September 19th, 2010

For me, this is one of the most difficult parables in the Gospels. And I felt pretty good when I found out that I was not alone in thinking this. Even St. Augustine wrote: I cannot believe that this story came from the lips of our Lord. So I think that I can be forgiven for my reaction whenever we come to this part of Luke’s Gospel. Even the most fundamentalist of Christians must wonder if someone copied it down wrong, or at least they must ask themselves what on earth Jesus meant when he advised his listeners to use worldly wealth to gain friends for themselves. This really doesn’t sound like the Jesus we normally hear, does it? It actually sounds as if he is defending dishonesty, because that is the word which describes the steward. Listen again to what was read earlier: There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him: What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.
Obviously, something had gone wrong, and the manager had been caught. So what did he do? Well, what would you do if, tomorrow morning, you were handed a pink slip, and told that you no longer had a job? I think that your first reaction would be much the same as the manager in today’s reading. You would start to scurry about, calling in favours, trying to assure yourself of another job. And in this case it worked, as the master commended his manager, and, we assume, reinstated him in his job.
Now, if we were to take a look at Jesus’ parables as a while, we would find that about 40% of them are about money, about material things, about STUFF. The fact that Jesus was willing to spend this much of his short time talking about things tells us that he knows what is important to us, and that he wants us to realize that there are good ways to use our things, good ways to use our resources. He wants us to know that there are ways to ensure our future, but not as the manager did.
There is a huge difference between the dishonest manager and the people of the light, and it is the second person we are expected to model ourselves after. We are not expected to make the choices that the manager made, thus feathering our own nests in this world. Rather, we follow his example of making choices that are in keeping with the future. But our future is not of this world, so our choices should reflect that. And Jesus was not commending the manager. Rather, he was commending his shrewdness in making sure that he would be taken care of. Even in our pew Bibles, the title of this periscope is The Parable of the Shrewd Manager.
One of the things that I hear a lot about is the whole idea of “growing” the church. By this, of course, I mean, adding new members, and eventually turning the church into some kind of mega-church. We hear about them in other places – churches which have five services on Sunday, and standing room only at all of them. There are courses available for ministers and elders, focusing on attracting people to come to church. I wonder if, by buying into this idea, we are doing just what the manager did. I wonder if we are misusing the gifts we have been given. In this day and age, we seem to have adopted fully the idea that “bigger is better”, but is it?
I think that, if we look carefully at our reading today, we will see that this is not necessarily true. Jesus finished his parable by saying that no servant can serve two masters. 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 both God and Money. Incidentally, the translation that I prefer to use says: MAMMON, rather than MONEY, which is a little bit different. Mammon refers to the trappings that go along with money. The mega churches, who raise money so that they can build yet another place to house their ever-expanding Sunday School – these places are surely familiar with mammon. There are churches struggling to keep the roof over their heads, and every cent they take in seems to be dedicated to that. Somehow, I don’t think that this is what Jesus had in mind 2000 years ago.
Jesus makes a reference to the people of the light, and that is who we are supposed to be. As Christians, as followers of Jesus, we are the people of the light, and we are supposed to be committed to God and to God’s purpose for us and our lives. But are we? There is a fairly simple way to figure out the answer to this, and it will require you to think a little about some things. First of all, we need to know how we feel about money. As I mentioned, some 40% of the parables and other stories in the Gospels are about money in some manner. Remember the widow who gave all she had to the temple? And the rich young man who could not give up his riches to follow Jesus? Or Levi, later known as Matthew, who was a tax collector? He gave up a very remunerative job to follow Jesus. He left everything. He knew what was the most important thing, what would make him a child of the light rather than just a shrewd manager. But the point of each of these stories is that they show what it is that people seek. They show where a person’s loyalty lies. Is it with God or mammon?
Now, as Jesus said: The people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. We see that all around us. We hear about insider trading, Ponzi schemes, and all kinds of get-rich-quick scams. And what we have to realize is that this is not the way the Christians operate. But why are the people of the world able to succeed so well? Because they know where their loyalty is. They know that the most important thing to them is money, and that they will do whatever they must to ensure that they have money. This is the kind of commitment, the kind of loyalty that so many of us, so many Christians, are lacking. We are divided. We are trying to serve two masters, and it won’t work.
You know, something I have always noticed is what happens to people when an election is called. In my time, I have campaigned for the Liberals, the Progressive Conservatives, and the New Democrats. I went door-to-door with my little leaflets. Sometimes I accompanied the candidate as he or she went door-to-door, meeting with electors. I spent hours making phone calls, and on election day, I was always available to drive people to the polling stations. That’s when I wasn’t working as an inside agent for one off the candidates. And I would imagine that many people in this church have done the same thing. But how many of us ever call a friend to suggest that they come to church with us? I know of some people here who have done that, but I’d be willing to wager – even though Presbyterians aren’t supposed to gamble – that most of us haven’t. Where, then, does our loyalty lie? We are not embarrassed to admit that we vote a certain way, or that we cheer for a certain hockey team. But when it comes to telling people that we are Christians, that we have accepted Jesus as our Saviour – well, that’s not really what we do, is it?
And maybe it is time that we did. Maybe it is time that we stopped trying to serve two masters, because, in doing that, we are doing a disservice to at least one of them. Where do we put our efforts? And where do we need to put our efforts? Sure, we live in the world, and we are of the world. There are things we have to do in order to be part of the world. But there are things we have to do in order to be part of God’s family. There are things we owe God that we are not giving him.
Every Sunday, the offering is received, and the prayer of dedication is said. But we don’t only dedicate monetary gifts here. We dedicate our time and our talent. Today, we covenanted the Sunday School, which is one of the ways our people share their gifts. We have dedicated teachers and helpers who spend morning after morning working with the children. We have a youth group, some of whom have offered to help out with the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle campaign in December. Yet, we have, in the narthex, a blank sheet, waiting for names to volunteer a little time on Sunday. And that’s not even going to take extra time. It is a simple thing to do, but people don’t do it. The people of the world commit, but the people of the light don’t.
The people of the world promote their product, and some try to do the same with the church. They package it up neatly, distributing bracelets emblazoned with the letters WWJD – meaning, of course, What Would Jesus Do? The people who promote this try to present Jesus as a nice guy, who told cute stories, and gave good advice. This watered-down version of the Gospel is not what was written. This watered-down Jesus is not the person who was crucified some 2000 years ago. And this watered-down version of what he said is meant to make us feel good. But that is not what we, as Christians, are supposed to do. We are supposed to hear the whole Gospel, even those parts that are confusing; even those parts that make us uncomfortable, as today’s surely did. We can’t pick and choose which bits we want to read and believe. We can’t pick and choose which parts of Jesus’ advice we can ignore. Doing this reduces it to merely words – words such as can be found almost anywhere. You can find platitudes in the Chicken Soup books, in the teachings of Confucius, in the Book of Mormon.
But in the Bible, you can find the word of God. And we are stewards of the Word of God. We are the ones entrusted to share it with others, not to water it down. And sharing it is what Jesus calls being shrewd, being clever, taking care of the future. Just imagine, at some point, in the distant future, when we all meet in heaven. Just imagine someone saying, “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be here. If you hadn’t been my Sunday School teacher; if you hadn’t invited me to worship with you; if you hadn’t shown me what it meant to be a Christian, I wouldn’t be here.” Wouldn’t it be great to have someone say, “Because you made a donation to my village through Presbyterians Sharing, we were able to have a minister.” And how would it feel to hear someone say that your gift of time made all the difference to them? That, because you sat with them, and listened to them, they understood Christian love.
I watched a movie a few months ago, called PAY IT FORWARD, in which a young boy picks up an intriguing way of passing things along. This expression is used to describe the concept of asking that a good turn be repaid by having it done to others instead. To me, this is part of being shrewd. It multiplies love; it multiplies caring; it multiplies good stewardship. And that is what Jesus was talking about.
He said: Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with very much. We have been entrusted with the earth and all that is in it. We have been entrusted with the care of each other. And when we fail in our care of the earth or when we fail to care for each other, we are being just as dishonest as the steward was. But when we do what God wants us to do, then, my friends, we are his faithful people; we are people of the light. Then we will be trusted with more; then we will be given more.
Ask yourself if you have been a faithful steward. Have you taken care of what God has given you? Have you cared for the money, the time, the talents, the family, the friends, and even the faith that has been yours? If we were honest, I would think that not one of us has done that. I would think that each person in this church – myself included – has been wasteful in some way. But it’s not too late. It is never too late, as long as we have breath.
To be a faithful part of the God’s family, to be a faithful part of this faith community, it is necessary to invest in it. We must invest not only money, although that is always helpful. We must invest time and energy and emotion if we are to do what is expected of us. It’s not as if we are being asked to give what Jesus gave. What we give, we get back a thousand fold. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon’s people were told to cast their bread upon the waters, and that is what I am asking you to do. Not a whole loaf, not even a full slice. Just a few crumbs. The dividends will be amazing.


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