God or Money?

       A   Sermon by Pastor Teddie McConnell for 9-18-2022
Luke 16:1-13
This is one of the toughest of Jesus’ parables to interpret, because it appears at first glance to make a hero out of a dishonest man. Even biblical scholars have trouble agreeing on its meaning. Perhaps we can glean more than one piece of wisdom from this story.
In the first century, people were either very poor or very wealthy, with almost no middle class in between. Taking advantage of the poor and charging high interest rates were common practices. The fact that Deuteronomy prohibits charging interest didn’t necessarily stop wealthy Jews from doing it. Tax collectors were paid by collecting more than the Romans demanded and keeping the difference. This is dishonest wealth, which comes from a world broken and twisted by sin and motivated by selfish gain. God despises this kind of misuse of others by those in power.
In Jesus’ parable, when the steward learned he was about to be fired for bad management, he met with his master’s debtors and wrote off much of what they owed. Some scholars speculate that he was returning just his own commission to gain their help after he was unemployed. Some think he might have been acting honorably by returning the illegal interest charged by his master.
But Jesus referred to the steward as dishonest, and describes him deciding to make the debtors feel obligated to help him later by cutting their debts before he could be fired. He couldn’t get in any deeper trouble than he was in already. He was about to become one of the very poor unless he took drastic action to protect his future.
Here’s the part that seems surprising and trips people up. His master, the one who planned to fire him for squandering his wealth, commended the steward for his cleverness! This from a man whose estate was large enough that the people owed him huge amounts. The olive oil, for example, translated as “100 jugs” is the equivalent of 900 gallons of oil in a time when olives were harvested and pressed by hand.
My personal thought is that the master might have admired the steward’s shrewdness because he was similarly dishonest, one villain congratulating another. The master didn’t forgive the manager, but he seemed to admire how he solved his problem.
Jesus told this parable to his disciples. On the surface, it seems to be about money management. But it’s likely that Jesus was talking about something more fundamental, using this as an analogy to teach the disciples to act in the present with the future in mind. When Jesus talked about true riches, especially in Luke’s gospel, he meant the things and practices that make us rich toward God, storing up treasures in heaven.
Jesus was telling the disciples two things. One, that they should use money as a tool to help others, and two, that money is not nearly as important as we make it out to be. Throughout the Bible, it’s clear that God is especially concerned about the poor. Money is a gift from God meant to be used to help those in need, with its deeper purpose being the search and rescue of the lost. As we talked about last week, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin remind us that we need to help God find the lost without counting the cost. God thinks everyone is worth the time, the effort, and/or the money it might take to find even one person who needs to be rescued, to welcome them into the community of the people of God.
While the citizens of this fallen world are using money in ways that make it multiply for their own gain, the children of light are to be similarly clever and creative about making money work for God’s gain, for the common good and the coming kingdom. We need to weigh current decisions with the future in mind. We are called, not only to friendship among the believers, but also to develop and nurture friendships with the neighbors around us through our hospitality and service that can lead them to Christ. While our culture measures our value by how much we own, God’s culture is one of how much we love, even when it costs us something.
Jesus was saying that we need to think of and use money in new ways, not the way the world uses it. A generous sharing of our goods can free us from the danger to our souls that lurks in the possession of things. What larger picture do we need to keep in mind as we decide how to use the treasures God has given us?
In verse 14, we find out there were Pharisees listening to Jesus as well, and they ridiculed him because they were lovers of money. Jesus rebuked them for their hypocrisy, and proclaimed the good news of the kingdom that began with John’s prophetic witness. This is the new order of the children of light, the kingdom of God. The eternal homes Jesus referred to were not secure and stable houses, but a word that translates as “tents,” the temporary homes of wanderers awaiting our permanent home in heaven.
But we have a problem with money. Greed and the love of money can easily corrupt us in this world. Anxiety about the future can lead us to hold onto more than we need. Our culture tends toward a survivor-take-all mentality. We need to remember that God gives us money to increase the joy in heaven and on earth by saving more people from the darkness of sin. God promises to provide for us, to give us hope and a future. Trusting the money and possessions we can see is sometimes easier than trusting in a God that we can’t see. But Jesus said we cannot serve two masters. God requires exclusive loyalty and rewards it with eternal security.
We disciples have trouble using wealth as cleverly as capitalists do to further their own gain. Maybe we don’t trust ourselves to resist the temptations of money, or maybe we’re too impatient to sit with the Holy Spirit to make sense of complicated Scriptures and what God is trying to tell us in the here and now.
We’re also not used to thinking about ourselves in the context of our Christian faith as shrewd or clever. Those words tend to be associated with self-serving decisions, not kingdom activity. We Presbyterians are a bit more cerebral than most, but we still try to avoid anything that might appear to be crafty or manipulative. So I invite you to think of this as matching up with the words from the elder and minister ordination promises. “Do you promise to serve God’s people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love?”
Our session will be reviewing the surveys you turned in about the ideas from our Think Tank to determine which of those ideas will work best to keep this body of Christ working for God in this time and place. I ask you to pray for the leadership of this church, that we may have discernment along with energy, intelligence, imagination and love. How can we act in the present with the future in mind? Trusting the future is hard for us human beings that can’t see it. Trusting God to hold us and guide us is what we’re asked to do as kingdom people.
Jesus wants us to learn how to be faithful with money in small steps, because it isn’t easy. We need to be faithful in the small things, the day-to-day things, the duality of living in a fallen world at the same time we’re living for God’s kingdom. We need to pray and study the word to grow our faith and our belief that God is there for us. Then the big things, the true riches of our relationships with God and each other, our neighbors and families, hope, joy, peace, and justice, will be ours as well.
And all God’s people said, Amen.

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