Monday, September 19, 2016

Sermon on Luke 16:1-16, for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, "Stewarding for our True Master"

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The parable of the dishonest manager is one that puzzles many, because the guy who gets fired is praised by his master after making one final dishonest move. If it throws us off that Jesus’ story praises a dishonest  man, a careful reading shows that it’s not actually his dishonesty but his shrewdness or skillfulness that is praised. The manager maneuvered the situation so as to both enhance the master’s generous reputation and “pad his landing” after he got fired, so he would be welcome in people’s homes. But even if the interpretation of this parable raises some difficult questions, ask this one: “What lesson are we to get out of it?” Jesus is pretty clear about the objectives and goals that He’s teaching, which we will unpack. But the overarching point is that we would serve One True Master, our Lord God, and that we demonstrate this service by faithfully stewarding what He has given to us.
Managers or stewards, by definition, take care of what is not their own. The whole concept of being a steward (whether a good one or a bad one), is that you manage something that belongs to someone else. There are many things that are temporarily given for our management, use, care, and supervision. Our body and life, to begin with, and all our physical and mental abilities, limitations, or talents. Our money and all our possessions. Our family, our occupation or roles in life. All “belong” to us in various ways—and yet none of them truly “belong” to us at all. Not in any permanent or irrevocable sense. Anything and everything up to and including our life is given by God’s gracious hand, and He alone has the authority to give and take away.
This is a major lesson of the parable, that worldly wealth is not permanent, and we do not know when we may lose it. So how are we going to handle it before we lose it? The dishonest manager has his job and management taken away from him because he did his job poorly. But he made a smart move before he lost it. Jesus admonishes us in the parable, that we should be faithful stewards—not dishonest as he was—but also that “the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” In other words, take the lesson in shrewdness,  but avoid the dishonesty, learning true faithfulness instead.
Even if we steward what we are given well, it will always eventually fail us in this life. Jesus states, “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” When it fails-…and it will. Solomon reflected on how money and riches can be kept to our own hurt, or lost in a bad venture, or simply go on to somebody else upon our death. In any case they aren’t ours to keep. Jesus shows that since these things are bound to fail anyways, we should at least use them wisely and for a good purpose while we can. The purpose He names is making friends.
How do we make friends by means of unrighteous wealth? Whether we have a lot or a little, we can be either generous or stingy. Do we use our money to show kindness and to care for others? Is our reputation one of open-handedness and big-heartedness, or of close-fisted and small-heartedness? So if we have been generous, open-handed, and charitable, it is likely that we will have gained friends for ourselves. Jesus says: “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” Wealth can’t go to heaven with us. Toys, cars, boats and houses can’t go with us. But relationships formed in this life can transcend the grave, by faith in Jesus. Friendship certainly has value in this life, and if our friends share faith in Jesus, that friendship has eternal value.
And you can see how all of this reflects what we truly love. Jesus aimed this parable at the Pharisees, once again, who “were lovers of money.” He tells them that “no servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” In blunt terms, Jesus is telling us that love of money will make us hate God. The love of money enslaves us, so that unrighteous wealth becomes our master. This is what Solomon lamented when he observed that “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? (Ecclesiastes 5:10–11). If we love money, we can fall into many snares. We can be overcome or undone by dishonesty, greed, selfishness, theft, losing our job, losing the trust of others, or even losing our friendships. Or we can simply watch in despair as all wealth inevitably fails, as Jesus warns. All of these spring as bad fruit from the same source, of having the wrong “god” and master, if we serve money.
On the other hand, if God is our master, we can lean on His generous provision for us, not doubting or worrying that He will provide. We can enjoy and manage what we are given, for as long as we have it, and use it wisely and for good purposes while it lasts. We can lean on His wisdom and guidance to navigate the perils of “unrighteous wealth”, and be stewards of our True Master. And having God as our True Master, the fruits of generosity, charity, good stewardship, and faithful friendship will come forth.
Like friendship, faithfulness in stewardship has value both for this life, and the next. When Jesus explains the parable, He says that “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?” (Luke 16:10–12). Here Jesus shows us several positive goals or aspirations we can have toward the things God entrusts to us. We are to aspire to manage money well. We should aspire to be faithful in little things so we will be entrusted with much; faithful with unrighteous wealth so that we can be trusted with true riches; and faithful with other people’s things so that we can be trusted with things of our own.
The lesser point here is that success in work and in life comes by faithfulness, honesty, and good management. If we want promotions, or want to gain responsibility over much, we need to show that we can be faithful over little. But the greater point is that there are better things in store for us than the possessions and wealth that we steward in this life. By managing them well, we look forward to being entrusted with “true riches”, or to be given “that which is your own”. There are “treasures in heaven” to be gained, if we focus on Christ and His kingdom, rather than earthly gain. The things that we are to aspire to, and should eagerly desire to gain, are of far greater worth than gold, silver, or precious jewels. And more than anything we could hope to see and receive in heaven—God Himself is the greatest and highest treasure. God’s greatest gift that He gives to us is Himself. And good stewardship is a little reflection of knowing that—it recognizes first that God is the Giver and true possessor of all things, that He generously entrusts to us for a time. And good stewardship also recognizes therefore that all of these things are far beneath the importance of knowing Him.
Perhaps you have had successes or failures in stewardship. Maybe you can feel proud of what you’ve done. Or on the other hand, maybe you have even lost a job, just like the dishonest manager, because you were lazy or did not steward faithfully. In any case, we must always guard against the temptation of the Pharisees—which was to justify themselves before men. They had a knack for trying to look better than they really were—as most of us do. But Jesus said, “God knows your hearts”. It strikes a bit of terror in us all, doesn’t it? That God sees all the uncleanness in our thoughts, words, and deeds? But justification before men is really quite useless. What we truly need is to be justified before God.
And if the parable today portrays a dishonest manager who made a clever move on behalf of his master’s generosity—we have a far better helper. Jesus is the One who is the truly faithful manager of God’s house—but much more than a manager, He is God’s own Son (Heb. 3:6). When Jesus acts to forgive debts—He does so not without His Father’s knowledge, but at the insistence and by the will of our merciful True Master. God wants Jesus not only to dispense with His heavenly treasures, to the benefit of all people, but to give them generously and freely. Jesus is not in the business of “debt-reductions” and “partial loan forgiveness”—He is in the business of the total payment and erasure of our debt. When you are forgiven by Christ Jesus, it is full and free, by His own blood shed on the cross. This is how we are justified before God—by faith in Jesus—a holy trust that God alone can free you from your sins and selfishness. No amount of conning others into believing our righteousness will do—only laying claim to the pure, holy, and perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. His heavenly treasure, freely bestowed on you. What kind of joy is it to know that you are truly debt free before God? And with that knowledge, what a joy and freedom to forgive and release others of their debts to us? In this divine act of forgiveness, through God’s love, we get to participate in His debt-cancellation! What a joyful way to make friends—in Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Sometimes Jesus uses a negative example to show a contrast or teach a positive point about something. In Luke 16:1-15, sort out what aspect of the manager’s behavior we are told to imitate, and what we are not to.
  2. The dishonest manager is fired for wasting his master’s possessions. The word manager and “steward” are interchangeable. What is the positive way that a good steward out to carry out their duties? Luke 12:41-48
  3. What determines whether we or someone else will be entrusted with more or less? How does responsibility change in relation to how much we are given? Luke 16:1-13; 12:48.
  4. The dishonest manager takes a gamble in his final move before being fired. What does he do, and what did he have to count on that the master would not do, in order for his gamble to work? How did the master benefit from this last dishonest move? How did the manager? What does this show about the character of the master?
  5. How does God deal with debtors (i.e. sinners)? Matthew 18:21-35.
  6. What are positive ways we can use money or wealth to good purposes, and even for the kingdom of God? Luke 16:9-13. Does this parable show that we should aspire to greater things? What quality is expected of those who will be entrusted with “true things?”
  7. Read verse 13. Why does having “divided loyalties” never actually work? To whom does our sole loyalty and devotion belong? What is “mammon” and why is it such a poor substitute for God?
  8. In Luke 16:15 Jesus addresses the way the Pharisees “justify themselves before men”. Why does this kind of justification always fail before God? What is the true justification before God, and how do we receive it?

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