April 15

The Little Big Principle (Luke 16)

Daniel Watts

“Stewarding money is no problem if you really want to do it. You can count money.”

Several years ago, Every Generation Ministries board member Jim Gustafson was going through his orientation with two other new board members.

The staff goes all-out to prepare the various briefings on our complex ministry that serves in seventeen countries. We also thoroughly review the values of our ministry, including Excellence in Stewardship

Our discussion of this value was the context for Jim’s remark, and I will never forget his words. I was taken back by the simplicity and profundity of what he said. As the words rolled off Jim’s tongue, they immediately rang true.

When we hear stewardship, we usually think of money, and we know money belongs to God, so we better do a good job of accounting for what we do with it; including how we give!

Over the years, however, I’ve come to understand that stewardship is a much broader concept that includes the stewardship of time, people, and spiritual truth in addition to finances.

During the board member orientation, we spoke about the Finance and Administrative Committee, audits, and other financial aspects of EGM. Then we discussed how important people are to God and how we need to take good care of the people God has put into our ministry community.

We also discussed the stewardship of biblical truth and principles, absolute essentials in our children’s ministry work.

And that’s when Jim spoke up: “Stewarding money is no problem if you really want to do it. After all, money can be counted. Stewarding people and proper doctrine is much more challenging. Taking care of the money is relatively easy.” 

What a good word! Jim is absolutely right.

Stewarding money really is the most basic and easiest kind of stewardship, and if we can’t do that well, why would God entrust us with something more important—something like, for instance, taking good care of people and teaching His truth?

This idea is what Jesus had on His mind in Luke 16:1-15, the often-quoted parable regarding stewardship, financial management, and what I have heard called “the little/big principle”—which I will explain. 

A parable is a vehicle for communicating spiritual truth. The parable of the sower, for instance, is not a teaching about farming principles even though it mentions good places and bad places to sow seed (Luke 8:1-15). The parable of the good Samaritan is not about travel safety even though Jesus’ listeners who knew that road might feel warned (Luke 10:25-37). The parable of the lost sheep is not about sheep herding even though it might encourage a shepherd’s vigilance or persistent searching (Luke 15:1-17).

You get the idea, and so did Jesus’ original listeners. They knew to listen for the spiritual truth in a parable.

For some reason, though, parables involving money are often taken literally as being only about money; this approach shows little regard for the spiritual truth the parable teaches.

These parables that use money to make a spiritual point are viewed as if their primary goal were to teach financial management, accounting, solid business practices, and especially financial stewardship. After all, Luke 16:1-15 is entitled “the parable of the shrewd manager,” and it’s about a steward handling money.

People too often miss this parable’s spiritual teaching, and—as Jesus’ own interpretation of the parable reveals—the road-less-traveled approach is crucial to seeing that eternal truth.

Reading a Parable

Luke 16

Rather than veering off into an allegorical interpretation of each element in the parable itself—a poor approach to biblical hermeneutics—we’re going to look at this story as the parable it is.

Jesus was telling His disciples a parable about a rich man and his dishonest manager who shrewdly used his position to forgive those who owed the rich man money and, as a result, secured good relations with those he forgave:

"There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So, he called him in and asked him, 'What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management because you cannot be manager any longer.' "The manager said to himself, 'What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I'm not strong enough to dig, and I'm ashamed to beg—I know what I'll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.' "So, he called in each one of his master's debtors. He asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?'  "'Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,' he replied. "The manager told him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.' "Then he asked the second, 'And how much do you owe?' "'A thousand bushels of wheat,' he replied. "He told him, 'Take your bill and make it eight hundred.'” (Luke 16:1-7 NIV)

Telling this parable within the Pharisees’ hearing (v. 14), Jesus intentionally made a point about using the resources entrusted to us so dishonestly that we lose our job.

Yet even the wasteful and dishonest manager used his position to do some good among those individuals indebted to the master. Jesus’ eavesdroppers—who loved money (v. 14 NIV)—didn’t miss the message.

The sneers of these Pharisees suggested that they clearly understood that they had been bad stewards of what God had entrusted to them and that, as lovers of money, they had used that money foolishly:

"The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” (Luke 16:8-9 NIV)

In this case, Jesus went on to disclose the meaning of the parable: If you use in a foolish way the material resources He gives, why would the Master entrust you with true riches?

"Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So, if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own?” (Luke 16:10-12 NIV)

And here’s the “little/big” explanation I promised! Did you notice the occurrence of little and much? Verse 10 is very straightforward. 

When we show ourselves to be responsible with what little we’ve been given, God will give us much to oversee. And now we get to the parable’s spiritual truth. That truth is about stewarding money and true riches (vs.11).

In my view, the key to this passage—to this parable—is the reference to true riches (vs.11). Jesus stated that if we can’t be trusted with money, then we can’t be trusted with true riches—and I do not believe that true riches refers to more money. 

Having not been faithful with material possessions (a practical point of the parable), the Pharisees had shown themselves unworthy of something more valuable, namely the gospel truth of God and His Son, Jesus Christ (the side-by-side spiritual lesson).

Jesus also seemed to be stating that the Pharisees had disqualified themselves to be stewards of God’s kingdom work.

After all, if we can’t be good stewards of money, why would God entrust us with something really important, with—to be specific—presenting the good news of the gospel to a lost and hurting world?

God had chosen the Israelites as His people, and they were to be a blessing to the nations, bearing His image in this world. God had given His people the Law and His promises—and they had squandered these precious resources.

Money is easy to steward compared to the far more important matter of being a steward of God’s truth, of—for us today—the gospel itself. 

God entrusted His people—then and now—with resources for doing His kingdom work, and many of them—many of us—have squandered those resources.

More specifically, the people of God had been ineffective and wasteful stewards, so the Master, the Owner, God Himself sent His Son to rectify the situation.

This makes stewardship of financial resources a crucial element on the Road Less Traveled. On this road, carefully stewarding our financial resources does not mean God will give us more monies to handle. 

It means, He will allow us to steward the really important things like the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How we give, how we use the monies in our care, and how we manage God’s funds is a barometer of our spiritual ministry capacity.

On the Road Well Traveled good stewardship of finances means more finances from God. On the Road Less Traveled good stewardship of finances means being entrusted with more ministry!

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