Sunday, September 19, 2004

Sixteen Sunday in Pentecost
Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

He that is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much: and he that is unrighteous in a very little is unrighteous also in much.

Today’s Gospel lesson is one of the most difficult passages from Jesus. It really does not make sense for our Lord to be giving encouragement to the type of behavior we hear about in this story. After all, the manager was dishonest in his dealing with the people and the owner. Verse nine seems to imply that we should be shrewd in this world, just like that dishonest manager.

Perhaps to get through this difficult text, we should not give so much attention to that detail of the story, but instead look at what is happening. A man has been squandering his master’s property. We can define squander three ways, “to spend extravagantly or foolishly: to cause to disperse: to lose (as an advantage or opportunity) through negligence or inaction.” We do not know how he was squandering the money – perhaps he was wasting corporate funds on unnecessary trips abroad or he was having large dinner parties on the owner’s dime. Perhaps he made a bad investment with the funds over which he was given charge. Perhaps he was neglectful about collecting debts.

Whatever happened, someone told the landowner of his poor management. The landowner called for an accounting and fired the manager. At this point we see a turnabout in the attitude of the manager. He realizes that he is unable to support himself without this job, so he does whatever is necessary to make use of his limited time and resources. He calls together the debtors and forgives some of their debt. If they owed a hundred jugs of oil, he made it fifty. If they owed a hundred containers of wheat, he made it eighty.

He did not do this out of the goodness of his heart or for mercy’s sake. He did not do this to make the landowner rich. He did this to save his life. He may have forgiven one debt, but he created another – now the debtors owe him. This was a shrewd way of setting up a retirement plan for himself. When the manager made his accounting to the landowner, he commended his shrewdness. Jesus sums up this story with the statement, “For the sons of this world are for their own generation wiser than the sons of the light.”

The wisdom of this world is much different than the wisdom of the kingdom of God. Listen to the financial managers and they will tell you to “pay yourself first.” This means that when you get your paycheck, put at least ten percent into some sort of savings plan. The strictest financial programs will suggest ten percent into insurance, ten percent into investment and ten percent into savings. The rest can be used for every day living. In the kingdom of God we are called to have a different priority – the first fruits of our labors belong to God because everything we have belongs to Him.

Jesus knows that we are not living in a different world than the others. He knows we will face the decisions that need to be made with our resources. How will we use the gifts that He has given? Will we squander or put them to good use?

I suppose one of the problems we have with this text is the use of the word dishonest. After all, Jesus is about truth and any commendation of dishonesty seems to go against the whole character of Jesus. Yet, we should understand dishonesty in light of first century life. The things of this world were not worthy of trust and belief – as are the things in our day. Dishonest wealth was worldly wealth – things not of the heavens and of God. We can’t live in this world without money. We need to pay rent and to buy food. We are expected to wear clothes and provide all our children need. Worldly wealth is a fact of our flesh – whether we have a lot or a little, we have to have something to live, even us Christians who are waiting for our promised inheritance.

Jesus is showing us an example of the way things are done in this world and He is calling us to do it better. He is not holding the dishonest manager up as our role model, but as an example of the way we might see it done and then He gives us a better way. “And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when it shall fail, they may receive you into the eternal tabernacles.” We are to use our resources wisely for the benefit of all so that when it fails – which it will when we die – God will receive us into the greater kingdom for which we wait.

The Israelites had turned away from God’s ways and were doing things according to the ways of the world. It was a time of prosperity under the rule of a king. The city and the marketplace was the center of life in that land. In such an economy, the poor suffer because the larger producers can monopolize the market.

Amos the prophet was sent into their presence to let them know that God was not pleased with the way they were using their worldly wealth. They were cheating the poor by using false balances on their scales and trimming the coins. It was common for a money handler to shave off some of the gold or silver of the coins. The coins were not as well made as ours today and they were solid gold or silver. You could easily shave off a bit of the metal from the edge of the coin and have it appear to be whole. The shavings were used to enhance wealth in other ways. It is not unusual to find ancient coins that have been trimmed down to almost nothing. These practices take advantage of the poor.

The passage from Amos shows us just where the hearts of the Israelites had been. They said, “When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell grain? and the sabbath, that we may set forth wheat.” These were important times of worship for the Jews and they did not care to take the time to worship God. They just wanted to be in the marketplace making more money.

Paul calls us to a godly life so that the world will see the Lord through our proper stewardship of His gifts. The godly life puts God first. Paul writes, “I exhort therefore, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings, be made for all men; for kings and all that are in high place; that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and gravity.” We begin all we do with prayer – so that our decisions will be made from the perspective of faith and trust in the One who is worthy of our trust. Paul adds a special call for prayer for those in authority. It is very easy to become focused on the wealth and the power and forget God. It is easy to become complacent when we are comfortable. In their comfort, they forgot God and His call to a holy life.

All too often we look at prosperity as a sign of blessings from God and poverty as His punishment. This is particularly true when we think of the churches in our cities. The large churches claim to have had a special touch from God. They believe that their growth and prosperity certainly must be by the power of the Holy Spirit. Smaller congregations are viewed with disdain. “Surely if God were with them, they would not be so small.” However, the financial status of a congregation has nothing to do with the blessings and curses of God. This is where Jesus’ parable applies to us today.

We are called to be good stewards of the gifts we are given. I have to be honest and tell you that I have never been deeply involved in the financial aspects of any congregation – besides my own giving and the basic decisions that we make as a group. I have seen congregations make very bad decisions. I have seen churches waste funds on frivolous things and make poor investment choices. I have seen them squander the financial blessings that have come through membership offering. The more we are burdened by debt, the less we worry about doing God’s work in this world. Council meetings become fighting matches about which bills we should pay and the first thing to be cut is always stewardship, which is the money we give to God by giving it beyond our own doors.

All too often we think the way to solve the problem is to grow our congregation because then there will be more people to give more money. However, bigger is not necessarily better. The more comfortable we become in our wealth and we strive for even more. It is at this point that we turn from those in need and from the God who loves them. This need is not always a financial need. The poor are not always without financial wealth. The poor for whom Jesus had the greatest concern are those who were without the love of God. We get so caught up in building our ministries and our buildings, we forget to build up disciples and share the Gospel.

Wealth or no wealth, big buildings and congregations or small – these things do not matter to God. What matters is that we keep Him at the forefront of everything we do – living that godly life of faith that shines Christ to the world so that all men might see Him and be saved. For Christ wants all men to know the truth – that wisdom is not found in the ways of this world, but in the love and mercy of Christ.

Jesus tells us, “He that is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much: and he that is unrighteous in a very little is unrighteous also in much. If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own?” Worldly wealth is a fact of our life in the flesh. We can’t live without money. We can live faithfully by using our worldly wealth in ways that will glorify God.

This is a particularly hard passage for us to understand, however it is a message we should all hear. Are we like the dishonest manager? Is there anyone who can go to our Lord and charge us with squandering God’s gifts? Are the words of the prophet appropriate for us in today’s world as they were for Israel so long ago? If we can’t be good stewards of the worldly resources we have been given, why would God trust us with the true riches?

Putting all things of this world aside, we are equal in the eyes of God. By our own power we are all slaves to the world. We squander the creation over which we have been given charge. We deserve to suffer the fate of that dishonest manager. Yet, Jesus Christ has taken our unworthiness and made us worthy by His blood, so that we can take what we have been given and use it wisely, in a godly manner, to glorify God in all that we do.

In Christ we can join in the praise of the psalmist, “Praise ye Jehovah. Praise, O ye servants of Jehovah, Praise the name of Jehovah. Blessed be the name of Jehovah From this time forth and for evermore. From the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same Jehovah's name is to be praised. Jehovah is high above all nations, And his glory above the heavens. Who is like unto Jehovah our God, That hath his seat on high, That humbleth himself to behold The things that are in heaven and in the earth?” Thanks be to God.

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