A sermon offered Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 8:4-7, Psalm 113, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13
As I was considering a direction for the sermon today, it was oh so tempting to just read that gospel lesson for you – and then turn around and preach about something else entirely!
On first reading – and second reading and third and fourth – this parable and the words that follow the story itself seem to make no logical sense. They just don’t hang together, and it’s difficult to understand how they can be the teaching of the Jesus we think we know. This is another one of those hard sayings of Jesus . . .
The parable has taken on the title, “The Parable of the Dishonest Steward” –.and the story goes something like this:
A rich man has a financial manager, a hired steward, who is accused of mishandling his property. The rich man calls in his steward – and he tells him to hand over the books because he’s being fired.
The steward is facing certain unemployment and no prospects of being able to get another job. He asks himself the obvious question: “What am I going to do next?” He decides he needs to make some friends – and make them quickly. He’s needing friends who can serve as his future source of financial security.
So, as he’s in the process of settling his rich employer’s accounts, he calls on each of his employer’s debtors, and one by one the steward reduces the amount they owe – and reduces the amounts significantly! The debtor who owes a hundred jugs of olive oil now owes him only fifty. And the one who owes a hundred baskets of wheat now owes only eighty. The steward’s objective is to endear himself to these folks – in a sense making them all indebted to him for easing the financial burden.
So after he finishes all his calls and closes up the books, the steward reports back to his boss. What do you expect the employer is going to say to him at this point – after he has further reduced the size of the portfolio?
Here’s where we encounter the surprising twist to the story. Instead of calling him a scoundrel – the rich man praises the dishonest steward for his shrewdness – his business savvy . . .
So what can we make of this?
There’s a lot we don’t know about the circumstances and background of this story. But there are two considerations that might help shed some light on the surprise ending . . .
First, if you consider the opening lines of the parable again, it says that “someone brought the charges of his steward’s mismanagement to the rich man’s attention.” We don’t know that those charges were actually true. What if he was falsely accused? Being in the business of collecting bills, the steward could easily have made some enemies just by doing his job. So what if the steward was the victim of some else’s slander rather than being dishonest himself?
Another consideration: It’s very possible that when the steward was forgiving a part of those debts, he may have been removing only the amount of his own commission. It was common practice in business dealings of this sort for the steward to add a percentage for his own income. If this was the case, the steward was actually exchanging one asset for another – he was trading the money owed for goodwill, goodwill that the steward could collect on for his future worldly security – a job maybe, or a place to stay . . .
Even with these two additional possibilities, the parable may still leave us feeling uneasy about the rightness . . . or the righteousness . . . or praise-worthiness of the steward’s actions.
But there’s one other important consideration here – the perspective of the rich man – the changing perspective of the rich man – the change in his “way of seeing” when he’s presented with the steward’s resourcefulness.
Stewardship is about much more than money – stewardship involves our care and use of all the resources that God entrusts us with. And the most precious of God’s gifts and resources are relationships. . . our relationship with God and our relationships with other people. When the steward exchanges monetary debt for goodwill, isn’t this a step in the direction of placing relationships above material possessions? Jesus continues to advise us along these lines when he 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.”
What does this say to us? Rather than hanging onto “dishonest wealth” (money), better to invest it in friendships, relationships – better to use it to build loving, honest relationships with others – and by extension with God . . .
The security that money provides lasts only for a short time on this earth. Financial security is at best fleeting. But relationships are eternal – they welcome us into the security of “eternal homes.”
In the Gospel of Luke, the jest of Jesus’ teaching about money is this: money in and of itself is not evil. What matters is our stewardship of money – how we use the financial and material resources God gives us to manage.
You’ve heard the saying “Money is to root of all evil?” Where do you find that in the bible? . . . No where! It’s not there . . . The closest we come to that is in Paul’s first letter to Timothy where it says “the LOVE of money is a root of all kinds of evil . . .” The problem with money comes in our attitude toward money — our attachment to money. If money is the first priority of your life, it is a form of idolatry. Jesus says:
“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.”
So too, remember: It’s God’s money not our own. We may have worked hard to earn it – that’s all well and good. But who gave us the means to earn – the health, the strength, the circumstance, the talent, the resourcefulness?
“All things come of thee oh Lord, and of thine own have we given thee. . .”
(Let us pray)
Almighty God, your loving hand has given us all that we possess: Grant us grace to honor you with our substance, and, remembering the account which we must one day give, give us grace to be faithful stewards of your bounty, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.