The wicked prosper

Certainly God is good to Israel,
and to those whose motives are pure!
But as for me, my feet almost slipped;
my feet almost slid out from under me.
For I envied those who are proud,
as I observed the prosperity of the wicked.
For they suffer no pain;
their bodies are strong and well- fed.
They are immune to the trouble common to men;
they do not suffer as other men do.
Arrogance is their necklace,
and violence their clothing.
Their prosperity causes them to do wrong;
their thoughts are sinful.
They mock and say evil things;
they proudly threaten violence.
They speak as if they rule in heaven,
and lay claim to the earth.
Therefore they have more than enough food to eat,
and even suck up the water of the sea.
They say, “How does God know what we do?
Is the sovereign one aware of what goes on?”
Take a good look! This is what the wicked are like,
those who always have it so easy and get richer and richer.
I concluded, “Surely in vain I have kept my motives pure
and maintained a pure lifestyle.
I suffer all day long,
and am punished every morning.”
If I had publicized these thoughts,
I would have betrayed your loyal followers.
When I tried to make sense of this,
it was troubling to me.
Then I entered the precincts of Gods temple,
and understood the destiny of the wicked.
Surely you put them in slippery places;
you bring them down to ruin.
How desolate they become in a mere moment!
Terrifying judgments make their demise complete!
They are like a dream after one wakes up.
O Lord, when you awake you will despise them.
Yes, my spirit was bitter,
and my insides felt sharp pain.
I was ignorant and lacked insight;
I was as senseless as an animal before you.
But I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me by your wise advice,
and then you will lead me to a position of honor.
Whom do I have in heaven but you?
I desire no one but you on earth.
My flesh and my heart may grow weak,
but God always protects my heart and gives me stability.
Yes, look! Those far from you die;
you destroy everyone who is unfaithful to you.
But as for me, Gods presence is all I need.
I have made the sovereign Lord my shelter,
as I declare all the things you have done.
Psalm 73

Psalm 73 is a difficult psalm for many to read and hear. It is the honesty and truthfulness of the psalmist that cuts to the bone. He rightly observes one thing: the wicked prosper and flourish. For many who believe in what we now call prosperity gospel, this is an especially hard thing to swallow.

Just in case we are tempted to deny this fact and imagine this to be something that only happened “in those days”, just look around. Do we escape pain and suffering more than pagans? Are our bank accounts bigger? Do we live in bigger houses, have more children, live longer and more enjoyable lives? No we don’t. If we measured God’s favour and blessing solely by earthly health and wealth, certainly we would lose all credibility as Christians and God would lose all credibility as God. Didn’t God say that we will be blessed if we believe in Him and have faith? Doesn’t God promise that He will provide all our needs? Yes He did. But He maintains sovereignty over all (Psalm 73:28, “I have made the sovereign Lord my shelter”). He need only be fair in His own eyes, not ours. We cannot measure God’s sovereignty by our yard stick.film Born in China trailer

Thankfully, God (and the psalmist) doesn’t leave us stuck with this problem. He goes on to reveal a more eternal view.

  • Their enjoyment is only temporal, there is an end to this perceived unfairness (Psalm 73:17,20). But those who are near to God escape destruction in the shelter of His presence (Psalm 73:27-28).
  • The end for them is not sweet, desolation and destruction awaits them (Psalm 73:18-19, 27). Contrasted against the “position of honour” for the one whom God holds (Psalm 73:24).

But this eternal view isn’t the end. What He goes on to is a God centric view. He comes to the conclusion that nothing on earth is more worthy than God. Read what he says here:

Whom do I have in heaven but you?
I desire no one but you on earth.
Psalm 73:25 (See also Psalm 73:23-28)

Consider how God is central to every saving action, not man. God holds the psalmist right hand, therefore the psalmist is continually with Him. God guides with wise advice and will lead him to a position of honour. God protects his heart (unlike the wicked whose heart is corrupted by riches, Psalm 73:7-9) and grants stability. When the psalmist understands God’s redemptive desire and ability, he reassesses his position and declares that God is ALL he needs and ends with “I declare all the things you have done” (Psalm 73:27-28).

A word on riches

I have little desire to be rich. I see some gain in being rich, mostly gains in convenience and lifestyle, but what good does that serve in the bigger picture? People say that the Bible and Jesus has no problem with riches, the problem is with greed. But I beg to defer just a little and here is my proof. The Bible gives us many references as to why earthly riches are no good.

Do not accumulate for yourself treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.
Matthew 6:19

Everything on this earth is subject to depreciation and everything changes hands. Even the best cars breakdown, big houses need fixing up and the best silverware need polishing. Nothing last forever, and even if it did, it would be out dated and unwanted at some stage. The fact is riches to not last (Proverbs 27:24). Money is always moving, assets are always changing hands. People go from rags to riches and others riches to rags every day. I’ve been told that riches only last for 3 generations. Money is being stolen from right under our noses, by thieves and scammers, systems of power and natural depreciation.

As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.
Matthew 13:22

Wait a minute, shouldn’t that say deceitfulness of greed? If greed is the problem, then why is riches being mentioned here? Because riches are deceitful, it makes one feel self-provident. We’ve all heard of how those in less developed countries and in less fortunate situations are more receptive to the gospel. We need to ask ourselves why. Is it because when we see our earthly need, we start to understand our eternal need? Is it because God is meant to fulfil every earthly need? The deceitfulness of riches choke the word when our riches trick us into thinking that we have no need.

Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
Matthew 19:21-22 (Also, Mark 10:17-30)

Would a man with fewer possessions react differently to Jesus? No one knows. All we know is that this man went away sorrowful because he had great possessions and he couldn’t bear to part with them. If even the poor find it hard to part with what they have (look at how they fight for food in Africa when volunteer organisations distribute provisions), imagine the rich! No need to imagine, just look around – how many rich men/women could bear to part with their possessions? Bill Gates’ call for the rich in America to part with their riches for the good of humanity, is one fine example. Few heeded the call. How many rich people would voluntarily pay more taxes?

Read Luke 12:16-21. The man was classified as rich, greedy but not generous. Is the Bible prejudiced against riches? Is the Word of God making a sweeping statement about money and assets? Did Jesus just generalise all the rich people as greedy and stingy? Perhaps. But more importantly, we need to ask ourselves why and how? What I do know is that there is one thing common about all these stories: Riches.

Money and eternity

The Shrewd Manager

Jesus tells this parable while travelling to Jerusalem. We are told that “large crowds” (Luke 14:25) travelled with Him and he taught them along the way. He was teaching about counting the cost of following Him.

We know also that Jesus hung around “tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 15:1). Somewhere along the line, the Pharisees and teachers of the law criticised Him, saying that He “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2).  That is when Jesus launches into the 3 famous parables – the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son or prodigal’s son.

In these 3 famous parables, one thing is common. There is celebration and rejoicing on earth and in heaven over what was once lost and now is found (Luke 15:6-7, 15:9-10, 10:23-24). The message to the pharisees is crystal clear:

  • Those who followed Jesus are now found
  • His role on earth was to seek and save the lost (Matthew 9:12; Mark 2:17)
  • They should be happy that the lost are found (Luke 15:31-32)

However, we know that the pharisees did not see Jesus as God’s sent and rejected Him (Matthew 12), neither did they rejoice when the lost are found. In fact, just before this, Jesus was at a Pharisees’ house having a party and He critisized them (Luke 14:1-24). From there, we receive a picture of the Pharisees. They were a arrogant bunch who prided themselves as experts of the law. They sought positions of respect, recognition and honour. They applied onto others laws that they could follow but others couldn’t. They sought their own benefit.

With that in mind, this is when Jesus begins the parable.

Jesus told his disciples: “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.’
Luke 16:1-2

Note firstly that He is speaking specifically to his disciples. It would seem that He had finished addressing the Pharisees’ criticism and is directing His attention back to teaching. Here in the parable, we have a manager about to be fired by his master because he was ineffective in his management, thereby wasting his master’s resources.

“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.’
Luke 16:3-4

The manager considers his options very carefully. He is too weak for manual labour, too proud to beg on the streets. But he has a brilliant plan.

“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 16:5-7

Next comes the tricky bit, he uses the master’s resources, which he has stewardship over to make friends with his master’s debtors. By using what he has to lower their debt, he places himself in a favourable position. After he gets the sack from his master, he can then go over to other businesses to get a job.

Note here that we know not how much of the debt was principle or interest. There is so far no inclination that the manager had been charging interest. His crime was wasting, not over charging. There is no place here to suggest that the manager had been violating the Mosaic Law by charging interest or hiding excessive profits into goods (Deuteronomy 23:19). We can pretty much rule out that possibility. I note this because many modern commentaries say that his crime was over charging interest.

Next comes the master’s bewildering response.

“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.
Luke 16:8

Here we see that the manager is now labeled dishonest. Why? Because he lowered the debtor’s loan, decreasing his master’s profits, but reaped the benefits from it. Effectively, by giving away what was not his own, he benefited himself. Dishonest indeed. But the master has the most ironic response. Rather than firing off at the manager for wasting more of his resources, he was commended for his shrewdness.

And here we have the explanation why, “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” To understand this verse, let us go through the act that got the manager labelled shrewed. He used what was not his to benefit himself by giving it away.

To put this verse in my own words:

  • The dishonest pagan [people of this world]
  • was able to give to others what he did not own for his benefit [more shrewd in dealing with their own kind],
  • but believing people don’t practice this shrewdness [than are the people of the light]

We begin to see the allegory here. God is the master, who owns everything (Psalm 24:1; Deuteronomy 10:14). We are the stewards (managers) of everything that He owns (Genesis 2:15; Matthew 25:14-30). Even the money that we have is from God (Deuteronomy 8:17-18). We are the people of light, who need to understand that benefiting ourselves means giving unto others, because what we give doesn’t even belong to us. If a dishonest pagan can understand that, why can’t we?

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 16:9

“I tell you” is often used at the end of a parable/teaching to emphasize the key point behind the passage. Somewhat of a moral of the story. Here He speaks directly to His disciples – “people of the light”, not in a parable but the teaching behind it. This is the moral of the story: our worldly wealth is for making friends. The result is that when the wealth is gone, we will be received into “eternal dwellings”. This gives us an understanding that the friends we are trying to make live in heavenly places.
Note that Jesus says here “for yourselves” – a reflection again of the shrewd manager’s self benefiting actions.

How then do we use our wordly wealth to befriend God?

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Matthew 25:40

It all becomes clear when we look at similar things that Jesus has said:

“Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.'”
Matthew 19:21

“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”
Luke 12:33

If we look back at Jesus’ rebuttal of the Pharisees’ criticism that He “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2), we see that perhaps His topic had not moved on. Instead, He has chosen to turn that defense into a teaching point and later into an offense.

“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

In these verses, we see an important principle in His kingdom and the way Jesus views our “worldly wealth”, compared to “true riches”:

  • If you are faithful with little (worldly wealth), you can be faithful with more (true riches).
  • If you are faithful with what you don’t have (worldly wealth), you can be faithful with what you have (true riches).

Worldly wealth is small and invaluable, and it doesn’t even belong to us. True riches is infinitely more valuable and is ours to own. They are direct opposites. Other passages in the bible show just how valuable this “true riches” is. But what is this “true riches”? Have a look at Romans 8:17 and 2 Timothy 2:12. We are inheriting the kingdom of heaven as heirs of Christ and we will reign with Him.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.”
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”
Matthew 13:44-46

What a way to view our rags on earth and our treasure that is in Christ!

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
Luke 16:13

It comes at no suprise that Jesus says this here. Worldly wealth and true riches are direct opposites (note: not mutually exclusive). If you hold on to one, you have to lose the other. It is inevitable.

The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.
Luke 16:14-15

Here we see Jesus’ flawless tactics in throwing the Pharisees off their feet. First, Jesus reveals that they don’t rejoice when someone is found in God (although they ought to). Second, He reveals that this is because they don’t value what it means to be found in God. Their hearts are devoted to something else – money (worldly wealth). They sought their own benefit by hoarding money. No wonder they don’t rejoice! Little do they know that the worldly wealth that they value is worth nothing in God’s sight. What good is having everything that amounts to nothing (Luke 17:33; Matthew 16:25; Mark 8:36)?

Money and eternity, constantly tug at our hearts, demanding our devotion. They are so closely linked and we often don’t even realise it. The bible doesn’t say we need to be poor. On the contrary, we are told that we are enriched!

You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.
2 Corinthians 9:11

But we are rich for only one reason. How we handle our riches reveal what we are devoted to.