Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sermon for September 19th 2010: Luke 16:1-13

Discipleship and Money

I’m a regular reader of a very good internet folk music site that goes by the rather strange name of the ‘Mudcat Café’. I like it because it’s a forum where folk music enthusiasts from all over the world can get together and talk about obscure traditional folk songs, research musicology together, talk about upcoming events or just share our passion for folk music with each other.

Recently on the Mudcat Café there was a conversation about justifying the ownership of multiple guitars. Now I have to say that at present I own two guitars; a rather modestly-priced Seagull that I take on camping trips, and a rather expensive Larrivée that is my pride and joy, the guitar I’ve dreamed of for most of my musical life. Nick has a few as well, so you might get the impression in visiting our house that the place is full of guitars.

However, I’m nothing compared to some of the folks at Mudcat Café. People started listing all the guitars they had, and the reasons they had so many – each one has a different tone, and they’re used in different situations, etc. etc. – and as I read the comments I found myself nodding my head and thinking, “Yes, I can see that. I like my Larrivée, but Martins have a slightly different tone, and Gibson J45s are nice as well” – and before I know it, I had mentally spent about $10,000 on nice guitars (not to mention the several hundred thousand dollars I’d need to spend on a new house to fit them all in!). And the scary thing is, of course, that there’s no end to it. No matter how good a guitar you get, there’s always a better one. No matter how many you have, you can always find a convincing reason why you need that particular one that’s sitting in the shop window, tickling your fancy.

I share this story at the outset this morning to demonstrate to you that when it comes to struggling with covetousness and greed, I am a fellow traveller. Jesus has some things to say in our gospel reading for today which are hard to hear, and as an honest preacher I need to tell the truth about what he says without trying to protect any of us from his teaching! But I also need to be up front and say that I struggle with this as much as anyone else. Paul tells us in one of his letters that ‘there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment’ (1 Timothy 6:6), and I’m doing my best to grow in the virtue of contentment, but I’m not there yet. So I need to hear what Jesus is saying to us in our gospel for today.

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 huge sums of money 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? No; 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, in God’s sight there really is no such thing as private property. I may think that I own a bunch of stuff, but in fact it all belongs to God. 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 what Jesus says in 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 theme in the 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 God has entrusted it to us. 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 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. 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 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 what Jesus says in 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 people 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 one dies a millionaire; they die poverty-stricken. We all 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?

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 was there for me”.

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 what Jesus says in 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: if the entire reason I am living, the entire 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”.

The truth is that God’s sense of what’s really important is very different from the prevailing view in our culture. 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. 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 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 selfish 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 to “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 what we’re told to 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 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. 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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