Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sermon for September 23rd: Luke 16:1-15

Discipleship and Money

My friend John Bowen tells a story of how he arrived home one day to find his wife Deborah waiting with one of those ‘good news/bad news stories’. ‘The good news’, she said, ‘is that a friend back in England sent us $1000. The bad news is that I felt that God wanted us to give it to Fred down the road, as he’s just lost his job’. Commenting on this story, John says, ‘In the school of following Jesus, Deborah got an A+ for making a good choice. I got a C+ for a bad attitude!”

Moments like these tell us where our heart really is, and it’s because Jesus is concerned about where our heart is that he spends the whole of Luke chapter sixteen teaching us about money. Jesus is in the business of making disciples, people who live in the real world while learning to follow the values of the Kingdom of God. And because he lived in the real world, Jesus knew that the love of money, along with hunger and sex, is one of the greatest drives that human beings have to deal with. Jesus therefore gave us specific instructions on how to handle it. If we want to be his faithful followers, sooner or later we will have to come to grips with what he said about money.

So in our Gospel for today we meet a strange character - a dishonest manager. At least, he seems strange to us, but perhaps he would not have sounded so strange to Jesus’ original hearers. In those days there were many absentee landlords who left the day to day running of their property to middle men. These managers were notoriously corrupt, and many of them extorted hugely exorbitant sums from the sharecroppers who were at the bottom of the pecking order, while presenting fraudulent accounts to their masters.

The manager in Jesus’ story seems to have been unusually corrupt even by the standards of the day. He was not only making a profit for himself, but also ‘squandering his master’s money - in other words, he was using it for his own enjoyment instead of his master’s purposes. The master got wind of this and so he gave the servant his notice: ‘Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer’ (v.2). So the manager thought carefully about the unpleasant fate that he was facing, and came up with a scheme to win some friends who would help him out after he was fired. He called in all the people who were in debt to his master and wrote off a large portion of their bills. What he was probably doing, in fact, was canceling the exorbitant cut he had been planning to take for himself. By doing so, he was saving the sharecroppers a great deal of money. Of course, this meant that they were all very thankful to him and felt obligated to help him out when his own time of need came. The master heard about this, and shook his head in admiration for the shrewdness of the man.

Now why would Jesus tell a story glorifying such a dishonest man? Is he telling us that we should be dishonest? Not at all. The first thing we need to understand here is that this story doesn’t begin by telling us what we should be - it begins by describing what we are. Look at Luke 16:1: “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property”. That’s us, you see; we are the managers who are squandering our master’s property.

The Bible’s view about private property begins with a breathtaking statement. You’ll find it in Psalm 24:1. It says ‘The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it’. So in other words, there is really no such thing as private property. I may think that I own a house and a car and two computers and a bunch of guitars and a monthly pay cheque and all that stuff, but in fact it all belongs to God. What has really happened is that God has trusted me with some of his wealth for a while. He has put it under my management, so that I can use it to advance the purposes of his kingdom in the world. Look at Luke 16:10-12:
“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?”

The most important word in Christian teaching on stewardship is this word in verse 12: faithfulness with what belongs to another. Everything that exists was made by God and belongs to God, and we are entrusted with it by God. I can tell you that on the occasions when my car has been under repair and I have had to borrow a car from someone else to go somewhere, I have been extra-careful with that car. Why? Because it doesn’t belong to me! I will have to return it to its rightful owner, and I want to be able to return it in good condition. And if I am that careful with a car which has been lent to me by a human owner, how much more care should I take with God’s possessions, which he has entrusted to me!

But what have I in fact done with God’s possessions? Sadly, I’ve treated them as if they were mine. I haven’t asked God what he wants me to do with them, and even if I have, I certainly haven’t listened to his answers. God wanted his money to be used to care for the legitimate needs of me and my family, yes, but also to look after the poor and needy who have nothing, to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to build up the church and advance his kingdom in the world. How have I used it instead? Too often, to indulge my own selfishness. So I don’t have to worry about whether this parable is telling me to be like the dishonest manager. It isn’t - not at first, anyway. It’s telling me that I am the dishonest manager!

But now Jesus is blowing the whistle on me. He’s saying “You’ve been found out! The Owner knows what you’ve been doing with his money. He’s set a date when you will have to give an account of the stewardship he entrusted to you. So if you’re smart, you’d better get ready for that day”. And if I ask “Well then, what’s the smart thing for me to do in my situation, Lord?” his reply would be “Stop using the material things God has entrusted to you selfishly, and start using them for God’s kingdom”. Being a selfish human being who is badly hooked on material possessions, I then protest “But Lord, why should I do that? Can you give me one good reason?” To which he replies, “Not one, but three!” Here are three reasons why I should use money and the things it can buy for God’s purposes and not for my own selfish enjoyment.

First, because even at the level of pure self-interest, it’s the best investment. Look at verses eight and nine:
“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of the light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of the dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes”.
I’m not into making investments myself, but people who are into it amaze me sometimes by the seriousness with which they take it. Day by day they watch the stock market on their computers. They pay money for analysts to help them decide which investments will give them the best return. Often they use good leisure time to take courses on how to make more money through their investments. And if we were to ask them “Why are you doing all this?” they would probably say, “I’m making the best possible use of my money, so that I’ll be comfortable in my retirement”.

But there’s one important thing many of them are trying hard not to think about. A young man was once talking to a pastor about the death of his uncle. He said, “My uncle died a millionaire”. The pastor replied “No he didn’t”. The young man bristled; “What do you mean? You didn’t even know my uncle?” The pastor replied, “No, I didn’t, but I know he didn’t die a millionaire”. The young man said “What do you mean?” and the pastor simply asked, “Who has the million now? No, no one dies a millionaire; he dies poverty-stricken. All of us will”.

And this is the awkward truth that many people are trying hard to avoid. They’re working so hard for all this money and in the end it’ll only be good for a very short while. Afterwards, they’re going to be poverty-stricken. Nonetheless, Jesus says, there is something we can learn from them. If they’re so shrewd and careful and committed in amassing temporary wealth, how much more shrewd and careful and committed should Christians be in storing up riches in heaven?

So often we Christians don’t take our view of the world seriously enough. We say we believe that we are going to live forever. Well then, what’s the best investment to make? Surely an investment that will have effects forever! Investing our time, talents and resources in the kingdom of God will yield returns for all eternity. Jesus says in verse 9 “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes”. In other words, the day is going to come when money will fail and we must stand before God without a cent, without a bank account, without property, without anything whatever to recommend us. Then the only thing that will be of any significance will be the testimony of those who will say, “Lord, when I was really in need she gave me, at great cost to herself, something that helped me along”.

So this is the first reason why we should use our money for the kingdom of God. Even if you look no further than self-interest, it’s still the smartest investment going. And the second reason is this: if you refuse to use your money for the kingdom of God, you are in fact setting it up as a rival god, a rival master, and trying to serve it as well as God. Look at verse 13:
“No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth”.

Now let’s be perfectly frank, as Jesus is. What he is really saying to us is this: you cannot live to make money and live to serve God at the same time. It cannot be done. I’m only kidding myself if I think it can. If the reason I am living, the reason I am working, is to make money so that I can buy more things and feel more secure in them, then money is in fact my god, and I am not serving the true and living God. The proof that I love God first, and that money is only an instrument of my love for him, will be that I use that money for the help of others without seeking recognition for myself. That will indicate that I love God and that I am rightfully serving him with the money he gives me; that it has a right relationship to me.

So the first reason for us to invest in God’s kingdom is because it’s the smartest investment to make; the second reason is because if we don’t, we’re really setting up money as a rival god. The third reason is found in verse 15:
So (Jesus) said to (the Pharisees), “You are those who justify themselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God”.

Remember Tony Campolo’s ‘Who changed the price tags?’ sermon? He says that our modern world is like the window of a department store, in which many different kinds of products have been displayed, some expensive and some cheap. However, during the night someone with a mischievous sense of humour has gotten into the store and changed all the price tags around, so that what is really valuable is advertised cheaply, and the cheap stuff is selling for an arm and a leg. This is especially true when it comes to the question of money. I look at a fat bank account and I see security in my old age, comfort, potential holidays and enjoyments and possessions and so on. What does God see when he looks at that account? More often than not, he sees the selfishness in my heart, the poor people I’ve neglected, the churches struggling hard to proclaim the good news without the financial resources to do it, and all kinds of other grievous wrongs. Which leads me to spell out plainly this third reason for investing in the kingdom; in the midst of a world that is starving, both physically and spiritually, there can’t be many things more saddening to the heart of God than a pile of cash which is doing nothing but feeding the selfishness of its owner.

So here are three reasons Jesus gives in this passage for us to use our worldly wealth for God’s kingdom: First, because it’s the smartest and safest investment we can make; secondly, because if we don’t, we’re really setting our money up as a rival god and worshipping it instead of the one true God. Thirdly, because what we think is really valuable - the accumulation of wealth - is in fact hateful in God’s sight.

Our money matters. The way we use it is a spiritual issue. It can be a rival god that wraps its chains around our hearts and binds us to the earth, or it can be a wonderful tool by which we care for our families and support the work of God’s kingdom in the world. What are we to do?

First, Jesus tells us “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). His rule in the world, his will being done in our homes and families, in the lives of the poor and needy, in the spread of the good news so that more people come to know and love Jesus - that’s to be the thing we long for more than anything else.

Second, once we’ve made that commitment, we find out what God’s priorities are in the world, and we use his money to help bring them about.

Does that mean that we never spend money on ourselves or our families? Of course not. God cares for us and our families, and he is a generous God who wants us to enjoy all the good things of his creation. But he has no interest in confirming us in selfishness, or allowing us to live in luxury while others are starving for physical food or for the message of the Good News. Every time I take out my wallet I’m showing what’s really important to me. Is it the false god of worldly wealth, or the true God who gave his Son for the life of the world? God help all of us to use our money and possessions to help spread his kingdom in our homes and families, in our community, and in the world.

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