September 22, 2019: The Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin Readings: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13
From this morning’s Gospel, “(Jesus said) 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.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Throughout all four Gospels, Jesus has demonstrated an incredible knack for taking someone we tend to condemn or at the very least, look down upon and then hold them up as an example of what it means to follow God. Take for example, the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14). We recall that the righteous Pharisee thanks God that he is not like the wicked tax collector while the wicked tax collector stands far from the temple, beats his breast and cries out, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jesus asks, “Who do you think went home justified?” The answer is the tax collector. Jesus does this over and again throughout the Gospels, consistently finding something to praise in those whom we want to judge. And I find that because we have heard those stories over and again they no longer shock us. In fact, we expect Jesus to turn our thinking upside down. But, every once in a while Jesus does something that makes our heads spin. Today’s gospel story is such an occasion.
A man has been hired to manage the accounts of his employer and, our lesson tells us, he has cheated his employer rather brazenly. Thus, this story is often referred to as the “Parable of the Unjust Steward.” But Jesus praises him for being shrewd. Say what?
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I read this story I expect that knowing he is about to be caught in his mishandling of company property, this fellow will throw himself on the mercy of his employer. I imagine him wailing with the same intensity we hear in today’s Old Testament readings from Jeremiah and our Psalm. Perhaps he will even blame God for his predicament. That’s what the people of Judah did in Jeremiah’s time. They had refused to heed the urging of countless prophets to amend their lives – after all they saw themselves as religious people. They mistakenly assumed that because they had the Temple of Solomon in their midst, as if a building is proof of a nation’s faith and commitment to be people of God, they would be protected from any adversary regardless of how they chose to live their daily lives. But now, having witnessed not only the collapse of their nation’s defenses, but also, the utter destruction of that beautiful temple, the people cried out, “Is the Lord not in Zion?” In other words, “Where was God when we needed him?” as if their situation is all God’s fault. I expect this unjust steward to do the same and suggest that God should have intervened and stopped him from cheating his employer. And I picture the owner listening to this whiny explanation and then telling him to get out. But our story has no wailing and no such confrontation. The business owner, the master, realizing what the steward has done, stuns us by commending him for his actions. Once again, Jesus uses a story to jolt us out of our expectations in order to teach a more important truth. He uses this story to speak to the greater issue of what should be important in our lives.
See, Jesus doesn’t commend the steward’s dishonesty, but rather, his shrewdness: his ability to use what is at his disposal to secure his future and that makes sense. But what he had was gained through dishonest means and for me, that is where this story becomes muddy because Jesus then says, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Huh? Is Jesus telling us to be dishonest? No, of course not. So what is Jesus saying here?
Well, let’s back up a bit. This particular story is set within a part of Luke’s gospel where Jesus talks a lot about money. Just prior to the Parable of the Unjust Steward is the story of the Prodigal Son who asks for his inheritance early and then squanders it on loose living and seeking only his own pleasure. Immediately after today’s reading, comes the story of Lazarus and Rich Man, where the rich man fails to share what he has with Lazarus, a poor man in desperate need. Today’s story sits right between the others and for good reason.
The Steward was squandering someone else’s wealth that he was entrusted with – just like the Prodigal a few verses earlier. We aren’t told whether he failed to share what he had with others like the Rich Man a few verses later, but that wouldn’t surprise me. The difficult part here is that he is commended for making friends with money that wasn’t his to begin with, so that he would have a place to live when he gets fired. And that is where the story starts to make sense. This fellow is using everything at his disposal to build relationships, to secure the future, to provide a home. Now Jesus moves us towards the heart of the matter. He says that “children of light” must always strive keep their priorities straight. Wealth is to be used, not served. Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters … you cannot serve God and wealth.” The word for wealth used here is actually “Mammon” which means not just money, but our possessions, too. No one can serve God and Mammon. Now let’s be clear, Jesus is not condemning wealth. It is how we use what we have that is the issue whether we are talking about wealth in terms of money, time, talents, or even our spiritual gifts.
Aha, there it is! It must be time to dedicate our financial pledges for new year! True, there is an uncanny connection between today’s scripture lessons and our annual Stewardship Appeal which concludes this morning. But, I believe our gospel lesson challenges us even more deeply than that. See, I find this parish to be exemplary in its giving and in its priorities. Our elected leadership, in conjunction with our Mission Outreach Commission and Finance Committee, constantly looks at what we have and then actively and prayerfully discerns how we might use all our resources to further the work of God’s kingdom and do our part in building relationships in order to bring healing to a broken world, “this island home” as one of our Eucharistic prayers describes our planet. This parish has always risen to the challenge of ensuring that we have the financial resources needed to make ends meet and then some, just as wealways seek to use our gifts and abilities to not only support one another, but also lift up those whom society often ignores so that all people – both within and outside this parish church – may draw closer to God in Christ and with one another. See, we understand that Stewardship goes beyond finances: it includes our gifts and abilities, and we know that using such is never to be offered for our sole benefit.
St. Paul writing to Timothy urges the Church to use their gifts of prayer, intercession, supplication and thanksgiving not for themselves, but for the good of all people and especially those in high positions. Paul says we are to use the gifts and talents God has given us to influence those in authority in our communities and culture so that everyonemight live in peace and with dignity. We are called to be good stewards of everything using what we have as God so desires otherwise our possessions, our wealth, our gifts, will control and use us. It’s a matter of priorities and deciding what is truly important in life.
In this bizarre story of the Unjust Steward, Jesus urges us to realize that what matters most in life is relationships: relationships with God and with our neighbor. And over and again throughout scripture, God’s people are urged to not only build relationships but to be faithful in those relationships – a work to which we are called to respond ensuring that in this church our god is never our checkbook, but rather, the Holy One who calls us to reach out in faith to those around us.
Jesus calls us to be faithful to God in all things because we can only serve one Lord. Whether we deal with little things or vast resources, we are to use them with a view towards eternity. We either serve God or Mammon. We can choose to be slaves to our own created worlds and the endless pursuit of things and wealth, or we can choose to live as free, redeemed children of God’s light serving our One Lord Jesus Christ with all that we are and all that we have.
And so, dear people of God, children of light, let each of us ask ourselves not just if, but how we are being good stewards of all that God has given us. Does how we use these gifts of God demonstrate whom we truly serve? In the area of our possessions? In the area of our time? In the areas of our gifts and abilities? In the areas of living and proclaiming the Gospel? Jesus said no one can serve two masters.
May God direct each of us as we endeavor to decide not just today, but every day, whom we will choose to serve. Amen.