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“The Litmus Test”

Luke 16:1-15
Bob DeGray
November 10, 2019

Key Sentence

Your attitude toward money is a litmus test of your attitude toward God.


I. Use wealth so others will see God’s goodness and graciousness. (Luke 16:1-12)
II. Love God, not wealth (Luke 16:13-15)


Have I ever told you about Eddie Chapman, Agent Zig Zag? His is one of the great World War 2 spy stories. Born in England in 1914, Chapman did a brief stint with the British army, then then turned to crime, becoming a professional safecracker. In 1939, he was arrested on the island of Jersey and sentenced to prison. While there, World War II broke out and the Germans seized Jersey. They released him, then arrested him for further crimes and sent him to prison in France. But he offered to work for the Nazis, who trained him in explosives, radio communications, and parachute jumping. In late1942, he was dropped into England on a mission to blow up a De Havilland aircraft factory. Instead, Chapman offered to work for the British intelligence agency, MI5.

MI5 was skeptical. Where did this man’s allegiance lie? Was he a double agent or a triple agent? Serving the British or the Germans? They finally took him up on his offer, giving him the code name Zig Zag. They faked an attack on the factory that tricked the Germans into thinking Chapman had done his job. When he returned to Germany they awarded him a medal. In 1944, Chapman parachuted into England once again, this time on a mission to let the Germans know whether their missiles were reaching their targets. Instead, he gave the Nazis misleading information, causing them to redirect the attacks to less populated areas, saving numerous lives. After the war, Chapman smuggled gold and ran a health spa, among other activities. Yet, even though he was a lifelong crook, he had enough integrity to serve his country, not the Germans. An MI5 officer who knew him said “the Germans came to love Chapman ... but although he went cynically through all the forms, he did not reciprocate.”

Toward the end of today’s text Jesus says “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” Eddie Chapman, despite the lip service he gave to Germany, did not serve two masters. Unless you count himself. He did put himself first, but not at the expense of England.

Which shows not only that you can’t serve two masters, but that using a criminal as your example makes your point a little more difficut to understand. Yet Jesus not only taught this principal, but used a criminal, at least a dishonest person in the parable that leads to the principle. As a result, this parable, in Luke 16, is widely regarded as one of the most difficult of all the parables. Still the overall teaching of the passage remains pretty clear, that our attitude toward money is a litmus test of your attitude toward God.

As I showed the kids this morning litmus solution or litmus paper is a sure test of acidity. In the same way this parable and these principles show that how you handle money is a sure test of the priority that God has in your life. The parable shows that we can use wealth so others will see God’s mercy. The principles show that we can put God first. As we examine our attitude toward money, we learn something about our relationship with God.

Let's start by looking at the parable, chapter 16, verses 1-9. “He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. 2And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ 3And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ 8The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.

Remember that this is the fourth in a series of parables in chapters 15 and 16. The first three were the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. They each showed that God's gracious love seeks lost sinners. I believe this parable, though more difficult, is still about God’s mercy. Yet it’s also about how we how we act with our money, using it to show others God’s mercy. The story itself is simple. There is a rich man who has a manager or a steward. Most likely the rich man is a landowner, and the steward manages his dealings with those who rent the land. The landowner finds out that the steward has wasted his possessions, misused his position for his personal pleasure. In our day this would be like a politician using tax dollars to fly to New York for a haircut, or taking bribes to give a certain company contracts, some kind of scandal that involves personal gain. The landowner says go get your books and hand them in, you can't be my manager anymore. Kenneth Bailey, who wrote two extraordinary books on the parables of Jesus, makes the acute observation that in simply firing this manager the landowner is showing extreme mercy. We know this from other parables and accounts in the Gospels.

For example, in the parable of the unforgiving servant, Matthew 18, the master says “‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.” Even more extreme penalties are seen elsewhere. In Luke 12 the servant says “My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk.” “46The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and . . . will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful.” So, to fire this steward was extreme mercy. Bailey says that to Jesus’ listeners this mercy would have been the most striking element of the early part of the parable.

That impacts the way this man finds to provide for himself when he is no longer the manager. He knows he’s going to be broke and unable to provide for himself. “I’m too weak for physical labor and I would be too ashamed to beg,” which was despised in Israel. Then he has an idea. Quickly, before even going back to his master with the account books, he calls in the people who are renting land and begins to write off their rent payments. One man, who rents olive groves at a cost of 800 gallons of olive oil when the harvest comes, he cuts to 400 gallons. For another man who grows wheat on the land he rents, he cuts the rental price from 1000 to 800 bushels of the wheat harvest. And we are led to assume that he did the same thing for many other renters.

Why did this manager, in his time of crisis, choose this method to assure his future? Recognize, first of all, that this is a dishonest manager. Look at how the parable ends: “the master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” He is dishonest. But, as one commentator said, there is a big difference between “the master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly,” and “the master commended the shrewd manager because he had acted dishonestly.” He is not commended for his dishonesty.

What exactly did he do? He marked down the amount these debtors would owe the rich man. He reduced their rent. Apparently, he did so without asking for any bribe or compensation, simply letting on that he had seen the way the growing season was going and had talked the rich man into accepting a lower amount. He showed godly prudence in doing it this way. There is no question he could have gotten money some other way. He could have accepted bribes or coerced them by threatening to evict them. But instead he does something that gains their good will. The really clever part is that his master won’t do a thing about it, because the manager creates good will not only for himself, but for the rich man. He has put the rich man in a position where he would be ashamed to lose this image of generosity by setting the bills back where they should have been.

It’s a clever scheme that creates good will and good opinion, but that depends on the merciful and generous nature of this rich man. And the manager is right. The rich man doesn’t contradict him, but rather, commends him for his cleverness.

Because this is a hard parable, commentators have some other theories about the steward’s scheme. Some say that the amount he reduced the bills by was the interest, and since they weren’t supposed to charge interest in the first place, the master couldn't say a word against him. Others say the steward was only reducing the debts by his share, his agent's fee for these renters. But if so, why was he twice called a dishonest steward? That wouldn’t have been dishonest. Jesus is commending the steward for the way his dishonesty led him to generosity toward others and amplified the already-established generosity of his master. It’s like Eddie Chapman. He was a criminal, and we don’t approve of his criminal activities. You wouldn’t if you read his whole biography. But we approve of the shrewd way he used criminal skills to fool the Germans, to force them to show unintended mercy to people who would otherwise have been killed by their V1 and V2 rockets.

How does this apply to us? Verses 8 and 9: “The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” The people of the world deal shrewdly in their realm. They use godly prudence, in their dishonest way. But even more the people of the light, believers, those who know God, should use godly prudence honestly in dealing with money. If we take our example from the parable, then our action should be to use our money, to use our wealth, not to directly benefit ourselves, but to bring honor and good will to the master, to the Lord, to God himself. Do you see what I'm saying: The parable teaches, and Jesus affirms, that we ought to use our wealth to allow others to see the goodness and graciousness of God.

But how do we do this in practical terms? I mean, there are many here who would say “I don't have any wealth. I'm barely scraping by. How am I supposed to use wisely what I don’t have? How can I show God’s goodness?” There are two answers. One is that giving is founded on our allegiance, not our ability. If you make God your first priority, you will find some money to give. Jesus addresses this truth in the principles that follow. But second, many of us are not using money as wisely as we could. We are not managing our own costs well, we are using money in wasteful ways, or we are giving haphazardly and not always to the right thing. We talked about this earlier this year when we studied stewardship. The principles Jesus gives here reinfoce some of that.

So assuming we have the allegiance, and some ability to give money, or time, what actions can we take to allow others to see the goodness and graciousness of God? The simplest answer is to do something or fund something that shows God’s love in a practical way. When I was in high school we supported “Project Concern,” which brought health and nutrition help in the U.S and around the world. I’ve never forgotten the moment in one of their videos where a child who received dental care for the first time said “I always thought teeth was supposed to hurt.” That’s the kind of concern that shows God’s love. Those of you who have helped with Crisis Response over the last few years, and who have come to the community dinners can remember homeowners saying “I can’t believe you would do this.” To be the hands and feet and heart and voice of Jesus shows his incredible mercy. Community Pregnancy Centers, which offer free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds are doing it with an ulterior motive, to save unborn lives and share the Gospel. But it’s done with such extreme compassion, meeting real needs, that it brings glory to God.

But even simpler things can show the love of God in practical ways. Hospitality, which we’ve talked about a lot in the last few years, shows God’s goodness. Use some of your money, and give up some of your time, to open your home to other people. You don’t have to buy a big home. You don't have to decorate like the White House. You don't have to take a course in etiquette. You can exercise hospitality with a minimum investment of time and money. Once you've got the right allegiance toward God, and learned practical self-control in finances, you can give in a way that shows God's goodness.

Jesus uses the next section to give principles for day to day management of money, and your attitude toward it. Verses 10-12 “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. 11If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?

Perhaps the most important principle in a Christian understanding of money, is the one we studied this summer, stewardship. The money I have is not my own, but belongs to God and is given to me to manage. If that principle weren’t true these verses wouldn't make sense. Verse 10, in the NIV, says “whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much.” This makes sense if I recognize that God entrusts me with the things I call my possessions. He looks at how I handle what he’s already given me, before he gives me greater things to be trusted with. But if I take what he has given me and squander it, and waste it, and use it dishonestly or dishonorably, or only for personal gain, then he will not trust me with much, since that I will also waste.

This is the litmus test that God sometimes uses. How you view and handle finances is a test of how you will handle larger responsibilities in God's kingdom. Verse 11 “If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” The true riches, I believe, are spiritual riches and responsibility, true knowledge and intimacy with God that leads us to invest ourselves in care for lives and in effective prayer and witness. Verse 12 “And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?” We are entrusted with someone else's property, God's property. But if you trust in Jesus Christ you become a joint heir with him, not just a steward but an heir of the estate, and God intends that as an heir you manage his property well, because his property is really, in a sense, your own. These verses are a call to be faithful in the day to day management of the resources which are really God’s, but which are under your stewardship. Do you see this? The principle that controls our action is that we use money to show others the goodness and graciousness of God. The factor that governs the effectiveness of this is the day to day management of His resources.

This day to day management shows up mostly in the dreary realities of budgeting and self-control. Budgeting is making a realistic plan for your spending, and self-control is sticking to that plan. This is what enables generosity. As you make your budget, and as you control your expenses, you and I need to consult with the real owner, and make sure that our budget meets with His specific and individual priorities for our lives. My budget will not be the same as your budget, your spending will not be the same as my spending, But God grant that we both will manage in ways that are faithful to the true owner.

Yet we won’t be able to achieve day-to-day management until we’ve established our allegiance. 13-15 No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” 14The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. 15He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.

The essential, foundational question for anyone seeking to deal wisely with money, is: what has my first allegiance? Is it God or is it money? Jesus makes this point with the very striking statement that no man can serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and money - or mammon in the older versions. Your true allegiance will be to one or the other. As Bob Dylan said “You’re going to have to serve somebody.” I love the scene from one of my favorite old movies, “The Ultimate Gift” where Jason is learning the value of work, and they play Dylan’s song for the soundtrack.

“But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed you're gonna have to serve somebody. Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord. But you're gonna have to serve somebody.” That’s what Jesus is saying. If you’re not serving God you’re serving someone else. If you’re not serving God 24/7/365, you’re serving yourself, and for way too many of us that manifests in the striving for money, possessions or security. The Pharisees couldn’t handle that. They saw earthly wealth as a sign of God's blessing. But God saw in their hearts that they were enslaved to serving mammon. This is a warning to us, to examine ourselves carefully. Jesus says they justify themselves in the eyes of men, and it is so easy, especially in this area of finances, to justify ourselves, to make excuses, even to convince ourselves that our use of money is appropriate, and that we have not made financial security more important than trusting God. We cannot, no matter how hard we try, do both. Either our lives reflect a basic allegiance to financial security, or they reflect a basic allegiance to God.

This is the foundation of all financial discussion. If I have made my first allegiance God, then, on that, builds the ability to see my possessions as God’s. And on that builds the action of using those possessions to show others God's goodness and graciousness. So now the rubber comes fully into contact with the road, and we can begin at the beginning to apply this teaching. If the first fundamental is allegiance to God, then the question I need to ask is not what do you do with your money. That question is meaningless and out of order. The question I need to ask is what do you do with your heart? It's a little like the caterpillar and the butterfly. I can stand over the caterpillar all day saying "Fly, Fly" and the caterpillar will not be able to fly, and if he tries it will be a disaster. What the caterpillar needs is to be changed, to go into the cocoon and have every part changed, so he becomes the butterfly. Then flying is natural.

So if I stand up here and tell you what to do with your money, but your heart is not being changed, it's useless. The core need is a heart whose first allegiance is God, which only comes when you put your faith and trust in Jesus. The normal person's first allegiance is himself, He or she is self-centered, self-reliant, self-interested. Money represents this self-centeredness. It represents striving, security, achievement, power. But the Bible calls self-centeredness sin. It is an act of rebellion against God. It is saying “Me first” in a universe that only works right when all created beings say “God first.” Jesus Christ died to pay the penalty for this rebellion. He took on himself our sin, the separation from God that our self-centeredness creates. He took the pain, the righteous anger of God that should have been directed to us. When we say to him: Lord Jesus Christ I believe in you, I trust in you to rescue me from this situation, and to restore me to a right relationship with God he does. He creates in us a new kind of person, a person that can have God as their first allegiance.

Jesus himself calls this “new birth,” the butterfly emerging from the cocoon and finding that he or she can fly. Paul says “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has passed away, and the new has come.” This kind of person cannot and need not serve two masters. He need not serve money, and he can serve God. With this allegiance, you and I can go on to the next two levels: The ability to live in a day-to-day way that sees my possessions as truly God’s, and the actions to use what God gives to show others his extreme mercy. We can budget our money and make purchases in ways that please God. We can give generously to church, missions, local ministry, and other creative outlets.

I want you to remember this sermon backwards - allegiance first, which leads the ability to give, which leads to the action of giving. Allegiance, ability, action. I opened the sermon with the story of Eddie Chapman, so I want to close with the story of another convicted criminal. In the 1980’s Randy Alcorn was the pastor of a church in Gresham, Oregon, and already a well-known author. In those years Alcorn and his church participated in “Operation Rescue” style non-violent protests at abortion clinics. Alcorn says “An abortion clinic won a court judgment against a group of us, and I discovered that my church was about to receive a writ of garnishment for my wages. To prevent the church from either having to pay the clinic or defy a court order, I resigned. I’d already divested myself of book royalties, and our family was living on only a portion of my church salary. Then another clinic was awarded the largest judgment ever against peaceful protestors: $8.2 million. By all appearances our lives had taken a devastating turn, but it was one of the best things that ever happened to us. What they intended for evil, God intended for good. We began a nonprofit organization, Eternal Perspective Ministries. The only way I could avoid garnishment was to make no more than minimum wage. Royalties from my books go to EPM, which gives 100 percent to Christian organizations. By God’s grace, we’ve given more than $6 million to date.”

So is that shrewd? Yes. “You want to garnish my wages? I’ll live on minimum wage.” Does it show God’s goodness? Alcorn’s books certainly do. Has he proven a good steward of what God has given? Has he radically made God his master and not money? Yea. Allegiance to God is the only thing that brings the ability to give, and like Randy Alcorn, you and I can put that into action.