Filed under: Sermons | Tags: atonement, congregation, debt, ELCA, elca sexuality, Jesus, money
If there’s one thing most pastors are terrified of talking about, it’s money. So often people feel like churches just keep asking for money and more money. You work hard for what you earn, and then the church tries to put a guilt trip on you just so that they can fill their coffers. If it’s the pastor asking for more money, it comes off as greedily demanding to be paid even more. It’s led some churches to avoid talking about money at all.
The problem is that Jesus tends to talk about it a whole lot! Wealth and discipleship are often put at odds in Jesus’ stories and speeches. Jesus calls people to give up all they have, to choose to between God and money. Jesus tends to favor the poor and judge the rich harshly. Jesus’ judgment comes to our ears and points out how we don’t deal with wealth as God desires. It’s incredibly uncomfortable to hear what Jesus says about money. So we try not to talk about it. (After all, I want to keep my job… and my paycheck.)
Today’s lesson from the Gospel of Luke is an especially difficult one. We hear of a dishonest steward, entrusted with his master’s estate. We hear of debtors, perhaps tenants -large commercial farmers, who owe the master a substantial portion of the crop. The master fires the steward when he learns the steward is squandering the wealth. But before the debtors hear that he is losing his position, the steward meets with them and reduces their bills. The steward is hoping that by doing this, the debtors will owe him a favor. When he loses his job, income, and home, he’ll have made these debtors his friends, and secured a new future.
The story twists unexpectedly. Instead of firing him, the master commends the dishonest manager for acting shrewdly. Perhaps the master sees a new talent in his employee and hopes for him to use that shrewdness to increase his wealth. We could understand that, but then Jesus also seems to agree with the lying and cheating shrewdness of the steward, and I can’t understand how that could be right. Is Jesus telling us to cheat each other?
No, Jesus isn’t giving us a mandate of how to act towards each other in our business dealings, but a parable describing the way the urgency of the kingdom of God changes our priorities. Jesus is focused on the end gain. He’s talking about getting out of a moment of crisis. The steward faced a moment of crisis when his boss said he would be removed from his position. Instead of accepting his failure, the steward did what he could to ensure that he would be provided for. The disciples are about to face a moment of crisis. The kingdom of God is coming near. Jesus is bringing in this kingdom, and in this kingdom, values are different from that of the world. Wealth and power will be good for nothing. Judgement will be passed based on actions rather than possessions. The end of regular life, with its work and wealth, is about to come. It’s a matter of life and death. This crazy parable encourages us to use whatever means are at our disposal to do what we can for the kingdom of God.
Jesus addresses the disciples with a black and white epilog: “You cannot serve both God and money.” We who seek to be Jesus’ disciples would be wise to listen these direct words from Jesus. I think we find it easy enough to say that in the end, only God matters, and at your death, you can’t bring anything with you. The difficult thing is to realize that Jesus has something to say to us right now, in the midst of our daily work, budgeting, and grocery shopping. Even now the kingdom of God is here, and we can choose God- or not. This was Jesus message to the disciples in this difficult text.
Adjectives turn in this text, so that we come upon a difficult truth: wealth is dishonest. All that exists is a gift from God; our food, paycheck, homes, clothes, and money are in themselves not bad. But because they are all part of a system in which profit is made off the expense of someone else and in which some are poor while others rich, they become things that are not of God. Wealth is dishonest because of what we let it do to ourselves and our society.
We are not righteous in our dealings with wealth. We use money for our own gain. We are devoted to wealth and possessions rather than being devoted to God. We long for what we don’t have, we envy our neighbors, and we are never satisfied. We are held captive by our need to earn money and bound by our need to compare what we have against our neighbors. Jesus’ parable is about using wealth for the kingdom of God: to gain friends in really high places.
But rather than using our wealth for the kingdom of God, we use it more often for power and self. Our culture caters to those who have money, because money equals power. When we use money to gain power over another person or to control the group, we are trying to put ourselves in the place of God. Sadly, this happens even in our churches:
When I was in high school, I served on the church council. Council meetings became tense as conflict entered our community. Money was running low and love for our pastor was wearing thin. In a small church, everyone’s giving was important. We thought those families who gave more were more important. When people got upset, bigger givers could throw their weight around. If they threatened to leave, everyone would try to make them happy by doing whatever they wanted. But in the end, no one would be satisfied. All but a handful of people left. Our capacity for mission was destroyed. We who once were on the verge of building a large addition because the pews were overflowing and who were hosting concerts for the neighborhood, feeding the hungry, and talking with the homeless as we served them at the shelter, were lost. In our sinfulness, we allowed money to be the power that led us rather than the love and mission of God.
When people use their status as givers to direct the church, we all lose sight of the kingdom of God. It happens more than we’d like to admit, and it’s happening often across the ELCA right now. Maybe some people think they’re doing as this parable suggests, using money to steer a group onto the “right” path. That could be a reason why some across our church have chosen to keep to themselves money they otherwise would have given as mission support or benevolence. But I don’t see the work of God’s kingdom being done in it. Coupled with a severe recession that’s been affecting our sister synods more than ours, this use of money has crippled the ministry of our church. Campus Ministries wonder if they’ll be able to stay open. Our missionaries fear they won’t be able to stay in their sites. I don’t often talk like this, but when I see good, Christian people using money this way, I only see the work of Satan being served.
This isn’t the type of talk we’re used to hearing in our church. But the urgent plea to choose the kingdom of God over the priorities of the world would be familiar to the early Christ-followers. Throughout these mid-chapters of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus often talks about money and its affect on our discipleship and judgement. It doesn’t look good for those who are rich and who like their possessions. Those who use their wealth for their own comfort and power are found lacking when the time comes for God to judge them.
I tend to avoid talking about, or even thinking of, judgement and giving an account to God. My sense of God’s grace always seeks to soften the blow of God’s righteous condemnation. Sometimes, this can get in the way of my recognition of the crisis that is before us now. We live as those first disciples did, as the kingdom of God is coming near. We can choose to recognize it and do whatever we can to make sure we’re a part of that kingdom: making sure we don’t let anything get in our way, and joining in the effort to make that kingdom real in our midst. If that’s what we want, it will take some changing in our relationship to God and to money.
When we seek to give an account to God, God will find us in the red. Our debts are too high and our righteousness too little. Thankfully, we will not need to give an account only of ourselves. Jesus Christ has been faithful for us. Jesus will put his own righteousness onto each one of us. Jesus will make an account to God for us, and Jesus will not be found lacking. Even with all our self-centered actions weighing against us, Jesus’ sacrifice will tip the scales. Jesus has paid our debts in full.
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