September 18, 2016, The Abomination We Always Wanted – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Jesus told his disciples, and some Pharisees who were also listening, a story about a clever but not very honest steward, who had the responsibility of caring for his master’s worldly possessions. There aren’t any good guys in the story, because the master was not a particularly honest person either. We know that it was forbidden in the Law of Moses for Jews to lend money to one another at interest, but this man had found a way around that law, by lending oil and wheat instead. So clearly, the master was not too serious about obeying the Jewish laws. What he was serious about was making a profit, and when he found out that his steward was wasting his possessions, he called him in and fired him on the spot.
But the steward, who was too old to do manual labor and too proud to beg, had a brilliant idea; he went to each of his master’s debtors, one by one, and he reduced their debts. What he was probably doing was writing off the interest. That way the master was still going to get back his principle, so that he wouldn’t have any legal grounds for having the servant arrested – because technically, he wasn’t allowed to charge that interest anyway.
The first real surprise in the story is that instead of getting angry, the master was impressed. Hey, he said, you’re still fired – but good thinking! He seems to have recognized a man after his own heart, someone who looked to his own interests and took care of himself no matter what. That was something he could admire. And so the master praised the actions of his dishonest manager. “The sons of this world,” Jesus said, “are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.”
It’s not the kind of parable we expect to hear from Jesus. The self-serving steward isn’t anything like a kindly Samaritan or a loving Father or a Good Shepherd, or even a repentant son. But, Jesus says, we are like the steward, because we each have our own choices about how to make use of the things of this world, things that will fail us just as surely as the steward’s position was lost to him, leaving him homeless and friendless. “I tell you,” Jesus said, “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you in the eternal dwellings.”
One of the messages of the parable is that the things of this world don’t belong to us in any permanent way. People always say, “You can’t take it with you,” but I don’t think we completely believe it. We might think we have learned to hold the things of this world lightly, but if you have ever been robbed or cheated, or if someone borrows something from you and loses it or breaks it or doesn’t return it it is very hard not to feel violated and resentful.
It is very easy to forget that we are stewards of this Creation, and to begin to feel as if we had a right to that money or those things that we worked hard to get. And especially if we’re threatened with loss, suddenly we realize how much we really thought of those possessions as belonging to us. I think that one of the real blessings of getting older can be the wisdom of understanding how transient the things of this world are, and coming to understand better and better what things are of true and lasting value.
But that’s not all Jesus wants us to understand about being stewards. One of the messages of the parable is that even though we are only stewards, still we are called to be faithful with what we have charge of now. Even if our stewardship now is over “unrighteous wealth”, the things of this world whose value is passing away, the choices we make matter. 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?”
Ultimately, the conclusion that Jesus draws is that money and possessions have real power to enslave us. “No servant can serve two masters,” he said. The riches of this world that we work so 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 – how often do they end up owning us. How much of our time and energy and resources are spent on the care and feeding of our houses and our cars and our lawns? The world would like us to believe that wealth brings us freedom and happiness but if you ever read the celebrity news you know that is the Great Illusion. Worldly riches are like the little gremlins in that horror movie that seemed so cute and fuzzy and friendly – until they kill you.
The wealth that people spend their lives trying so hard to get, is more often the source of sleepless nights than carefree days. Money, or the lack of it, or the pursuit of it, is the root cause of divorces and broken friendships, 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. And money is a cruel boss.
People are fond of pointing out that the Bible never says “money is the root of all evil”. It says that “the LOVE of money is the root of all evil.” That’s true, Paul wrote that in 1 Timothy, and somehow they feel more comfortable with that. We can have money as long as we’re doing good things with it, and loving God more than our money. But here’s what Jesus is telling us in the parable of the dishonest steward: money 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.” It turns out, our faithfulness doesn’t depend on what we are stewards of, it doesn’t depend on how valuable it is; it depends entirely on who our master is. Because 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 main thing we need to choose as good stewards is not what we have in our possession, but who our master is.
I’ve done quite a bit of talking recently about the burden of our “stuff” – it seems to have come up a lot lately. And right now, when I am in the thick of sorting through years and years of stuff that our umpteen children have left behind, stuff with “sentimental value” as we like to say, and even more stuff that’s just stuff, the teaching of this parable throws me a lifeline. Not so much, as you might expect, because it reminds me that mere possessions are just part of this broken creation that is passing away, even though that is definitely true.
The parable is good news to me, and to you, because it reminds us again – and I need to be reminded regularly – that Christian life isn’t about muddling around trying to find some kind of balance between my “worldly” life and my “spiritual” life. That’s exhausting, and also that’s impossible. It all comes down to what Jesus told Martha as she was frantically bustling around the kitchen, trying to do what she thought she needed to be doing. “There’s only one thing needful,” he told her.
When the Pharisees heard this story, Luke tells us in the very next verse, they just laughed at Jesus. They ridiculed him, because they were lovers of money. And Jesus said to them, “You look just fine to the people around you, on the outside. But God knows your hearts. And all those things that are so highly valued by people are an abomination to God.” Christians like to throw that word, “abomination” around when they talk about sins that shock us, but Jesus isn’t talking about sexual immorality here – he’s talking about higher paychecks and fancy clothes and impressive houses and all those things that people admire and want so very much – just as much today as in Jesus’ time.
It all comes down to that central choice: between the freedom and joy of serving God in every part of our lives, and the servitude of the eternal juggling act of trying to maintain the requirements of the world of money and possessions that enslave us with all their cleverly-designed chains of sentiment and status and responsibility and fleeting pleasure. Jesus put it this way: where our real treasure is, that’s where our heart is also. The god of this world is clamoring for our allegiance. But God won’t share. “Choose this day whom you will serve.”