So, here’s another parable featuring money which indicates Jesus’ concern over its use or misuse, though this parable actually fits within the larger context of preparing for the coming kingdom of God. It’s sandwiched between the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids and Jesus’ warning about the judgment of the nations. The overarching question of this section is this: will you be ready when the Master returns?
Here again, like last week, we have a wealthy man who leaves his wealth in charge of three servants. The “talents” here are large sums of money—one being worth several years of wages. Two of the servants take the talents given to them and invest them in ways that bring a huge return (imagine, for example, what kind of investment it would take today to double the money). The third servant, however, is more risk adverse and buries the talent in the ground—he didn’t even put it in a savings account to earn that .02% interest they’re giving us today. The moral of the story for Jesus? Will you take the risk of investing the master’s resources in ways that benefit his estate, or will you choose a scarcity mentality and simply sit on it or, perhaps worse, invest it in assuaging your own fears and desires? What will we do with the things God has given us to manage?
While the context here suggests that Jesus is talking about a lot more than money, we know that money is certainly part of his concern. Notice that in these parables nothing really belongs to the stewards—it all belongs to the master. Last week we talked about the man who built bigger barns, saying, “What will I do with all my wealth?” But Jesus disavows us of the notion that anything that we have actually belongs to us. The basic premise of the Bible is that it all belongs to God and that we are simply managing it for a time. We came in the world with nothing and we leave with nothing. In between, we are stewards of the master’s gifts.
Reminds me of the story of man who put a stipulation in his will that when he died, all his money was to put in the coffin with him so that he would have it in the afterlife. He made his wife promise that she would acquiesce to his request and, reluctantly, she agreed. During his funeral, the wife sat there next to the casket with a shoebox and just as they were getting ready to close it she said, “Wait!” and put the shoebox in with her dead husband. After the casket rolled away, her best friend said to her, “I hope you weren’t crazy enough to put all of that money in there with that selfish old coot.”
“Well,” said the wife. “I made a promise and as a good Christian I had to keep it.”
“You mean to tell me you put every cent of that money in the casket with him?”
“I sure did,” said the wife. “I put all the money in my bank account and wrote him a check.”
You can’t take it with you! We are stewards, so what we do with the resources God has given us has huge implications. Last week we talked about Wesley’s first rule on the use of money: Earn all that you can in ways that profit the souls of others and enhance the reputation of the Master. But then Wesley goes on to say that we should save all we can—investing what God has given us in wise ways that bring a significant eternal return. Wesley makes it clear that we are not “proprietors” of money with a scarcity mentality, hoarding money for ourselves, but rather “stewards” who invest in God’s abundance.
And so Wesley begins by cautioning us about spending (notice, he never says “Spend all you can.” Using money in self-gratifying or frivolous ways is like “throwing it into the sea,” says Wesley, so we must be careful to avoid wasting money on idle expenses that gratify our self-serving desires, or on things designed to impress others.
Of course, this runs counter to everything our consumer culture tells us. We are bombarded with messages every day that are designed to get us to spend money on things we don’t need and on things we didn’t even know we wanted until we saw them. We fill our homes with stuff and then we buy storage units to keep the stuff we can’t fit in the house (Carlin joke). We’re attracted by the shiny and new, and we believe the lie that if we just had this one new thing in our lives we would be happy.
But despite all this accumulation of stuff, we’re not happy, and Wesley knew it even in his day. We only need so much; the rest tends to go to waste if not used wisely. I saw an article recently, for example, that cited a study out of Princeton University that says that money only buys happiness up to a point—and that point is $75,000 a year. No matter how much more people make, after that amount it doesn’t seem to make them any happier. At that level, most people are able to have the things they need with a little extra discretionary income. Beyond that, however, there’s no correlation between increased income and increased happiness. We seem to be wired to have just enough.
I think Wesley would agree. Whether you have a little or a lot, happiness is not tied to having more, but rather in having enough. Good stewardship involves having enough and then investing the rest in ways that promote an eternal perspective. Like those faithful servants in the parable, we put it to work on behalf of the Master.
Save All You Can
And so Wesley says that after we have earned all we can we should save all we can, but for a purpose. He’s not talking about hoarding up money here, nor is he talking about leaving a bigger inheritance for children. Wesley cautions against the inherited wealth of his day, saying that we need to train children to use it wisely and not simply sit on it. Multi-billionaire Warren Buffet would agree with Wesley. He plans to leave his children “enough that they could do anything but not so much that they could do nothing.” Whatever is left over, says Wesley, should be used in ways that promote the glory of God.
Saving all we can, then, involves more than just “laying up treasure,” but saving as an investment in the future. Everyone needs to be prepared for financial emergencies, for example. Putting aside money in savings helps us to absorb those unforeseen expenses without going into the prison of debt. There wasn’t such a thing as “retirement” in Wesley’s day (people usually died before they got that old), but investing in a retirement fund enables us to use our later years in ways that are not burdensome on others and that allow us to invest time in serving God, as many of our retirees do now. When we put aside money for children to go to college, we’re investing in the future generation—enabling them to prepare for the calling God will have on their lives. It’s not about simply building bigger barns or hiding it in the ground. We save money for the purpose of enabling us to make a long-term impact for God’s kingdom, even after we die.
The 10-10-80 Plan
To save like that, however, we need a plan. Interestingly, half of Americans save next to nothing for the future. Some are not able to out of necessity, but many aren’t saving because they have no plan to do so. They live a hand-to-mouth existence, consuming more and more without any regard for the future. We need some simple wisdom here that comes from the Bible and from wise people like John Wesley. Put that wisdom together and we have what we might call “The 10-10-80 Plan:” Ten percent of our income dedicated to God, ten percent to savings, and 80 percent to live on in ways that glorify God.
Our Old Testament lesson today looks at that first ten percent, called the “tithe.” For the people of God, the tithe is a baseline of income dedicated to God that comes right off the top. Notice that in Malachi, God is upset that the people are holding back their tithe, but mostly because they are missing out on the blessings that come with it. “Please test me on this,” says God. “See whether I do not open the heavens for you and empty out a blessing until there is enough.” We’ll talk more about this next week when we talk about giving. Tithing is a way of recognizing the reality that everything we have comes from God and is the first investment of a good steward. Now, for some, tithing is still a goal while, for others, it’s merely the beginning. Point is, it’s an act of worship, an acknowledgement that we are merely managers but that God is the owner of everything in our hands.
That second ten percent, then, is for savings. We save money for the future, investing in ways that keep us solvent in emergencies and that help us invest in our future, the future of our children, and in God’s future. When we have the discipline of saving all that we can in place, we become good stewards who invest wisely and reap an eternal return on that investment.
Osceola McCarty was a young girl when her mother taught her to save. She had to quit school in the sixth grade to care for an ill relative and never went back, spending the next 74 years of her life doing laundry and ironing for people. She never married, never owned a car, and got rides to church every Sunday. No one would have heard of Osceola until the day she donated $150,000 for a scholarship at the University of Southern Mississippi—a school that would not have admitted her in the days of segregation. “I’m too old to get an education,” she said, “but they can.” When she was asked how she was able to save that much money on such a low income, she said, “It wasn’t hard. I didn’t buy things I didn’t need…The Lord helped me and he’ll help you, too.”
That’s managing money with an eternal perspective! Just ten percent given to God and ten percent put into savings can make a huge impact on our lives and on the lives of others, while leaving us 80% to use for what we really need. The 10-10-80 Plan is good stewardship—a perspective of abundance rather than scarcity; of freedom from the slavery of more rather than fear of losing everything. The bottom line? When we test God by investing in this way, we soon discover that when we are faithful, God is faithful. We serve a God of abundance, not scarcity.
So, how do we get there? Some of you here are thinking, “We can do this,” while others are thinking, “I’m so far behind, I’ll never get there.” For some it’s a challenge, for others, it’s a goal. But a long journey begins with a single step and here are some ways you can begin being a better steward and move toward 10-10-80:
- Evaluate your spending. Where is all the money going? Is it being spent on things you need or are you accumulating things that advertisers tell you you need. Get down to basics on your spending and you’ll see how much more you may be able to do without. In fact, Wesley offers these questions to ask for every purchase you make:
- Does this purpose represent obedience to God’s Word or to my own selfish will?
- Can I offer this purchase as a sacrifice to God?
- Will it give me a reward at the resurrection to come? What will God say about it?
- Get wisdom from others. Who do you know that is managing money well? Who can give you some financial advice? Pride often keeps us from doing what’s best for us. Ask for help if you’re struggling in the financial arena.
- Reduce your debts. If you can’t pay off your credit card balance each month, think about undergoing some plastic surgery and get rid of them. Avoid taking on unnecessary debt, even if it means you drive that car until the wheels fall off!
- Don’t go shopping without a purpose and a list. I have to have a list when I go to Costco, for example, otherwise I’ll browse around and convince myself I need something when I really don’t! Shopping is not recreation. Do it wisely!
- Live simply. Get rid of things you don’t need by donating them for the use of others. Cut down on extravagance. Our grandparents had it right: “Repair, reuse, make do, or do without.”
- And lastly, invest in your future. You may need to start small, but start saving! Soon it will become a habit and you’ll be surprised at how fast it grows. Save all that you can and you will be well on the way to being a good steward, investing well in the Master’s business!
Jesus’ parable was about three servants who expected their Master to return. When he does, how will he find us managing his resources? Will we invest in ways that please him and profit his mission, or will we fearfully hold on to them or waste them unnecessarily?
Start with a plan and be a good steward!