In the latter part of my time in Colorado, one snowy February, the summons went out for a special presbytery meeting. From the letter, it was clear that something significant had happened, something bad, and so I made it a point to get down across the mountain to be there. I was glad I did, because it truly was a major deal: the presbytery treasurer had embezzled a significant portion of the presbytery’s reserves, and so it was necessary to discuss the financial ramifications of his actions—particularly the effect on new church plants—as well as the legal situation.
The treasurer, it should be noted, didn’t take the money for himself, but for his company—he was an executive in a small Denver corporation; in fact, he always insisted that he hadn’t done anything wrong, that he had merely found the presbytery a better investment opportunity. It might have been a more convincing argument if he’d asked permission first instead of doing it underhandedly; but while I don’t know about interest, he did repay all the money in the end.
Still, what he did was wrong, because he lost track of whom he was supposed to be serving: he used his position with the presbytery not to serve the presbytery but to serve his company. He had been entrusted with money by the presbytery for a particular purpose, but chose not to be faithful to that purpose—instead, he took it on himself to use the money for a different purpose, to serve his own ends and his own plans with it instead of those of the presbytery. This is true even if he really did believe he could make the presbytery more money by going his own way, because that wasn’t properly his call to make—not on his own hook, anyway. It was not his place to make his own plans for how to use the presbytery’s money, regardless of what he thought he could do with it.
Understanding this is the key to understanding Jesus’ message in Luke 16:9-13—which is not, by the way, an explanation of the parable of the crooked steward in verses 1-8; actually, it points forward to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus that concludes this chapter. We tend to think of money as something that’s ours, that we have the right to use as we see fit; but Jesus wants to bring a radical change in the way we think about money, and so he challenges that view in a couple different ways.
First, note that he talks about two kinds of wealth. The NIV reads “worldly wealth,” some of your translations have “unrighteous wealth,” and I recall seeing someone translate this “dirty money.” Literally, what it says here is “money of unrighteousness,” and I think the NIV’s on the right track in understanding this: it’s not that money is itself unrighteous, but that it’s so woven through all the evil things we do, and there are so many evils done for money, that it’s contaminated. Jesus sets this in contrast to “true riches,” and also to “the eternal dwellings”—there’s something better for us, and our purpose should be to use the wealth of unrighteousness, which will eventually fail, to gain that something better. We should seek to use the money we have not to bless ourselves or keep ourselves secure, but to bless and serve others, and to carry out God’s will and purposes, not our own.
Second, in conjunction with this, Jesus describes money as a test. On the grand scale of things, he suggests, money isn’t all that—it’s just a little thing, of no enduring importance; and if we can’t even be faithful with such a little thing, if we can’t be trusted to handle it with integrity and in a way that benefits others, then why would anyone give us anything better? Money is less important for what we can do with it—even for the good things we can do with it—than for what it reveals about us, about our character and the state of our hearts. God has far better things to give us than money, but as a rule, he won’t give us the greater blessings if we misuse the lesser ones, or turn them into idols.
We always need to test our hearts on this. I’ve wondered at times, as we’ve asked ourselves why this congregation isn’t growing the way we’d like it to, if perhaps God is waiting to pour out greater blessings on us because we can’t quite be trusted to be faithful with the ones we have. It’s as tempting for churches as for individuals, after all, to put our trust in money rather than in God; if increasing our numbers, both in terms of people and in terms of giving, would lead us to trust even more in money rather than to give God praise for his provision and trust him even more recklessly, then why would he give us more? One wonders if that was the problem with the Pharisees—if their rise in importance had gone to their heads, had turned them to love money more than God.
If we want God to bless us, we need to take our eyes off the blessing—whether the one we want, or the one we already have—and just focus on him; we need to trust him that all will be well whether he blesses us or not. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and then—then when you’re not really worrying about all these things anymore—only then will all these things be added unto you, because then it won’t be the things that you’re after.” If we want God’s blessing, we need to want him more.
As we’ve talked about before, this matters a great deal because the core issue isn’t how we spend our money, but why—what matters most to us, what or who we love most; it’s about our worship. Jesus comes back to that point again here, asking us this time not where is our heart, but whom we will serve. We tend to think we have the choice to serve God, to serve someone else, or to serve ourselves, but Jesus says no: if you think you’re living to serve yourself, all that means is that you’re a slave and don’t even know it. If your life is directed toward money—making it, spending it, investing it—then it’s really money that’s calling the shots; it’s not serving you, you’re serving it.
And here’s the kicker: that’s absolutely incompatible with serving God and following Christ. You cannot serve two masters, because the time will come—probably quickly—when they’re pulling you in two different directions, and you’ll have to choose between them. You’ll have to decide which one you truly love, which one you actually trust to take care of you, and which one you’re really committed to following; and you’ll have to cast your lot, one way or the other. Following Christ will mean being called to do things that don’t serve your money, as it will mean giving up certain pleasures, as it will mean letting go of power and control—for the same reason that for Abraham, following God meant putting his son Isaac on an altar on Mount Moriah: to force us to choose, in the starkest possible terms, whom we will serve. It’s not that God doesn’t know what choice we’ll make—but we need to know, and we need to make that choice.
And the only way to make that choice is to come to it, to come to the point where God calls us to do something that doesn’t make good financial sense, and to love him and trust him enough to let go of the money and do it. That’s not an easy test, but Jesus doesn’t just give us the easy ones. He doesn’t say, “The good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone is allowed to make up their own minds about it”—no, he says, “everyone is forcefully urged into it.” (I know the NIV reads “everyone is forcing his way in,” but I think that’s wrong.) There’s an urgency to God’s appeal here, because there’s only so much time left, and we don’t know how much; and so he gives us the hard challenges on the big issues. He doesn’t call us to live by just a little faith—he calls us to put everything in his hands, to go out on the tightrope, where either we let go of our idols, or we fall. He calls us to live by a simple commitment—“Heaven or Bust”—and to use our money accordingly.