Luke 16:1-13

It’s the Little Things that Count

By Dr. Keith Wagner

In the past several years many of you have watched your pension funds and savings dwindle. It appears that the days of large interest rates and good returns are gone. Many are lamenting over the days when CD’s had high interest rates and mutual funds were yielding great profits. The stock market has been flat too and people are looking for alternate places to invest their money.

We live in a society which encourages “get rich” plans, “quick buck” and “short term profits.” But, all that has changed. Investment brokers tell you to hang on and not sell your stocks because in the long term you will get better results.

I have a friend who is so turned off from the stock market he decided to buy land. He feels that at some point in the future he will enjoy a greater return on his investment. The trouble is, most of us don’t have enough cash to buy land. We are just trying to make it day to day. However, the temptation to enjoy quick profits is all around. The lottery invites us to invest a little cash in order to win big bucks. Scam artists are targeting people in society who are vulnerable and unfortunately many are being ripped off. Even the banks are offering all kinds of prizes and incentives to get you to borrow money. And, every credit card company in the world is offering you rebates and low rates to get you to use their credit cards. Watch out for those penalties, because they will burn you.

Let’s be honest, we are always looking for the “best” possible deal. We take shortcuts wherever possible and cut corners as often as we can. The only way to survive is to get the best bang for your buck.

Our story in Luke is about a fellow who was in the habit of overcharging his customers. He operated like a “commissioned” salesperson. He worked for someone else and his livelihood depended on how much he could charge over and above the actual cost of jugs of oil and bags of wheat that he sold.

At first, he was focused on “short term” results. When word got out that he was squandering his bosses’ money he went to his customers and changed their accounts. This enabled his boss to receive what he was entitled to, but it meant the salesman had to sacrifice his commission in order to come clean. Consequently he was commended for his shrewd thinking.

The point of the story is this: Long-term security is more important than short-term gain. The man’s long-term security had to do with his relationships with other people and his relationship with God. His sacrificial act would benefit him greater than any short-term profit. Our lives too will be far more secure by maintaining our relationships rather than striving to get rich quick.

Recently the Haliburton Company gave back millions of dollars to the government because they had overcharged for services in Iraq. They claimed no wrong-doing and insisted that is was an accounting error. Unfortunately our society has experienced other cases of fraud and deception. For example, the Enron Corporation collapsed because they were bleeding profits from employee pension plans and publishing false accounting records to make it appear that their stock was worth more than it actually was.

One reason this story is here is to show us how little acts of profiteering can grow into monumental practices of greed and corruption. A state employee in Ohio was recently indicted for embezzlement. It all started with her borrowing some money for a family emergency. She intended to pay it back, but as time went on the temptation to continue the practice grew. The amount was excessive, so much so that it caused attention and she was finally exposed.

Unfortunately, subtle acts of taking pencils from the supply cabinet or change from petty cash can get out of hand. What begins as an insignificant amount becomes major theft. As Jesus said, “whoever is dishonest in a little is dishonest in much.”

At the same time Jesus said, “Whoever is faithful in little is faithful in much.” Small sacrificial acts lead to larger sacrificial acts. The practice of sacrificial living will pay off in the long term. Jesus is teaching that it is not how much we can get out of this life, it is how much we can give to this life.

He is also saying that we can’t have it both ways. We have to make a choice. “You can’t serve God and wealth at the same time.” That is the hard part. We would rather opt for short-term security than focus on the rest of eternity.

Some people do take the high road. For example: William Colgate came to the United States at the age of 20 in the year 1803. He was an apprentice at a New York City candle and soap making company. Three years later, he mastered the craft and set up his own company. His firm prospered from the very beginning because he was the only soap maker in the city to offer delivery service. His business received a big boost from the war of 1812 since imported soap from England was cut off from the U.S. market. Colgate’s sales increased and he branched out into other products. He built one of the largest plants in NewJersey in 1820. Colgate was a deeply religious man and gave 10 percent of his company earnings to charities. He was also instrumental in starting the American Bible Society. He was also responsible for creating a university which was later named, Colgate, in his honor.

While many major companies are going bankrupt or struggling like K-Mart or Elder Beerman, one company is doing fairly well, the J.C. Penny Company. Perhaps it has to do with Penny’s personal philosophy. Penny was the son of a Baptist Minister who grew up on a farm in Hamilton, Missouri. He opened the Golden Rule Stores in 1902. Penny was against any kind of debt. He kept his prices low and if people were not satisfied with their purchases they could return them. Penny had no employees. They were all called “associates.” Penny refused to put pressure on his managers, believing that in the long-term the company would be profitable. By 1916 the company had 127 stores. Penny remained with the company up until his death at the age of 95. He kept an office of secretaries to answer requests form young people seeking advice. Also, to keep connected to numerous charitable organizations of which he supported. Penny gave always gave more than 10 percent of his profits to the church.

Not everyone in business is consumed with the bottom line. Some refuse to downsize or outsource production. There are still some who make people a priority instead of profits. But, the manager in Luke who opted for long-term security in lieu of short-term profits is not the major character in the story. The real character in the story is the master; the one who forgave the manager for mismanaging his funds in the first place, the same master who commended the manager for sacrificing his own commission check.

God wants us to be ethical in our business transactions. God wants us to focus on our long-term salvation instead of our short-term successes. God also forgives us for using others and rejoices when we make people the bottom line.

Copyright 2004, Keith Wagner. Used by permission.