Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity
Text: Luke 16:1–13
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.
You may have noticed that I am quick to point out certain texts in Scripture as beloved. The twenty third Psalm for example is near and dear to many hearts. The parables of the Lost Sheep and the Prodigal Son are the source of great comfort and inspiration. But I dare say that our Gospel lesson this morning does not make the short list of many people’s favorite scripture passages. It would not be unfair to describe this passage as difficult or even confusing.
It is not without challenge that one attempts to give a satisfactory explanation of our Gospel text. Jesus tells a parable that commends to his disciples the shrewdness of the unjust manager while at the same time exhorting them to be different. It is on occasions such as preparing to preach on this text that I am especially in need of your prayers. For I am confident that such difficult passages are included for us in God’s Word in part to remind us that it is His Word and not ours. Therefore let us pray that, for the sake of our dear Savior who spoke these words, our heavenly Father grant us His Holy Spirit who inspired the evangelist to record them in order that we hear them rightly and take them to heart.
Gracious Father in Heaven, Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ promised Your church that You would not withhold the Holy Spirit from those who ask. Therefore we are bold to pray that for His Sake You would grant us Your Spirit that we may be led through Your Word to find hope and everlasting life in Your beloved Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.
We must note that the story we hear from Jesus today does not begin, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” That is to say, the story of the dishonest manager does have something to teach us about how we live, and even how God deals with us. But it is not a picture of God’s Kingdom, nor an allegory of how God’s kingdom is brought to us.
Rather, what Jesus teaches us here is how to judge the real value of something. The manager in the parable has been dishonest. He is a cheat who has spent years skimming a little off the books at a time. What was entrusted to his care by the rich man he wanted for himself. And when he was caught, his thoughts quickly turned to how he could provide for himself after his job was taken away.
He quickly adjusts the books so that when an account is turned in to his master, both his master and his master’s debtors speak favorably of him. This does not mean that Jesus is commending lives of dishonesty. Rather, He is speaking about what we find most valuable and how to treat everything the Lord has entrusted to our care.
When His job and livelihood are on the line, the shrewd manager recognizes that it is better to give up a short-term gain in order to provide long term security. By reducing the bills of his master’s debtors, the shrewd manager is giving up an opportunity for skimming a little more off the top for himself. He can’t embezzle that which is never paid to his master. But that provides more for him in the long term. In the ancient near east, a manager of such an estate would have the authority to make negotiations. So those men whose bills he reduces could honestly assume that the change in their bill was a legitimate negotiation with an authorized agent of the master’s estate. They were likely not aware of the plight of the soon to be terminated steward, and they had every reason to think that he and his master were both generous men for lowering their debt.
The manager is giving up something in the short term that he hopes will buy him friends for the future. The moral lesson for us in the parable then is that it is better to store up treasure in heaven where moth and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal. But as individuals and families and also as congregations this can be difficult to live out. Indeed without the Holy Spirit it is impossible.
I am reminded of when I was serving my vicarage in Columbia, Illinois, my supervising pastor would often make the comment that the Church is not in the business of making money. There are many business-like aspects involved in stewardship in a congregation. We budget our money, we plan for the future, we try to be wise with how we use our resources. But we do not expect Jesus to return on the Last Day and demand to see our financial reports. “I see you’ve been operating in the black here at _____________ Lutheran Church for the past five years, well done. Come, join the other Christians who are debt free.” Such an idea is ridiculous.
The Church is not in the business of making money. Therefore though we strive to be found faithful in the unrighteous wealth of this world, we also strive to keep our eyes on the true riches that Christ gives.
You could say that the parable Jesus tells in our lesson today is a lesson about priorities. It’s not that money is bad, it’s just not primary, and yet it is so easy for us to think of it as primary. We see empty seats in the church and our minds jump to the consequence that fewer people in church means fewer offerings in the plate. There is a correlation between membership and attendance and offering, but let us be careful not to set our attention on the latter as the primary concern.
So what about you? When you consider all that the Lord has entrusted to you and then look at how you use those blessings, what would appear to an outsider as your greatest concern?
I think that one of the best ways to judge what a person values and finds important in life is to look at their check book ledger and credit card statements. How much do you spend on food, housing, entertainment, and so on? The catechism teaches us to recognize that God gives us clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all we have, yet how easy it is for the gifts to overshadow the Giver in our lives.
Food, for example, is necessary for our bodies, and God gracious provides daily bread to the just and the unjust. Yet how easy it is for us to receive our daily bread without any thanks and even overindulge. God gives us the gift of family, yet how many people today grow dissatisfied with the spouse God has given to them, or resentful of the parents to whom God has entrusted their care.
Now consider our congregational life. How do we use the gifts God has entrusted to us? Do we even remember that these are God’s gifts? When things are stable, when offerings meet expenditures and officers have been found for the church council and boards, do we become content, or do we ask what would the Lord have us do?
It is easy for a congregation to become complacent. If there is a decent crowd in church and the money is there to pay the bills, we can focus only on being comfortable. New members are nice if they show up, but evangelism can become an afterthought, because we don’t need it.
Following up on members who haven’t been in church for a while? That is their decision. We don’t need to worry about them. Pastor can try to get in touch with them, but if they stay away, who cares?
When money gets tight, do we feel as though God has abandoned us? He is letting our church fall apart. I am too weak to work any harder and too proud to beg. How do I stretch every dollar now so that I can be comfortable in the future?
This is when we can grow angry at those who aren’t in church. Why aren’t they helping out? If they would be willing to serve and give a weekly offering, we wouldn’t be in this position.
If you have been away from church for a while or haven’t considered how you can support the church through your work and through your offerings, let this parable be a reminder that you too are called to be a steward of the gifts your Lord has given you.
But I suspect most of you hearing me this morning are more often tempted to grumble against those whose absence means more of the burden falls on you. To you I would give the reminder that you are not the steward of your neighbor’s blessings but only yours.
When we worry that in the near or distant future we will not have what we need, we are like the manager asking, “What shall we do, since our master is taking His blessings away from me?” But that is treating our Lord’s blessings as though they were ours to do with them as we please. That is robbing God.
I am not saying that this congregation has done nothing well with the blessings entrusted to us, rather I am challenging you to consider how you as an individual and we as a congregation can become better stewards of God’s blessings—not because we can earn something more from God than He has already given us, but because He has entrusted these things to us that we might use them. How can we use our gifts to serve God rather than our own desire to be comfortable? How can we care for the spiritually and physically poor around us?
For Jesus has elsewhere told us, “Sell your possessions and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail….For where your Treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
About 200 years after Jesus spoke these words, there lived a man named St. Laurence. Tradition tells us that Laurence came to Rome from Spain and was a friend of the Bishop of Rome. He was made the head of seven deacons in that city. Part of his duties were to care for the furnishing of the church and care for the poor. When persecution broke out against the church and the bishop was crucified, Laurence was told He had three days to turn over the treasure of the church. The Roman prefect desired to seize the sacramental vessels made of precious metals and other expensive items from the church and turn them over to the Roman government.
Laurence spent the next day taking everything of value in the church and giving it to the poor and needy. Then on the day he was to turn over the treasure of the church, Laurence gathered all the needy people for whom the church alone cared. The poor, the orphans, the lame, widows, all who were outcasts in society yet welcomed and cared for by the church. He assembled up this impoverished group before the prefect and said, “Behold, the treasure of the church.”
And He was right. Because it is for these That Christ’s blood was shed. That, dear friends, is why you do not need to worry about mammon. The unrighteous wealth of this world will fade, but the wealth of the kingdom of God will never fade.
You are that wealth. You were bought at a price, not with gold or silver, but with the holy precious blood and the innocent suffering and death of your Lord Jesus Christ. You are set free from your greed, your misplaced priorities, every selfish desire.
You are poor, you have nothing. Everything you see before you belongs to God, not to you. The money in your checking account, the crops in your fields, all the food in your pantry, the clothes in your closet, even your very life is not yours, it all belongs to God. It is His to give and it is His to take away. But what’s more than this, He gives you salvation.
God has appraised you, and He declares you worthy of life. Not because of how well you have taken care of His things. But because Christ gives all things to you.
Your sin rejects God, your misuse of his blessings is idolatry, but Christ has no idol, even suffering God’s rejection in your place.
You set your eyes on the unrighteous wealth of this world, but Jesus set His face toward Jerusalem to suffer and die there for your sin.
Your bury your talent in the ground ashamed of the Kingdom of God, so Jesus was buried in a tomb, that when He arose He might give you the promise of new life, showing that He is not ashamed of you.
You cannot serve God and money, but in Christ God continues to serve you.
I must give you one final word. We must remember the difference between what God has given in the past and what He has promised to give in the future. We thank God for the blessing He has given to us as individuals and as a congregation. We look back at all that God has done in this place for the last ninety five years, and we are grateful that such a place has existed and that God has worked through this congregation to reach so many people. It is good, right, and salutary to pray that God would continue his work here. But God does not promise any earthly congregation eternal life. He does promise, however, that His Church will continue on this earth until He comes again, and He promises that no individual shall be taken from his hand.
Therefore let us labor diligently here, not in order to preserve ourselves for our own sake. But rather let us be found faithful members of the Body of Christ, striving for the good of His Kingdom, that the Gospel might continue to be heard in this community. For we have no promise of an earthly city, of a perpetual congregation here, but we have the promise that as our gifts are used in faith in service to the Kingdom of God we would be making friends who will receive us in heaven. Let all our efforts be guided by God that everything we do would draw ourselves and others to Him and His Kingdom, for the fleeting pleasures of this life will not compare with the joy of standing before the eternal throne of Christ with treasures of the church by whom God brought us into His Kingdom as well as those we have led to Christ. No mammon will surpass that pleasure.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria