Sunday, September 22, 2013

Be Shrewd; Follow Christ

[This is the sermon prepared for delivery during Sunday worship with the people and guests of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, on September 22, 2013.]

Luke 16:1-13
Today’s Gospel lesson is one of the most confusing passages of Scripture. Christians often read it and wonder, “Is Jesus telling us to be dishonest?” From the witness of the rest of the Bible, we know the answer to that question is, “No.”

So, the parable told here by Jesus and its attendant teaching, require us to think and to studiously delve into the text.

The Gospel message, of course, is simple: Unwilling to see human beings, the only of His creatures made in His image, go to hell for eternity without fighting for us, God took on human flesh in Jesus Christ. He bore the weight of our sins on the cross. He took onto Himself the punishment for sin you and I deserve. Then He rose from the dead to make it possible for those who repent and believe in Christ as their only God and Lord, to have new and everlasting life with God. That is a simple message.

But the living of our faith in that simple, life-giving Gospel in a fallen, sinful world, is not simple. And so, Jesus shares complicated parables like the one in our lesson for today. He gives complicated teaching we also find there. He wants to help us live out the faith of the simple Gospel message in a world complicated by the sin of the world, the sin inside of us, and the sin of our common enemy, the devil.

So, please go to today’s Gospel lesson, Luke 16:1-13. Verse 1 says: “He [Jesus] also said to His disciples: ‘There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and an accusation was brought to him that this man was wasting his goods.’”

Agricultural life in the first century when Jesus taught this parable was governed by a sort of a feudal system. A wealthy man owned vast quantities of land. There were tenants or sharecroppers on the land. They could farm the land and have a place to live. In exchange, the tenants were bound to give a share of their crops and earnings to the rich man. To oversee their holdings, it was common for rich men to have stewards, household managers.

In Jesus‘ parable, someone tells the rich man that his household manager is “wasting” or squandering the rich man’s money. The word translated as “wasting,” in the original Greek in which Luke wrote his Gospel, is the same word used of the prodigal son who traveled to a faraway land with the money his rich father had given to him and squandered it, wasted it all, on sinful living.

There are two passages in the New Testament I’d like to ask you to look at right now because I think they will help make the message Jesus shares today clearer.

The first is  2 Corinthians 8:9 (page 668 in the pew Bibles): “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.”

Both Paul, the writer of this verse, and Luke, the author of our Gospel lesson, understood the God we know in Jesus Christ to be wealthy, rich. Psalm 95 in the Old Testament conveys the same idea, when it says of God:
In His hand are the deep places of the earth; The heights of the hills are His also. The sea is His, for He made it; And His hands formed the dry land. 
The universe belongs to God; God is rich.

But in Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, God stepped out of heaven and, though sinless Himself, though immortal, took on the poverty of sin and death for us. Through His death and resurrection, God donates the infinite wealth of His goodness and His infinite life, to cover our sins and buy us out of our slavery to sin and death.

This rich man in Jesus‘ parable, in some way, represents God, rich in power, possessions, holiness, and love. Now, be careful! This is a parable. A parable is not the same as a metaphor. Jesus isn’t saying, “This rich man is God.” He’s saying, instead, “This rich man, in his richness and dominion is sort of a stand-in for God.” There are, obviously, differences between this rich man and God Himself.

The second passage is 1 Corinthians 4:1 (page 658 in the pew Bibles). It says: “Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”

The word for stewards used here is the same one used in our Gospel lesson. Every Christian has been blessed with new life when they believe in the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. But they are also called to be good stewards, good managers, of the new life God has given to them.

Part of what that means is that God tells us not to squander His blessings on us--our money, our time, our health, our friendships, our relationships--on ourselves in selfish pursuits. We are to use all of God’s blessings like good stewards, using our money, our time, our health, our brain power, our muscle to give God glory in how we live from day to day and to share the Gospel message with others. So, the steward in Jesus‘ parable, in some ways, represents all of us who are disciples--followers--of Jesus. The parable asks us, “How are you using your life? Are you investing in eternity? Or are you squandering it on the things of this world?”

Back to our Gospel lesson, starting at verse 2. It says: “So he [the rich man] called him [the household steward] and said to him, 'What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.' Then the steward said within himself, 'What shall I do? For my master is taking the stewardship away from me. I cannot dig; I am ashamed to beg. I have resolved what to do, that when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.'”

When the rich man in Jesus‘ parable demands an accounting for how the steward has been spending his fortunes, the steward panics. Fearful of losing his job, he considers his options. He’s too weak to dig ditches. He’s too proud to beg. So he decides to devise his own golden parachute. That way, when he’s been turned out of his master’s home, there will be people willing to let him live with them.

This may be the most important part of the parable. The steward is afraid of not having a home. He realizes that the way he’s been squandering, wasting, his life on selfish things has put having a home at risk.

In John 14:2, Jesus says, “In My Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” Jesus poured out His body and blood to give us places to live, eternal homes with God.

Many people know that; far fewer trust that. They recite the creeds on Sunday mornings. But on Monday through Saturday, they put their trust in other things, not in the God Who died and rose for them.

Here’s a truth I have learned, more from getting it wrong than from getting it right: The more I trust Jesus, the more reasons I find for trusting in Him; the more I do things my own way, the less reason I find for trusting Jesus.

It’s the people who trust in Jesus, no matter how weak their trust may be at any given moment, who are assured of a place to live with God. Truly, we are saved by our trust--our faith--in Jesus Christ.

Next in Jesus‘ parable, He talks about how the steward reduced the debts owed by the tenants, winning their goodwill while, at the same time, bringing some wealth into his master’s coffers. What Jesus says next troubles us. Starting at verse 8: “So the master commended the unjust steward because he had dealt shrewdly. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light. And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home.”

Note, please: The rich master does not commend the steward for his dishonesty, but for his shrewdness. Jesus delivers a similar message in Matthew 10:16, where He tells Christians: “ wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”

Christians understand that, ultimately, money has no value because money can’t be spent in eternity. Money, along with homes, farms, cars, and tractors, will one day be destroyed with the rest of this earth.

But, like our non-Christian neighbors, God calls each of us to earn a living and manage His gifts to us. The difference is this: We Christians are called to use the sinful world’s material goods not to feather earthly nests or promote ourselves at the expense of others. We’re to use our money--along with our time and smarts, our friendships and knowledge, and all the blessings God has given to us--to help others know Christ, through our giving, serving, witnessing, listening, and loving in the Name of Jesus, so that in eternity, they, like us, will have one of those mansions Jesus promises to all who believe in Him. When we trust Jesus, putting Him first in our lives, we can live in the certainty that we will have a place to live with God eternally.

And this, I believe, is why Jesus ends His teaching as He does today. Verse 13: “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon [or material wealth, money]."

You know, God’s Word never says that money is the root of all evil. Instead, 1 Timothy 6:10, tells us: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”

Money in itself is morally neutral, neither bad nor good. Whether money is a force for good in people’s lives or a root of all kinds of evil depends on how we view it. If money is an end for people, a goal, a means for keeping score, of being able to buy whatever they want, or of measuring their value as human beings, then money is the master of their lives. Money is their god, the place in which they place their ultimate hope.

Money can’t buy eternity. Money is a lifeless deity that will, in the end, leave all who serve it cold and lifeless in the grave.

But when the God we know in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ is our God, when we put our lives and our paychecks at His disposal, providing for our families while also helping to shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, and spread the good news of new life through faith in Christ--the things we do together as a congregation here at Saint Matthew, we invest in eternal things.

We know that when we invest in eternity, trusting Christ with our whole selves, including our money, God will raise us from our graves and we will live with Him for eternity.

Will you bet your life on the dead things of this dying world?

Or will you bet it all on the God Who, in Jesus, has conquered sin and death?

Following Jesus, believing the Gospel message, isn’t simple. But it is shrewd.

New life and an eternal home with God for all who turn from sin and simply trust in Christ is what Christ offers.

It’s a great deal. It’s a shrewd deal. Be shrewd; follow Christ. Amen