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How Much Should I Keep

As I was looking back at the parable we are considering for this sermon series, something dawned on me that I haven’t seen in any commentaries. It’s an interpretation on this difficult parable that stems from considering an oft-used teaching method by Jesus. It’s called paradox. For instance, when Jesus asks us about being great in this world, He introduces paradox to His command. It’s counterintuitive. To be great Jesus says, become small. Serve (Matthew 20:27). The Beatitudes of Matthew 5 are full of paradoxes: “Blessed are the poor in Spirit.” They are the truly rich. The widow who gave the least gave truly the most (Luke 21:1-4).

So in our parable from Luke 16 Jesus also seems to “flip the script” on us from what we might expect as normal procedure. That’s one of the most timeless things about Gospel narrative in general, and especially parables—We learn not only from what the listeners heard in their context, but also learn more deeply about the nuances as time passes.

Look again at Luke 16:6-7:

Luke 16:5-7
“So he invited each person who owed money to his employer to come and discuss the situation. He asked the first one, ‘How much do you owe him?’ The man replied, ‘I owe him 800 gallons of olive oil.’ So the manager told him, ‘Take the bill and quickly change it to 400 gallons.’ ‘And how much do you owe my employer?’ he asked the next man. ‘I owe him 1,000 bushels of wheat,’ was the reply. ‘Here,’ the manager said, ‘take the bill and change it to 800 bushels.’”

The main point of the teaching is found in verse 9 where Jesus clearly states the purpose for the wealth we possess. And yet, as we learned last week, it’s not ours anyway. It all belongs to the Lord. So, when it comes to giving, what is the first question that disciples of Jesus would naturally ask? Common sense says, “How much should I give?” We always start there. But in the case of the parable, the first question isn’t about what can be given away, but what needs to be kept.

Here’s what I see. The dishonest manager is slashing the payments of the tenant farmers based on what needs to be kept for his master. Why? Because it all belongs to him anyway. The manager is not merely giving the tenants a discount, in all likelihood, the manager is sacrificing his own commission to save his hide from prosecution. What he is keeping is not for himself, he is keeping all that belongs to the master.

Could it be that for disciples of Jesus, the question is the same for us? Not “Should I give away 10%?” but “Should I keep 90% of all that I have?”  How much should we keep if it all belongs to God anyway? Paul encourages the church with a similar illustration:

2 Corinthians 9:10-11
For God is the one who provides seed for the farmer and then bread to eat. In the same way, he will provide and increase your resources and then produce a great harvest of generosity in you. Yes, you will be enriched in every way so that you can always be generous.

The farmer knows that part of the harvest must be kept as seed for the following year. And guess who provides that? Even the seed, where we begin, is on loan from the Creator. Once we understand what must be kept for planting, we can then consider the remaining resources to be used for our own bread to eat. What do we need beyond that? What of the excess? How much more do we need than what must be kept? It’s a different approach that affects our giving. Not that we should never ask “How much should I give away?” but with another consideration, we should ask “How much should I keep?”