermons is one entitled “The Use of Money,” which is a treatise upon this very passage. In the sermon, Wesley says that followers of Jesus Christ should “gain all they can; save all they can; give all they can.” He gives this as a way for followers of Jesus Christ to organize their lives in a way that they use their finances faithfully.
What does Wesley mean by this? By “gaining all they can,” Wesley doesn’t mean that we try to obtain all the finances possible. He means that one should work hard, work justly and fairly, and refrain from taking advantage of others in order to gain more for themselves. These are all principles that come straight from Scripture. To be a good steward means that our work in how we obtain finances must be honorable, holy, and just, especially in our treatment of one another.
By “saving all,” Wesley takes an approach to be wise with one’s finances. This doesn’t mean to hide away all of one’s finances in such a way that they are never used. Instead, what Wesley articulates is an act of making prudent decisions that limits discretionary spending or buying things that are more than what one truly needs to live. It is the act of being content to live within one’s means and being practical in how one cares for their expenses.
Finally, by “giving all” Wesley advocates for followers of Jesus to use what they have in such a way that it meets the needs of those around them. He argues that if one was to gain all they can and save all they can and did not give all they could, it would be like throwing their money into the sea. Our resources are to be used to inspire and care for others. They are to be used to care for the poor, the sick, and to enable the ministry of Christ. Wesley, himself, lived this out. He made money throughout his ministry through the sales of his books, yet he lived cheaply and modestly, and, when he died, died penniless because he had given all of it away.
The call of a faithful follower of Jesus Christ is to be stewards and faithful towards all that God has blessed us with. What would change in our lives if we saw money as not the object of our desire, but another tool that God has given us to bless others and to make disciples? How much different would our lives be if we were no longer consumed by what we had, what we don’t have, and, instead, lived with a faithful hope and desire to match our actions by those of Christ.
Perhaps, perhaps, we would gain all that we can; save all that we can; and, truly, give all that we can, so that all may know the love of Christ.