September 22, 2013, Pentecost 18 – Winning Friends and Taking Sides
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We just read a story about a clever but not very honest steward, a servant who had the responsibility of caring for his master’s worldly possessions. It turns out this master was not a particularly honest person either, because even though it was forbidden in the Law of Moses for Jews to lend money to one another at interest this man had found a way around that law, by lending oil and wheat instead of money. He was apparently not too serious about obeying the Jewish laws, but he was serious about making a profit, so when he found out that his servant was wasting his possessions, he called him in and fired him on the spot. The servant, who was too old to do manual labor and too proud to beg, had a great idea; he went to the master’s debtors and reduced their debts. What he probably did, according to several commentaries, was to write off the interest. That way the master would still get back his principle, and he wouldn’t have any legal grounds for having the servant arrested – because technically, he wasn’t allowed to charge that interest anyway. But surprisingly, instead of getting angry, the master was impressed. Hey, he said, you’re still fired, but good thinking! He recognized a man after his own heart, someone who looked to his own interests and took care of himself no matter what. And so the master praised the actions of his dishonest manager.
This is a very difficult parable. I think there are almost as many interpretations of this parable as there are commentaries on the gospel of Luke, so I am sharing my thoughts with you, and you can read it and think about it more yourselves.
One of the things that Jesus is teaching his disciples is that we are all stewards. That means that the things of this world don’t belong to us in any permanent way. We say, “You can’t take it with you,” but I don’t think we are very good at remembering how true that is. If you have ever been robbed or cheated, or if someone borrows something from you and doesn’t return it – at least if you are not a lot more spiritual than I am – it is very hard not to feel violated and resentful. You feel as if you had a right to that money or those things. Suddenly you realize how much you really thought of those possessions as belonging to you – even if they were things you were just expecting or hoping for. I think that one of the blessings of getting older can be that wisdom of recognizing how transient the things of this world are, and coming to understand better and better what things are of true and lasting value.
But even though we are only stewards, still we are called to be faithful with what we have charge of now. We had friends long ago whose teenage children suddenly decided to get very spiritual. When anything would break or get ruined somehow they would just shrug and say, “Well, it’s all going to burn anyway.” As you might expect, our friends got tired of that pretty quick, and had to do some teaching on the meaning of stewardship, because it matters how we use the things of this world, even if they are passing away. Our daily life is a school for faithfulness; Jesus said, “If you haven’t been faithful with worldly things, who will entrust you with true riches?” The important thing is that our faithfulness doesn’t depend on what we are stewards of; it depends only on who our Master is. And that is the great choice of discipleship. Joshua said it to the Israelites centuries before Jesus came, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” The first thing a steward needs to know is who his master is.
There are many different interpretations of this parable, but I think that one thing we must not do in trying to understand it is to spiritualize it into oblivion. One of the conclusions that Jesus draws is about the real power that money and possessions have to enslave us. The riches of this world that we work hard to own – the things that we need like our house and our food and our clothing, and all the other things that we want – they so often end up owning us. How much of our time and energy is spent on the care and feeding of our houses and cars and lawns? Ask my husband how much of his time last week our Volkswagen devoured by needing inspections and repairs. Worldly riches can be like the little gremlins in that horror movie that seemed so cute and friendly and then they end up devouring us.
Money is all too often the source of sleepless nights and migraines; money can be the root cause of divorces, of murders and frauds and suicides. And the reason for that is that if God is not our Master, money will jump right in and take the position. I have heard people point out that Jesus never said “money is the root of all evil”, he said that “the LOVE of money is the root of all evil.” That’s true, and somehow we feel more comfortable with that. But here Jesus is pretty clear in warning us that wealth is clamoring for our allegiance, and it is very good at getting it. The thing is that God won’t share. “No one can serve two masters,” Jesus said, “you either hate the one and love the other, or you are devoted to the one and despise the other. You can’t serve both God and money.”
Jesus sums up the parable in kind of a puzzling way: “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth – and by that he doesn’t necessarily mean wealth gained by dishonest means, he just means the riches of this world, our money and possessions – so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” It’s not so hard to see what he is talking about in the parable; the dishonest steward cooked the books so that when he lost his job all those people would be kind to him in return. That way, they would be his friends, and take him into their homes when he left the house of the master. That’s why his old master praised his actions, because it was a smart move. But it’s harder to see what Jesus means to teach his disciples. The first thing is that we are to use the things we have in this world knowing that they are passing away – Jesus says “when it fails” because all riches will fail. All worldly possessions rust or get used up or lost or they break – and if they last long enough we die and lose them anyway. But he also says that a wise and faithful steward will use what he has with an eye to the future, and that means to make friends with someone who can take care of him, someone who will open his home to him.
It sounds entirely and totally selfish, and we don’t expect Jesus to say something like that. The steward in his story is entirely selfish – the master praises the steward because he cheats and manipulates as a sort of retirement plan. He sees that he will need help, and a home, and he does whatever he needs to do to get it. Certainly Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples to cheat and manipulate so we can get what we want. But what we don’t always realize is that everything that God calls us to do is good for us – not the way parents sometimes say things are “good” for us just to force us to do something we don’t want to do – like eating vegetables we loathe or doing a chore we really hate to do, but really life-giving.
Religions like the idea of pain and self-hatred and going without. But Jesus taught his disciples about life, not religion. We choose to serve God rather than riches not because being miserable is more holy, but because serving God brings us life and serving wealth brings us death. We deny ourselves and follow Jesus not because pain and suffering give us spiritual brownie points, but because that is the way to joy. Jesus is teaching us to be faithful stewards, of the things of this world that are passing away, of all those things that belong to him, our money and our homes and our cars and our “toys”. If we don’t choose to serve God, we will surely wind up being slaves of all those things we thought we owned. We can’t serve both God and our stuff. But if God is our Master, we will learn to be faithful stewards and then we will receive true riches, because Jesus promised, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”