Sunday, September 23, 2007

Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 25
Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

And his lord commended the unrighteous steward because he had done wisely: for the sons of this world are for their own generation wiser than the sons of the light.

We are really bothered by Gospel lesson for this week. It does not make sense for Jesus to encourage the type of behavior we hear about in the parable. After all, the manager was dishonest in his dealing with the people and the rich man. We do not expect Jesus to tell us to be shrewd like those in the world or to act like the manager. We are surprised that the rich man could so easily turn away from his wrath to give the manager a pat on the back for doing what seems to be so wrong.

We are troubled that the manager would get away with something in this passage. It doesn’t seem right for him to be commended after he acted dishonestly. However, I think verse nine is probably the most troubling of the passage. Luke writes, “Make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when it shall fail, they may receive you into the eternal tabernacles.” Is Jesus really telling us that if we use our wealth to make friends, we’ll earn a place in heaven? Perhaps we should return to this question next week after we hear the story of Lazarus and the rich man.

For now, let us consider the story of the manager and the rich man. We do not know what has happened in this business, except that the rich man has heard rumors that his manager is squandering his wealth. What was happening? Was the manager embezzling from the rich man’s business or was he simply a poor manager. It seems as though he has not done a good job at collecting the debts owed to the rich man. Was he lazy? Was he incompetent? Was he greedy? It is certainly possible that the manager was loaning money and charging extraordinary interest, beyond what the debtor could pay.

The rich man would not care if the manager was making a few bucks off the top, as long as his accounts were correct. However, he had heard rumors that there was a problem. He called the manager and ordered him to give an accounting of the business.

The rich man was concerned about the bottom line, whether or not his accounts in good order. The manager knew he had to do something; he was out of a job anyway so he decided to get in good standing with the community. He used the resources available to make friends for his future. He knew that he would be unable to support himself without a job, so he did what was necessary. He cut the debts and hoped that the people would feel a new debt to him when it was all over. He reduced the debts to make payment more manageable – a debt of a hundred jugs of oil was reduced to fifty, a hundred containers of wheat became eighty. Notice the man debt reduction is not equal – he seems to be asking for as much as the debtor can pay. He shrewdly made decisions that benefited all parties – the debtor, the manager and the rich man. In the end the manager made a good accounting before the rich man, the rumors were put to rest and the rich man commended the manager for his shrewdness.

In verse eight, Jesus tells us that “the lord commended the unrighteous steward because he had done wisely: for the sons of this world are for their own generation wiser than the sons of the light.” I think this is the most important verse in this passage, because it helps us to see that we must be aware of what happens in the world around us – not necessarily to emulate the actions we see, but to understand the people with whom we must live. We see unrighteousness in our workplaces every day. We see people who are lazy, others who are incompetent and yet others who are dishonest.

I could tell so many stories of employee waste from my days as a retail manager. I remember employees that punched in at the time clock early, but then waited in the employee’s lounge until the minute they were scheduled to begin work. One woman punched her time card as soon as she walked in the door, and then she went to her locker to put away her lunch and put on her uniform. She usually made a trip to the bathroom and then got something to drink before heading to the floor. Other employees think that it is ok to eat a piece of candy or some french fries without paying. I have seen employees damage merchandise to get a discounted price or hide merchandise until it is slated for the clearance aisle. Each of these practices may seem insignificant, but this kind of waste costs the store owners a great deal of money by the end of the year.

Jesus follows the parable with a lesson. “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?” He is speaking to the disciples, but we hear in verse fourteen that the Pharisees are listening. Jesus tells us that if someone is not trustworthy and honorable with the things of this world, how can they possibly handle the things of God? Have the Pharisees been trustworthy with the things of this world? Luke writes that the Pharisees loved money. We hear throughout the Gospels that they loved to wear fancy robes and live in expensive homes. They loved wealth, but also the power and position that came with it. Money had become their god – this is why it is called “unrighteous mammon.”

What is unrighteous mammon? 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.” When the Pharisees put their desires for fine robes and marble columns ahead of their responsibility for others, they made their wealth more important than God. They were squandering the resources which God had given to them as people of faith to use for the benefit of the world in which they lived.

We call the manager in this story “dishonest” but the Greek word used in this passage can also 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. Unrighteousness means that we are not right in our relationship with God, but we also have other relationships in which things are “not right.” When we are lazy, we are “not right” with our boss. When we are incompetent, we are “not right” with our customers. When we are greedy, we are “not right” with the owners.

Jesus tells us this story so that we are aware of what happens in the world – some people will lie, cheat and steal to get what they want. But we see that these practices cause us to be “not right” with the world. That is what had happened to the Pharisees. They were no longer “right” with God or with the people. The manager was “not right” with the rich man and he was “not right” with the debtors. So, he took the resources he had to make things right again. He used his resources to restore relationships.

We aren’t right with God or with one another. We are also unrighteous people doing dishonest things with unrighteous mammon. We have never been very good stewards of the resources that God has given to us. We are wasteful, greedy and dishonest. We fail at using those 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. How will we make use of our resources so as to heal broken relationships? We are put in charge of earthly wealth for a time. Will we use that wealth in a way that makes us right with one another?

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 power and position they’ve been given to benefit their own lives, but God knows those who have been faithful, and they will be blessed with so much more. 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. We are to see in this parable that we can not trust in wealth or money because it is fleeting. Instead, we can see that 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.

It is interesting to look at the Old Testament lesson in juxtaposition with this passage from Luke. Amos is speaking about a group of people who are more concerned with wealth than in worship. In this case, worship is more than just attending a service at the synagogue – it is about doing what is right even when outside the fellowship of believers. The Pharisees might appear to be righteous when they are in worship, but they are thinking about what they will do next to build up their own kingdoms. How many of us do the same thing when we are sitting in that church pew on a Sunday morning? How many of us are thinking about the concerns of the world rather than worshipping our God.

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 than we are about what is happening at that 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. We do not know why the people in this passage from Amos were there, but they 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 even 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 is the state of our hearts? What happens when we go out through those church doors into the world? Do we take our faith with us or are we anxious to get on with our lives? God sees the heart and knows when we would rather be elsewhere. Shouldn’t we be honest enough to examine our motivations and then seek God’s help in doing what is right? In stories like today’s parable, we see that we are not in a right relationship with God and one another. This will cause us to look at our resources differently. How can we use what we have been given – not only our money but also our talents and time – to restore relationships and make things right?

Think about how many people see the Christians of this world as hypocrites. They are often right to do so. We are quick to visit church but slow to visit the poor. We will offer a can of food to the needy but will not give them a listening ear or a hug. We offer to pray for the sick but will rarely do anything to help them become well. All too often our prayers are spoken with an unrighteous motive. We pray that God will make people to be as we want them to be – like us. We pray because we are frustrated by our relationships with people who are different. I recently read a blog where an atheist wrote, “Don’t pray for me.” He did not want anyone praying to a God that he did not believe existed for a conversion that he did not want.

This type of prayer is like that unrighteous mammon. We have been given direct access to the Lord God Almighty. We can seek His presence and cry out in our pain. We can ask Him for anything in Jesus’ name and He will hear. However, our prayers are all too often squandered and wasteful because we are trying to get God to do what we want and think we need without care or concern for others.

I have heard too many prayers with an agenda. These are prayers that try to teach the listeners, including God, about how things should be done. These are the prayers that describe the issue at hand and then ask God to make people – including the leaders – 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 the prayer is that God will replace the leader with someone who will do what is right in their minds. No wonder the atheists and others do not wish to have us pray for them. Our prayers, too often, seem to be focused on what is best according to our point of view.

Paul writes to Timothy, “I exhort therefore, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings, be made for all men.” We are commanded to pray. That is why we find it so hard when someone tells us they would rather we did not pray. Prayer is our way of showing our support, of bringing our hopes and concerns before someone who is greater than us. It is through prayer, communication with God, that we find some sense of peace in the situation.

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

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. 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.

We find it difficult to understand how Jesus could use the parable of the unrighteous steward. There are so many lessons we could learn, but many of them seem contrary to what we expect Jesus to teach. It seems wrong for Jesus to encourage the type of behavior we hear about in the parable – the manager was dishonest in his dealing with the people and the rich man gave him a pat on the back for doing what seems so wrong. Yet there is so much about God’s kingdom that is a mystery to us. The psalmist asks, “Who is like Jehovah?” There is none like Him.

He is a knowable God who has been revealed throughout the ages, but in this age came to dwell amongst us. Yet, to us who live by faith, 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 even greater burden of their sin. He is as living and active in our world today 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.

That 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. We who have so often squandered the resources He has so graciously given have been chosen to share God’s grace with the world.

It is by His grace that people are saved, but it is through our humble human flesh that He is revealed to the world. 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 that blood 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 to die that they might live forever. We are reminded that the world does things much differently than God and we are called to live shrewdly and wisely for the sake of God’s kingdom.

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