September 23, 2019, Choose This Day Whom You Will Serve (Luke 16:1-15) – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Jesus tells a story about a very clever but not very honest steward, whose job it was to care for his master’s worldly goods. You might have noticed that there aren’t any good guys in the story, because the master was not a particularly honest person either. We know it’s forbidden in the Law of Moses for Jews to lend money to one another at interest, but the master had found a way around that law, by lending oil and wheat instead of money. So clearly, he wasn’t too serious about obeying God’s law. What he was serious about was making a profit: just the kind of man the prophet Amos was talking about when he wrote: “We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances.” He knew how to make a buck. So it stands to reason, when the master found out that his steward was interfering with his profits, he called him in and fired him on the spot.
Faced with early retirement and no pension, the steward was in big trouble. He was too old to do manual labor. He thought too well of himself to beg. But then, all of a sudden, he had a lightbulb moment. He called in 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. It was a very clever plan.
Surprisingly, instead of getting angry, the master was impressed. Hey, he said, you’re still fired – but that was some good thinking! He seems to have recognized a man after his own heart, someone who looked to his own interests and took care of number one no matter what. That kind of shrewd behavior was something he could admire. And so, Jesus tells us, the master praised the actions of his dishonest manager. “The sons of this world,” Jesus says, “are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.”
It’s not the kind of parable we are used to hearing 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 in one important way. We each have to choose how to live in this world, because the things of this world will fail us just as surely as the steward’s position failed him, leaving him homeless and friendless. “So I tell you,” Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves with worldly wealth, so that when it gives out, you will be welcomed into your eternal home.”
One thing we can learn from this 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. It is very easy to forget that we are just stewards of this Creation and not owners, and to begin to feel as if we have a right to our money or our possessions – because we work so hard to acquire them. I think that one of the real blessings of getting older can be gaining the wisdom of understanding how transient the things of this world are, and coming to understand better and better what is really of true and lasting value.
But that’s not all Jesus wants us to understand about being stewards. Another message 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?”
And here I want to say very clearly that the message is not that we are supposed to be “financial geniuses for Jesus”. As children of the Light, being good stewards, or being faithful in worldly things has nothing to do – NOTHING to do – with maximizing our profits so we can donate big bucks to the church. Jesus made that very clear when he pointed to the poor widow whose tiny offering was worth more to God than all the big donations being made by the wealthy people in the Temple. The God who created heaven and earth by the word of his power doesn’t need our financial support. Clearly, when we serve God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, that includes serving him with our worldly goods – remembering that it all belongs to him in the first place. But Jesus is saying something much more urgent here, about our relationship with money than just that we need to use it wisely.
Because ultimately, the conclusion that Jesus draws – the moral of this story – is that money has 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 a home and food and clothing, and so many other things that we just want – how often do they end up owning us instead? How much of our time and energy and resources are spent on the care and feeding of our cars and our lawns and our appliances? The world would like us to believe that wealth brings us freedom and happiness but if you know any real rich people you know that is the Great Illusion. How free and happy do you think Donald Trump really is? Worldly riches are like the little gremlins in that 80’s horror movie that seem so cute and fuzzy and friendly – until they devour you.
The wealth that people spend their lives and their strength 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 is ready to jump right in and take the job. And money is a cruel master.
People are very 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 people feel more comfortable with that. We can have money as long as we’re doing good things with it, they say. It’s OK to be comfortably well off, as long as we love 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.
And the other, and even more important, thing is that God won’t share. God said to Moses: “I, the Lord, am a jealous God.” The Good News Bible translates it: “I, the Lord, tolerate no rivals,” which says it even more clearly. “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, or how cleverly we handle it. Faithfulness consists entirely of knowing who your master is. Because that is our great choice. Joshua said it to the Israelites centuries before Jesus came, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” The thing we need to choose as good stewards and as good Christians is not what we have in our possession, or even what we do with it, but who our master is.
The parable is good news to me, and to you, because it reminds us again – and we need to be reminded regularly – that living faithfully isn’t about muddling around trying to find some kind of balance between my “worldly” life and my “spiritual” life. That’s exhausting. Also, it’s pretty much impossible. The whole thing comes down to what Jesus told Martha as she was frantically bustling around the kitchen, trying to do everything she thought she needed to be doing. “You are worried about so many things,” he said. “But only one thing is needed.”
When Jesus finished his teaching, Luke tells us in the very next verse, the Pharisees just laughed at him. They ridiculed him, Luke tells us, because they were lovers of money. And Jesus said to them, “I know 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.” Now, sometimes Christians like to throw that word “abomination” around when they talk about big sins, but Jesus isn’t talking about anything racy or shocking like sex – he’s talking about paychecks and clothes and houses and all those things that people value just as much today as they did in Jesus’ time.
God’s grim warning to the capitalists of Amos’s time stands as a warning to us in 21st century America: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain? When will the sabbath end, so that we may offer wheat for sale? The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.”
It all comes down to one central choice: the choice between the eternal freedom and joy of serving God in every part of our lives, and the eternal slavery of serving the demands of money and possessions with their cleverly-disguised chains of sentiment and status and responsibility and pleasure. Jesus put it this way: where your real treasure is, that’s where your heart will be also. The god of this world wants to own your heart. But God won’t share. So, who is your master? God? Or money? “Choose this day whom you will serve.”