Update (9/13/2010): Sermon MP3 -- Godly Leaders are Good Stewards
Godly leaders are faithful with what God has entrusted to them.
Jesus enjoyed teaching in parables. His parables packed quite a punch. Jesus' habit in teaching was to deliver a short parable and then leave it--the hearers were left to puzzle among themselves what it all meant.
But Jesus did not tell parables simply to be interesting or mysterious. He told parables as a way of inviting those who were ready to follow him more closely to do so; parables weeded out those who were just along for the ride.
As such, Jesus' parables need to be probed beyond the surface level. They often appear to be speaking simply about something common--a tiny seed; a large plant; some lost coins; or a banquet--but they represent much more than common idea. For Jesus, parables became a way of speaking about the risk of the kingdom of God so that insiders "got it" and outsiders didn't.
And some of the parables are difficult! Some parables are pretty straightforward, especially when Jesus says, "The kingdom of God is like...." There, the referent is clear and the puzzle is simply to work out how, for example, the growth of a mustard seed is like the kingdom of God (Luke 13:18-19). Other times, Jesus actually explains what his parable meant (Luke 8:1-15).
But other times, we are simply left with a difficult parable to probe for meaning about the kingdom of God and our relationship to it. One such example is found in Luke 16:1-12. Here, Jesus tells a strange parable about a manager who is called to give an account of his management; he has been accused of wasting (or perhaps misappropriating?) his master's funds. Once the manager realizes he's going to be fired, he creates a scheme whereby he cuts the bills of people who owe his master, hoping that they will offer him a job, or at least some hospitality, for his generosity on his behalf. When his master realizes what happened, he commends the manager and his shrewdness and explains that this is how people get ahead in the world!
[Note: It's not entirely clear whether the manager acted in good or bad faith. We're not told in the parable whether the manager was guilty of what he was accused of, and we have the curious situation where, although he cost his master money, he is commended by the master (8). According to N.T. Wright [Luke for Everyone], it's likely that the manager cut some kind of "tax" or "interest payment" that the master was imposing on what he had lent to his debtors. If this is the case, such action would have been against Israelite laws. The master therefore commends the manager for his shrewdness. He cannot criticize the manager unless he wants his illegal (or at least unethical) business practices to come to light. And the manager goes down as a "friend" of those he helped.]
How are we to understand this? For sure, there are no easy correlations where "the master" is "God" and so forth. Instead, there are modes of understanding, where different characters and people can see themselves first in one way and then in another.
One way of understanding it is to look at whom the parable is spoken to. Jesus is teaching his disciples, but within earshot of the Pharisees, who "heard all this and were sneering at Jesus" (16:14). One thing the Pharisees were guilty of was placing high burdens upon people in relation to the law. In this sense, they are like the master, seeking to exact more from people than what the law actually requires.
But as leaders, they are called to a higher, more generous, and more compassionate level. Through this parable, Jesus calls them to identify less with the master and more with the manager. They are the stewards (managers) of God's kingdom, not the masters of it. Consequently, they should loosen up and share God's generosity with others by leading them to greater knowledge of God. They should avoid hard and exacting management for patient and faithful stewardship. If they do this, they will be commended by their master (God) for good stewardship of God's people.
We can draw some lessons from this about spiritual leadership. The parable was spoken to the disciples and the Pharisees, two groups of leaders that Jesus was working with. Jesus was teaching and training the disciples to be good, godly leaders, and he was hoping the Pharisees would catch this vision as well. But we can discern several helpful points about godly leadership.
First, godly leaders are generous towards others just like God is (8). If anything is clear from the parable, it's that the intent of lowering the debtors' bills was to curry good favor from them; it was a positive move to lighten their load. This is the business God is in. Elsewhere, Jesus speaks of the "yoke" that the Pharisees place on people and the difficulty in observing the law. This corresponds to leaders' tendency to manage people strictly, to focus on external ways of "measuring" people's spiritual growth. Such approaches look at worship and bible class attendance, how often one states they read the bible and pray, and whether people are submissive to the leaders' view of things.
But godly leaders recognize that people grow differently. They recognize that enforcing moral behavior does not help people grow and they "reduce the bill" in this regard by practicing good stewardship that is focused on shepherding and serving.
Second, godly leaders use their God-given resources to serve people (9). In this difficult sentence, the master's commendation seems to be based on the manager's use of money to secure friends for himself that will have an eternal impact. Some have wrongly suggested that money can be used to buy a way into heaven through creating the right connections. But if we remember that this is a parable--and we probe it deeper--we can understand this as a metaphor. Godly leaders use their God-given resources to serve people; this is what it means to "gain friends" and it has eternal significance both for the leader and for the ones he serves. These resources can be time, money, possessions, or simply your own brain power as you serve as a resource person for someone. Godly leaders recognize that what they have, including the gifts by which they serve, are from God, and they practice good stewardship of them.
Third, godly leaders are accountable with the "little things" (10-12). Here, Jesus teaches a principle whereby people who are accountable with a little can be trusted with much. In the context of this parable, Jesus uses money and property as his examples but we can extend this (metaphorically) to stewardship of people. No one should be appointed to a position of leadership if they are not accountable with the "little things." This includes the ability to work with people one on one, to visit with families in their homes, and to be friendly and welcoming at the church building. These are base commitments each godly leader should share and one's inability to be responsible with these "little things" should disqualify them from more responsibility. No one who wants to serve only over larger, more (self-perceived) "important" things is cut out to be a leader in God's kingdom.
So look around you, at your church. Who are the godly leaders who practice good stewardship? Are there any? They may or may not be those who are appointed or titled as leaders. But every church has some. Look to those you see as good stewards because it is they who will be called Jesus' "good and faithful servants" in the end and you will not go wrong to follow their leadership.
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