This has to be the weirdest of Jesus’ parables. Everything seems backwards—a “dishonest” manager is commended? The children of this world are more clever in dealing with their peers than “the people of light” (i.e. God’s people)? Use worldly wealth to make friends for yourselves? It’s no wonder that a lot of preachers leave this one alone.
John Wesley did not, however. In fact, he made this text the basis for his sermon “On the Use of Money,” and when we dive into the parable a little more closely we can see why, especially when it comes to our topic today—Wesley’s first rule on the use of money: “Earn all you can.”
Let’s begin by looking at this parable in a little more detail. We begin with a rich man who has a household manager. Apparently, the wealthy man was traveling a lot because he heard through the grapevine that his manager was “wasting his estate.” If you read the context from the previous chapter, we heard the exact same thing about the Prodigal Son. Money was entrusted and was squandered in extravagant ways.
The dishonest manager knows he’s about to get fired and, unlike the prodigal, he wants to avoid winding up eating with pigs. He knows he’s not equipped to be a laborer, nor does his pride allow him to become a beggar. So he hatches a plan that begins with question: “What will I do?” Interestingly, in another previous parable in chapter 12, one of Jesus’ characters asks the exact same question. In that case, it’s a wealthy man who has had a bumper crop. “What will I do with all this?” he asks himself. “Well, I’ll build bigger barns and horde up the wealth for myself.” Turns out that that’s the wrong answer. In the parable, the man learns he will die that very night, and who will get all the wealth he stored up for himself? You can’t take it with you, after all. It’s like playing with Monopoly money. It’s great when you have it, but when the game is over it all goes back in the box and someone else will eventually play with what was once your stuff. According to Jesus, that kind of self-serving greed is foolishness.
But here’s the twist in the parable we’re talking about this morning: the manager, even though he is “dishonest,” is far more shrewd that the wealthy barn-builder. He recognizes that his future isn’t bound up in the money, but in relationships—having people around who will befriend him and care for him. So he hatches a plan. “I know what I’ll do so that, when I am removed from my management position, people will welcome me into their houses.”
So he contacts all of those who owe debts to their master and reduces their debt. It’s kind of like if you banker suddenly called you up and said, “You know how you owe $200K on your mortgage? Yeah, I’m gonna chop that down to about $50K. How does that sound?” Well, of course you’d be thrilled! You’d thank that banker up and down, maybe even have him over to the house for dinner. And you’d remain a loyal customer of that bank, too! You’d spend the rest of your life telling others how awesome it is!
So, the manager starts reducing bills, making friends of those who were relieved of their debts and, in a backhanded sort of way, he also increases the reputation of his master. After all, once the manager did this, would the master dare try to renege on the deal without damaging his good will? So, Jesus says, the master “commended the dishonest manager because he acted cleverly.” It was a win-win for him. He used the master’s wealth to take make friends and boost the master’s reputation while also taking care of himself. It’s brilliant, really.
But here’s the kicker: Jesus says, this is how the people of this world do business and in this they are more shrewd than even “the children of light.” Jesus was talking to his disciples, but this is a shot at the Pharisees who saw themselves as the pious children of light but who were also “lovers of money.” Verse 14 tells us that the Pharisees overheard it and sneered at Jesus for pointing out their hypocrisy. “I tell you, use worldly wealth to make friends for yourselves so that when it’s gone you will be welcomed into the eternal homes.” In other words, manage money in such a way that it has eternal value—not by squandering it or by storing it up in bigger barns or bigger bank accounts, but by using wealth in ways that help you make friends with others and in ways that increase the reputation of God, the one who is our ultimate master and provider.
What Jesus is talking about here is a matter of faithfulness. How we manage money has eternal implications. Remember, money itself is neutral but the ways in which we use it are not. Jesus says that we can’t love God and love money at the same time. We have to choose. Will we use money for our immediate gratification (like the barn builder), will we squander it (like the Prodigal Son), or will we use it with an eternal perspective as a way of securing favor with God and with others?
This is the overall point of Wesley’s sermon “On the Use of Money.” Wesley was concerned that the people called Methodist learn to use their burgeoning wealth as a means to an important end: pleasing God and helping others. It’s in this sense that Wesley called money “an excellent gift.” Unlike many would assume of a churchman, Wesley was not anti-wealth; rather, he was pro-faithfulness. When we manage our God-given resources well, we increase the reputation of God and increase our good will among our neighbors.
And so we come to Wesley’s first rule on the use of money: Earn all you can. It’s a surprising piece of advice that you won’t often hear in church, but Wesley saw it as essential and a way of meeting “the people of this world on their own ground.” Like the rest of the world, we “gain all we can” but the twist is that we do so with an eternal perspective that makes us even richer in relationships that we are in our bank accounts.
Before we get into this rule, we have to remember the other guiding rules of the Methodist societies, what Wesley called “The General Rules.” (Wesley was big into rules of life). Do you remember those? First, do no harm. Second, do all the good you can to the bodies and souls of people. And third, attend to the private and public ordinances of God (spiritual disciplines). For Wesley, “Earn all you can” wasn’t a license to unbridled acquisition, but rather a part of this rule of life. It’s a rule designed to help us be faithful stewards, knowing that the more wealth we gain the more faithful to God and his Kingdom we have to become.
And so Wesley says, “Earn all you can” but with some caveats:
- Earn all you can, but not at the expense of life and health: We don’t work so hard that we sacrifice our bodies in ways that are harmful to us. We shouldn’t be sacrificing our health to earn money by working long hours with no rest, sacrificing sleep, or even by sitting too much (a problem in Wesley’s day as it is in our own). We cannot sacrifice our families on the altar of wealth. Too many have done it to their detriment. Earning money is a good thing, but we cannot love money and love God at the same time. When we choose to live in ways that demonstrate our love for God, our money tends to follow.
- Earn all you can, but not at the expense of your mind: We must not earn money at the expense of our conscience by being involved in shady business tactics or engaging in activities that are harmful to our souls. We should not cheat the government, either, and pay the taxes that are due. Anything that weighs down our moral sense is too high a price to pay.
- Earn all you can, but not at the expense of your neighbor: We cannot see ourselves and our economic activity in isolation. Even more so that Wesley’s day, we live in a global economy where people’s lives are affected when bad financial decisions are made. When we buy goods that are not fairly traded, we may be contributing to the virtual economic slavery of our neighbors in the two-thirds world. When we run a business in a way that intentionally crushes competitors by price-fixing or other such practices, we are earning money at their expense. Neither should we participate in activities that harm our neighbors’ bodies, like selling items that can injure or contribute to addiction. Wesley also cautioned the medical profession of his day to not sell health services and medicines at such a steep price that people could not afford it, all in the name of profit. His words ring even truer today! The bottom line for Wesley was to ask this question: Does my economic activity profit the souls of others? If not, it needs to change. Exploiting others does not earn us their friendship, nor does it increase the reputation of the God we claim to follow. Even the dishonest manager understood this. We should be as shrewd as we are faithful!
Indeed, Wesley says that earning all we can should be the result of “honest industry”—that money follows our vocation. No matter what job we do to earn money, our primary vocation is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Whether we are digging ditches or working in an office or running a multi-million dollar business, our calling is to represent Christ and there is no more telling evidence of how well we do that than the ways in which we earn, save, and give the money God has entrusted to us. As Wesley puts it, “Whatever you are called to do, do it with all your might.” Hard, honest work is something that God gave to the humans he created as a gift. It gives us purpose and meaning and it allows us to contribute to God’s kingdom wherever we find ourselves. When we earn money under the umbrella of that vocation, it takes on a different meaning. We earn money with a larger purpose in mind.
And, Wesley concludes, we need to keep cultivating “common sense” wisdom about money. We need good advisors to help us manage what we earn. We need to establish good practices to monitor our spending so that we are not squandering our resources. Most of all, however, we must learn how to use wealth with an eternal perspective, in ways that make us friends with others and that increase the reputation of the master whom we serve.
My father-in-law, Gene Headlee, was a great example of this to me. He passed away last December and I had the honor of officiating at his funeral. As I prepared for that day, I was struck by the example Gene left that matches the kind of practices both Jesus and John Wesley were talking about. Gene was a hard-working man, spending most of his days on a bulldozer or driving a truck, digging out old pipes and laying new ones. His work was the definition of “honest industry” and he loved doing it. Even when the onset of Parkinson’s disease made it hard for him to grip a fork at the dinner table, his hands were steady at the controls of a dozer. He did his work with great pride and always finished the job to the customer’s satisfaction, even if it meant putting in extra time.
When it came to money, Gene held things rather loosely. He wasn’t always great at collections when customers paid late. He did business according to circumstances rather than contracts. He did a lot of free work for people, and was generous with the money that he earned. He did not earn as much money as he could have or should have, but he built relational capital with the people of Waynesburg, PA. Everyone knew who Gene Headlee was and everyone liked him. He was wealthy in friendships and increased the reputation of God through his honesty, generosity, and faithfulness. And he did all this while still being generous with his time for family, reading stories for Jennifer and other kids in the evening after a hard day’s work. I cannot help but read Wesley’s sermon and think of him. He embodied the principles and will forever be an influence on me in that regard.
You likely know people like this as well. They are people who live their lives as though they know that, in the end, everything goes back in the box. They have an eternal perspective, working for a future rich in relationships with God and with others. Money for them is a tool to be used on behalf of others. Whether they have a little or a lot, they use it for good. We can learn a lot more from them than we can from the wealthy tycoons of this world.
“Make the best of all that is in your hands.” – John Wesley
John Wesley tells us to earn all that we can so that we can “make the best of what is in [our] hands.” A shady household manager turned a bad situation into a beneficial one because he understood where real financial capital lies—in relationships—in our relationship with God and our relationships with others. The better we understand this, the better our financial lives will be.
In what ways are you “earning all you can” according to these principles? In what ways are you compromising them to build more financial barns for yourself? What practices in your business or in your spending do good to others or do harm to them? These are important questions to consider if we’re going to use money with an eternal perspective!