Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 25C, September 18th, 2016
Jeremiah 8:18—9:1, Psalm 79:1-9, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
If you listened closely to today’s Gospel reading, you probably got confused. If so, you are not alone. There are few passages that have as many different interpretations as this one, and few Bible passages where so many commentators just throw up their hands and admit they haven’t got a clue. Because first Jesus commends dishonest wealth, and a guy who cheats his boss, and then he tells us to be faithful with our money. And then Jesus says that money and God don’t mix.
So. Where do we start with all of this? When we talk about money and the Bible, one of the most things people do is remember that old quote which says that money is the root of all evil. That’s actually a Bible verse, or a fragment of it, 1 Timothy 6:10. Except that’s only part of what it says—that old saying isn’t even the whole sentence. It says that “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” Not money itself, but the love of it. And the full verse is “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” In other words, when you’re focused on money, when your main concern is wealth and getting more of it, you wander away from God and take yourself down some nasty paths which hurt you and those around you. It’s not the wealth itself that’s the problem: it’s how you got it, what you’ll do to get more of it, and what you do with it when you have it. Which is pretty much what Jesus says in our Gospel lesson in verse 13. It’s not that the wealth itself is the problem, it’s that when wealth becomes a thing you serve, that gets in the way of serving God.
In his Large Catechism, when he was talking about the First Commandment, Martin Luther described idolatry in an interesting way. He said that your god is the thing in which you put your trust. What do you trust to save you when you get in trouble? What do you trust to make your life better? What do you trust to fix your problems? If you put your trust in anything other than in God—for example, if you put your trust in your wealth and property—then you have a problem, because that is idolatry. Or as Jesus put it, you can’t serve two masters. If you serve wealth, if money and property are your master, then God is not your master.
Consider our society. In politics, how often are decisions made based on what’s cheapest rather than on what’s right? Schools, hospitals, the VA, police departments, critical systems get starved of the money and resources needed to do their job properly, and the community suffers. In business, how often are decisions made based on what’s most profitable rather than what’s right? Cleaning up oil spills and properly disposing of hazardous materials is expensive, so oil companies sweep it under the rug instead whenever they get away with it. Large corporations know that labor is the most expensive part of their organization, so they try and keep wages low even when corporate profits are high, even when it means their employees have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. And in our personal lives, we are often no better. Too often, when making our decisions, we rank money concerns higher than anything else, even if that means our health and our relationships suffer. In all of these cases, it’s not the money that’s the problem: the problem is what—and who—we’re willing to sacrifice to get and keep money.
In the Bible, money or wealth is never supposed to be an end in and of itself. Money is not the goal; money is a tool to achieve goals. God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is the one we serve, not money. And the question is, how then do we do that? When Jesus was asked what was expected of us as God’s people, he said this: to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. That’s what serving God means. Love God, and love our neighbors. That should be what our lives are built around. You will notice that it’s all about relationships. It’s not about knowing enough or being wealthy enough or doing enough spectacular good deeds, it’s about loving. It’s about relationship.
And money is a tool that can be used to build relationships. When we make financial decisions, those relationships should be our first concern. Does this use of money help us build our relationship with God, or does it break down that relationship? Does this use of money help us build our relationship with our neighbors here and across the world, or does it break down those relationships? Does this use of money reflect our love for God and for our neighbor, or does it reflect hate, fear, or indifference? What will it do to our relationships, to our faith, to our community, to our world, and to God’s kingdom?
Back to the parable. The steward starts out wasting his master’s wealth. We’re not told how or why; he may have been dishonest, or it may have been he just wasn’t very good at his job. All we’re told is that he squandered it—he wasted it. But then he becomes dishonest: he uses his last time with authority to reduce the debts people owed to his master so they would like him and see that he was taken care of after he lost his job. He was purposefully reducing the money his master got in order to benefit himself. This was dishonest, and Jesus is perfectly clear on that. But you will notice that this use of his master’s resources, while dishonest, is not called wasteful. This is dishonest, but it’s not squandering. Why? Maybe because the money is being used to build relationships. When the steward was focusing on the money itself, on building his master’s wealth, he was wasting money. When the steward was focused on building relationships, he was not wasting money. He was being dishonest and selfish, sure. But it was still a better use of the money than when building profit was the steward’s highest goal.
Jesus talks about honesty and dishonesty, and whether or not people are faithful. But here’s the thing: he doesn’t seem to think being honest is the same as being faithful. To Jesus, playing by the rules the world has set up is not the same as being faithful. Not only that, he doesn’t seem to care about whether or not people are honest or dishonest, as long as they’re faithful with whatever they have. Not faithful to money and power and the system, but faithful to God and to their neighbor. Financial smarts don’t rank very highly with Jesus. Accumulating wealth is not something he cared about at all … and often criticized. Not because wealth and financial smarts are bad, but because when we focus on them, we miss out on the real point of life. When we have money and power in this life, the “honest” thing to do may be to work to get more of them, managing them and investing them and working the system and so forth. But that may not always be the faithful thing to do with them.
One of the ways to be faithful with our money is to be generous in our giving. Indeed, Scripture tells us that ideally, we should be giving ten percent of everything we earn to God, plus being generous to those in need around us. But that’s only one part of it—what we do with the other 90% matters, too. And how we earn our money matters as much as how we spend it. Is our first priority faithfulness to God and to our neighbor? Then we’re on the right track, whether we’re rich or poor, respectable or disrespected, honest or dishonest. May we always choose to serve God and our neighbor, rather than the riches of this world.