Sunday, September 22, 2019

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1-15
Luke 16:1-15

He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much. He who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.

The problem with the tax collectors in Jesus’ day is that they took more than should. They were given a figure that they were required to take, and that included enough to cover their pay. What many did, however, was to take more than necessary and kept the excess. They took advantage of their neighbors. The tax collectors that served Caesar among the Jews were Jews themselves, making this an even greater sin because they were taking advantage of their own people. We celebrate Zacchaeus because he repented when he met Jesus and gave back what he could to those who he had cheated.

“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 bothered by this text because we do not understand how Jesus could tell the people to use money to make friends. Jesus isn’t encouraging dishonesty, but He is trying to induce people to make the best use of their resources. The Jews were a people of faith, called to trust in God and His provision of all they needed. Their attitude was meant to be one of mutual caring. Those who had much were expected to share with those who did not have enough. Any money beyond that which is necessary to meet today’s needs was considered “unrighteous mammon.”

We call the manager “dishonest” because that is the way it is translated in many versions, but the Greek word can be translated “unrighteous.” Unrighteousness is about broken relationships, about being in “un-right” in one’s associations. The manager was not right in this relationship with the rich man, and not right in his relationship with the people. His right use of the unrighteous mammon put him in right relationship with the rich man and with the people. We should not use this manager as an example of good or godly living. He is still an unrighteous man doing dishonest things with mammon.

Unfortunately, we still struggle with living according to God’s Word. We are not very good stewards of the resources God has given to us. We are wasteful, greedy and dishonest. We do not always use our resources in a way that will build up the kingdom and take care of the needs of those who do not have enough. We are so much like that unrighteous manager and God calls us to account. We are put in charge of earthly wealth for a time. Will we use that wealth in a way that will heal broken relationships and make us right with one another?

It is a question of faithfulness. Those who are faithful with a little will be given charge of very much, but those who are dishonest with a little will be dishonest with much. We are called to be faithful with our earthly possessions so that we can also be trusted with the true riches. Faithfulness means trusting in God, living in His amazing grace and sharing our blessedness with others. The parable shows a world that trusts in mammon, by it we learn that we cannot trust in wealth or money because it is fleeting. Instead, by God’s grace we can trust in Him who is the source of all our wealth and use that wealth shrewdly in this world to build up His kingdom, bringing others into right relationship with God.

Our attitude begins in worship. Why do we go to church? This is not a question that will affect our salvation because our faith is not dependent on the things that we do. However, as Christians we are called to examine ourselves to determine the state of our hearts. That’s what God sees; He searches us for the motivations that affect our actions. There are a million reasons to go to church, some good and some not so good. We go to church to worship God, to receive God’s grace in Word and Sacrament, to enjoy the fellowship of other Christians. We also go to church to network with others, to check off a duty on some checklist, to see or be seen.

As Christians we are called to examine ourselves to determine the state of our hearts. Are our motives good and right and true before the God of our faith? When we are at church, are we anxious to be somewhere else? Are we more focused on what will happen later that day than what is happening in the moment? If our motives are wrong, we are more likely to be distracted, singing half-heartedly, nodding off during the sermon, rushing out as soon as the service is over for that cup of coffee and donut or to get on with our lives. If we attend worship for the wrong reasons, we will not give God the praise He deserves. He wants more than our bodies. He wants our hearts.

Apparently this has always been a problem with God’s people, so it is no surprise that there might be people attending worship today for the wrong reasons. The people in the passage from Amos were obviously not there in heart and soul. God could see their hearts, and He sees ours. We also see that those who were anxious to be finished with the worship did not take their faith into the world. They robbed the poor and cheated the needy. They cared only for taking care of themselves. So, why do we go to church? We can’t read the state of someone else’s heart but we can examine ourselves. What happens when we leave the church and go out into the world? Do we take our faith with us or are we anxious to get on with our lives?

In this passage from Amos, we see that there are always people who are lovers of money and seekers of unrighteous mammon. As a matter of fact, they can’t stand to wait through even the holy days to get out in the market to sell, sell, sell, and cheat, cheat, cheat. They make the measures small but the prices high; they use false scales and take advantage of the poor. They sell inferior products to make the biggest score. They might be faithful in taking their Sabbath rest, but they live unrighteously every other day of the week.

We might think that it is enough to attend an hour of church and time in bible study, but we go about our daily lives as if God is trapped in the walls of the church. We convince ourselves that He doesn’t care what we do the other 166 hours a week. Like those merchants in Amos’s day, we can’t wait until the Sabbath is over so we can go about chasing after the world. But God calls us to a different life. He calls us to a life in which enough is truly enough and anything more than enough is meant to be shared.

We don’t need to lie and cheat and steal to get ahead; we don’t need to pursue wealth for our own sake. God will bless us with enough, and if we don’t have enough, He’ll bless us with a neighbor who has enough. And if we have more than enough, He will give us the opportunity to help a neighbor who doesn’t. It is all about trusting God. That extra wealth is unrighteous mammon, so what are we going to do with it? Are we going to hoard the wealth we think we’ve earned or are we going to listen for God’s voice and be obedient to God’s call to use that unrighteous mammon in righteous ways?

Jesus says, “He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much. He who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.” We can see that, can’t we? Money is a fact of life; we can’t live without it. But we can live faithfully by using our worldly wealth in ways that will glorify God. Are we like the dishonest manager? Can any of our neighbors charge us before the Lord with squandering God’s gifts? The words of the prophet and Jesus are as relevant 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?

I once took a survey about spirituality in our church today. The surveyor asked questions about when we feel spiritual, where we experience the presence of God and how we describe God. Some of the questions were very hard because I wanted to give multiple answers. In one question, the surveyor asked “How do you describe God? One or three?” I wanted to answer “Yes” because to me we can’t understand God as simply one or three. He is both. In another question, the surveyor asked whether God was “knowable or a mystery.” Again I wanted to answer “Yes” because he is both knowable and mysterious.

We know God because He has revealed Himself to the world. In the beginning He said, “Let there be light” and there was light. Though there was no one present in the beginning to see that light, it has continued to shine as God’s presence in the world. God revealed Himself to Adam and Eve in the Garden, and He never stopped loving them even though they sinned and were cast out of His presence. God revealed Himself to the faithful over the ages. He appeared to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the judges, prophets and kings in many different ways. He revealed Himself in the Law. He revealed Himself in the deliverance of His people. He revealed Himself through promises and then finally He revealed Himself in Jesus Christ.

We know God because He came to dwell among His people in the flesh. Born a child in a humble stable in Bethlehem, Jesus Christ was the embodiment of the divine in the body of a man. Through Christ we have seen the very character of God living and breathing among men. We saw God’s love and mercy and grace in action as Jesus preached the good news, healed the sick and set free those who were bound by all manner of things. We can know God personally through Jesus Christ. We can even call Him Abba or Daddy.

Despite how knowable God is to the faithful, He is still a mystery. God is the Creator of heaven and earth. He is the Deliverer who brought His people out of slavery in Egypt. He is the Redeemer who set His people free from the burden of their sin. He is living and active in our world today, just as He was in the beginning when He brought light out of darkness and order out of chaos. He still creates and recreates His creation, guiding His people in His ways and gifting us with all we need to join Him in the work of creation and redemption in this world.

This is the greatest mystery. Why would the Creator, Deliverer and Redeemer of the world give authority and power to people like you and I to help with His work in the world? It is by His grace that people are saved, but it is through our humble human flesh that He is revealed to them. It is His Word that brings peace, but our tongues speak that Word to the world. It is by His blood that we are forgiven, but He has chosen to institute rituals using water, bread, wine and people to share those elements with His faithful. He has promised us great things and remains faithful despite our inability to remain faithful to Him. He is truly a mystery in that He is the Lord God Almighty and yet He decided to send His Son to the world to teach His people how to live and die so that they will live forever.

The Jewish leaders were blessed with the responsibility of caring for God’s people, yet they did not do their work well. Most people barely survived. They could not save any coins because at the end of the day there were no coins to save. They earned a day’s wages and spent it on the day’s needs. But there were those who had a different life, like the Pharisees. They were able to afford fine clothes and marble columns on their homes. They could feast on good food and enjoy the company of their friends. They considered their wealth a blessing from God, but forgot that they were blessed to be a blessing. They looked down on poor and blamed their sinfulness for their hardship. The Pharisees had more than enough, their extra wealth was unrighteous mammon. They were misusing the blessings that God had given to them. Jesus was calling them to check their hearts.

Jesus doesn’t give us many details in the story of the wealthy landowner and his manager. Was the manager incompetent? Was he lazy? Was he greedy? We don’t really even know how bad the situation was. All we know is that the landowner has heard rumors that the manager was wasting his money and he called the manager to make an accounting. The bottom line is this: did the manager accomplish the work of his master? The landowner didn’t care about the manager’s wealth, as long as the work was done to his expectation.

What was the manager to do? He had no skills and he was unwilling to beg. He had to do something. He was using the wealth at his disposal in a way that did not serve the needs of his neighbors. His solution to the problem was to make things right. The unrighteous mammon, the “more than enough,” should have been shared but wasn’t. He may have been taking advantage of them, but at the very least he was not taking care of them.

He repented and began to help the neighbors with their bills in a way that would both satisfy his master and ingratiate him with his neighbors. Then, when he was in need they might pay it forward to help him through a tough time. He made friends by using that unrighteous mammon, and established for himself the promise of a community that would take him in.

The manager did not reduce the bills equally; I think the manager was taking into account the needs of the neighbors. The oil producer could only really afford to give the master fifty measures, but the wheat farmer could still afford eighty. In the end the master’s books were right and the master commended the manager for being shrewd.

The Pharisees were “not right” with God or with the people around them. They were using the unrighteous mammon with which they’d been blessed, justifying it as gifts from God, to make their lives better while ignoring the needs of their neighbors. They had more than enough and they forgot that everything they had belonged to God and was given to them as stewards, or managers, to do the Lord’s business. They sought fine robes and marble columns while their neighbors suffered until the oppression of few resources and high taxes. They wanted to be exalted, and they created an image for themselves that set them above others, but in the end God knew their hearts. They loved something more than Him: they loved money.

I have to confess that I like money. I hope and I pray that I don’t love it. I hope and I pray that I do not take advantage of my neighbors for the sake of money and that I use my “more than enough” to do God’s work in the world. I know I fail. I know that I haven’t always given as generously as I can. I know I like to save some money in the bank “just in case,” so that it will be available for an emergency. I know that means that I am not trusting entirely in God. But I also know that He’s called us to be good stewards, and I pray that I will respond to God’s voice when He calls me to share my resources in someone’s time of need.

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.

Where do we start? We start with prayer. Paul writes to Timothy, “I exhort therefore, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and givings of thanks be made for all men: for kings and all who are in high places, that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and reverence.” Most of us have enough. We might have a little extra and we do with it what we can. But there are those in the world who not only have the resources, but also the power and position to do more. The Pharisees could have made things right for so many people, but they were more concerned about their robes and marble columns. Many of the leaders of our world have the resources and the power to make great things happen, but they have lost touch with God.

We are to pray “that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and reverence.” In Paul’s day the leaders were enemies of the Christians. The Jewish leaders were fighting the Way, trying to halt the strange new religion that was bringing conflict to families and communities. The Roman leaders were also fighting the new religion because the conflicts were causing strife in the cities and the empire. The Christians were tearing apart the Pax Romana, the Roman peace, which had been enjoyed so long. Imagine how hard it must have been to pray for the leaders who were the enemies of the Way.

In a blog I read once, an atheist wrote, “Don’t pray for me.” He did not believe that there is a God, so considered prayer a waste of time and energy. He also assumed that any prayers would be for conversion. He was probably right. All too many of our prayers are for the wrong reasons. This is also true when we are praying for our leaders. We pray prayers with an agenda, as if we are trying to teach the listeners, including God, how things should be done. These are the prayers that describe the issue at hand and then ask God to make people to see how it should be. “Turn their hearts so that they will do exactly what I think they should be doing.” If there is no room for change, then we pray that God will replace the leader with someone who will do what we think is right. No wonder the atheists and others do not wish to have us pray for them. Our prayers, too often, seem to be focused on our point of view rather than seeking God’s will.

We pray because we are commanded to pray; it is also our way of showing our support, of bringing our hopes and concerns before someone who is greater than us. It is through prayer that we find peace in the situation. Prayer does not always bring about the answers we want, but we pray in confidence that God has heard and that He will be present. We want to see a change of heart, but for us that usually means that the person will become like us.

Instead, when we pray for someone, truly and really pray for them without an agenda, we can’t help but identify with them and grow in love for them. God’s grace enters into our hearts and we see them from a new perspective: from God’s heart. If we constantly pray for them to become like us, we see only how they are different. We pray for change and we take that prayerful attitude into the work we do. If we want them to change, we’ll do anything to ensure the prayers are answered to our satisfaction.

As much as we think we are right, our point of view might not be what God intends. We don’t know the whole picture. We know only that God is faithful and that He will be with us. He wants all men to be saved, but He hasn’t told us how He will accomplish it. He only asks that we live the tranquil and quiet life so that men will see the God of grace in our lives. Our prayers, and the actions brought about by our prayers, will stand as a witness to God’s love in this world. He will take care of the rest. He knows what He intends, He knows hearts and He is faithful. As we live in this truth we can pray for others, whether they are unbelievers or enemies, with thanksgiving, knowing that God has purpose for them, too.

Jesus says those who are faithful with little will be faithful with much. Are we being faithful with the Christian life we are called to live? Are we being faithful with our resources, with our prayers? God sees our hearts and knows our motivations. Luke writes is talking about important things: spiritual and eternal riches. If someone is not trustworthy and honorable with the things of this world, how can they possibly handle the things of God? Jesus knows those who can be trusted with the work of His kingdom, He knows the hearts of those who will serve Him well. There are many who take advantage of the gifts of God for their own sake, but God knows those who have been faithful and they will be blessed with so much more.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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Email: peggy@awordfortoday.org