A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on September 19, 2010.
An insurance salesman stuck his head into a department store sales manager’s office. “You don’t want to buy any insurance, do you?” he asked timidly.
“Young man, who taught you how to sell?” asked the sales manager. “Don’t ever ask that kind of question! Your problem is lack of self-confidence. Give me an application blank. I’ll buy some insurance to give you confidence in yourself.”
After completing the application the sales manager gave the young man a lecture. “Now remember, each customer is different. Figure out what each one wants. Then you’ll know how to develop an approach that fits.”
“That’s exactly what I do,” said the salesman. “I just gave you my approach for sales managers, and it works almost every time!”
Lloyd Ogilvie tells of a conversation he had with one of America’s most successful businessmen on a cross-country plane flight. This man had risen from a very humble background to immense wealth. Ogilvie asked him for the secret of his success. His response was as interesting as it was short.
“Shrewdness!” he said bluntly. The man didn’t explain his business success by his MBA degree, or his long hours at work, or a competent staff. Shrewdness – like the kind shown by that young insurance salesman – was the key.
The man went on to say that he spent every waking hour thinking, scheming, planning, developing, and putting deals together. And he did so, he said, with complete honesty. But he also did it with shrewdness. And the result was a business empire of incredible wealth.
Webster’s Dictionary defines “shrewd” as “keen-witted, clever, and sharp in practical affairs. ” When I think of shrewdness I think of Jacob in the Old Testament, disguising himself as his brother Esau before his blind father Isaac so he could receive Esau’s blessing. Or Tom Sawyer talking Huck Finn into painting that long picket fence on a hot summer day so he could take the afternoon off. Or that old TV series “Maverick” where Bret Maverick, played by James Garner, won game after game of poker because of his cleverness with a deck of cards.
When we think of being shrewd, we think of a whole lot of things. But I bet few of us probably associate shrewdness with Christianity — much less Jesus — and the title of this sermon “Shrewd Saints” may frankly sound like a contradiction in terms. That’s why people have been struggling with today’s Scripture for hundreds of years.
If you asked New Testament scholars what is the most difficult of all Jesus’ parables to interpret, chances are good most of them would name our parable for today, commonly known as the “Parable of the Shrewd Manager”. For centuries this parable has baffled and scandalized Christians and non-Christians alike. The fourth-century Roman emperor Julian the Apostate and others cited this text as proof that Christianity is a religion of scoundrels. One commentator calls the parable is a “notorious puzzle”, and another notes that the passage has produced a “jungle of explanations.” In fact, there are even more interpretations of this parable than there are interpreters!
Let’s take a moment to review this New Testament nightmare. A wealthy landowner employs a managerwho is responsible for collecting rent from the tenants that occupy and farm the land. The annual rent is not paid with money but crops. Even though the manager receives a regular salary from his Master, he routinely overcharges on the rent to give himself a cut of the action. At first the manager’s cut is modest, and no big deal. But the manager gets greedy and keeps upping the rent and spends his profit in riotous living. The Master gets wise to his wasteful manager, calls him in and chews him out, and tells him to clean out his office by the end of the week.
At first, the fired manager is devastated. But then he hatches a brilliant plan. With the time he has left, he’ll start calling in the rents in advance at reduced rates by eliminating his cut (450 gallons of olive oil rather than 900; 800 bushels of wheat rather than 1000). That way the tenants will be supremely grateful and more likely to take him in and help him out after he draws his last paycheck. At the same time, the Master will be pleased because he’ll be getting his rent in advance without losing a penny, and he will gain popularity with the tenants because the discounted rent will make the Master seem like a generous man.
The plan works beautifully. And in a startling turnaround, the Master commends this rascal of a manager who just hours earlier had been fired for fleecing both his Master and the tenants.
Then comes the shocker. After letting the story sink into his disciples for a moment, Jesus commends the dishonest manager. In effect he says, “Fellows, here’s a man who knows how to get things done. And it wouldn’t hurt you to be a little more like him.”
What’s going on here? Jesus, the sinless Son of God, holding up a clever con-man as a role model? Then, to muddy the water still further, Jesus appears to contradict himself when he warns about getting too carried away with money, because it’ll burn you every time. Is it any wonder people often give up on this parable and move on to something else?
The fact is, it takes a shrewd interpreter to figure out this parable about shrewdness. And thankfully, we get a little help on a separate occasion, from Jesus when he counsels his disciples to be as shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves as they operate the world. Note that Jesus is looking not just for shrewdness, but shrewdness and sincerity, shrewdness and integrity from his disciples. Later the Apostle Paul will echo a similar theme, urging Christ-followers in Rome to be wise (or shrewd) about what is good.
A careful reading of our Scripture today indicates Jesus isn’t applauding the manger’s dishonesty but his shrewdness and resourcefulness. “If two-bit criminals can be so resourceful for evil purposes,” says Jesus, “why can’t disciples be just as shrewd for the Kingdom?” I.e., the Kingdom of God doesn’t need dull, gullible stool pigeons. It needs shrewd, enterprising saints.
Well what in the world does it mean to be a shrewd saint? In his own shrewd way, Jesus gives us hints in this story about shrewdness.
For one thing, shrewd saints rise to meet life’s challenges, whatever they may be. One day this manager is cruising down easy street, having the time of his life. The next day, his whole world is turned upside down when he’s given the pink slip. Understandably, loss of employment has created a crisis in his life — anybody who’s ever been laid off or fired knows why.
So what does the manager do? He could have denied the problem and acted like nothing was wrong. He could have become paralyzed with fear and done nothing. He could have left town in a hurry, hoping to leave his problems behind. He could have gone to the nearest liquor store and drowned his sorrows in a bottle.
But he didn’t. Instead, he rose to the occasion in remarkable fashion. And even if we can’t admire what he did, we can admire the way he did it.
Notice the manager acknowledged his problem and met it head-on. He also admitted his own limitations (too old to dig, too proud to beg), took stock of his strengths, and then formed a plan of attack. Once he had his plan, he acted with confidence, boldness, and determination. He also acted with faith — faith in himself, faith in the goodness of the tenants, and most importantly, faith in the graciousness of his Master. Acknowledging the problem — assessing strengths and weaknesses — forming a plan — acting with boldness — having faith: we could do a lot worse in the face of a challenge. And often we do.
Just before our recent Spiritual Formation retreat, our retreat leader Ruth Haley Barton met with our Spiritual Formation Team to talk strategy. Ruth has observed that few if any leaders in the Spiritual Formation movement attempt to formulate a strategy about how to move a church forward in this key area of spiritual growth. Churches will plan a nice event here and nice event there, but have no real game plan about how to form people spiritually. It is as though strategic thinking and shrewd planning have no place in church.
Now Ruth would be the first to say there are times when we need to stop and pray for God’s guidance, particularly as we seek to discern what God wants us to do. But when it comes time to figure out how to get it done, we need to be as shrewd in our thinking practical in our strategy, and effective in our action as that enterprising insurance salesman and successful entrepreneur.
Once Dwight L. Moody, the Billy Graham of the 19th century, was on a ship that was crossing the Atlantic. The ship caught fire. The crew and the passengers formed a bucket brigade to transport water to the fire. One church-going man in the line turned and said to Moody, “Mr. Moody, don’t you think we should retire from the line and go down and pray?”
“You can pray if you want to,” Moody replied, “but I’m going to pray while I pass the buckets.”
In this parable Jesus is saying to his followers, “Shrewd saints know when to pray, when to strategically form the bucket brigade, and when to pass the buckets. And when necessary, they do more than one thing at a time—effectively because they understand the Holy Spirit and a shrewd saint are a powerful combination.
Churches that are shrinking in size may be tempted to throw up their hands in despair. Churches that are running out of money may call upon God to rescue them from bankruptcy. But at some point, shrewd churches get busy and figure out how to be more effective in their outreach; how to trim their budgets of unnecessary expenses; and how to find additional streams of revenue to help them accomplish their mission. And we ought to do it with as much strategic prowess as a Fortune 500 company, doing our best, and then leaving the results to God.
Jesus is also clear about another trait of shrewd saints—they learn how to use their resources for kingdom ends rather than letting their resources use them.
Centuries ago, a very shrewd man named Benjamin Franklin wrote the following in his Poor Richard’s Almanac: “Money is a good servant, but a dangerous master.” All of us know how money can become our master in a hurry. Jesus certainly did, which is why he is so clear that we cannot serve both God and money.
Why is Jesus so adamant about this? Because he knows nothing can squeeze the spirit out of our souls like cold, hard cash. Someone has suggested that a Surgeon General’s warning ought to be printed on every bill of currency, that says: “Warning: this piece of paper can be dangerous to your spiritual health!”
In the early 1700s evangelist John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was preaching revivals all over the country that were impacting many Americans. Ironically, as these newly converted Christians began to cast aside their sinful lifestyles they become more productive and eventually more prosperous, and in turn, more addicted to their money. Slowly but surely, their money was becoming their god.
So in the 1740s Wesley preached a very practical, strategic sermon entitled, “The Use of Money.” The sermon had three main points. The first was, “Earn all you can,” and the second was “Save all you can.” The people were with him so far. The third point, however, was more challenging: “Give all you can.”
Friends at FBC, if the members of and participants in our church earned all they could, saved all they could, and gave all they could to the Lord’s work through this church, our conversations about funding our budget would be anything but boring!
Wesley didn’t stop there. In the same sermon he also offered four questions we should ask ourselves as we spend “our” money:
1) As I make this purchase, am I acting not as owner but as steward (or manager) of my Lord’s goods?
2) Will what I am about to spend demonstrate obedience to God’s word?
3) Can I spend this as an act of worship to God through Jesus Christ?
4) Will I have a reward at the resurrection of the just for this action?
We spend so much time in America formulating our financial plans for today and tomorrow, but so little time in financial planning for eternity. That’s not very shrewd, is it?