“Could I Be an Idolater?” (Luke 16:1-15)
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 22, 2019)
Our Gospel text today from Luke is one of those passages that leaves us asking, “Is this really good news…gospel?” In it Jesus speaks pretty bluntly about stewardship and our attitudes toward and use of money. Take for example verse 13. It reads: “No servant can serve two masters, for 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 God and money.”
Talk about making us squirm a bit in our pews. This text certainly hits us right where we live spiritually. It is a real probe of our hearts. Like an MRI it scans our heart to see what it is clinging to for comfort, security, help and even salvation. In other words it seeks to expose if we are truly believing in the true God as He has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ or if we are actually trusting in an idol, specifically the idol of money.
As I contemplated the nature of this text and its application to us, I could not help thinking of its parallel to the comedy routine of a once very popular comedian by the name of Jeff Foxworthy. Foxworthy rose to almost instant fame and success with his You might be a Redneck bit. He would carry on and on by saying things like this, “If you own a home that is mobile and 5 cars that aren’t, then you might be a Redneck… If your wife has ever said, ‘Come and move the transmission so that I can take a bath’, then you might be a Redneck…. If your mother has ‘ammo’ on her Christmas list, you might be a Redneck… If you think ‘taking out the trash’ means taking your in-laws to a movie, then you might be a Redneck… If you have a hefty bag where the window of your car should be, then you might be a Redneck… If you have ever bar-b-qued Spam on a grill, then you might be a Redneck.”
Of course, what truly endeared Foxworthy to us and so many Americans is that even though none of us would admit that we were Rednecks, we all found that we could readily identify with much of what he said. We could not hide from the label no matter how cool or sophisticated we made ourselves out to be.
There is no hiding from Jesus’ penetrating words either. He does not address them to people at large. Even though we know from v. 14 that some of Jesus’ enemies, the Pharisees, were listening in, Luke tells us right up front that Jesus spoke these words directly to His disciples; that is, to those who were following Him. And quite unlike Foxworthy’s routine, what Jesus exposes in his disciples hearts and in our hearts, is no laughing matter. We are all left to ask ourselves, “Am I an idolater?”
For all of us to get a clear, honest, picture of the god of our own hearts, Jesus tells this parable. He says, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, 'What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.' And the manager said to himself, 'What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.' So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he said to the first, 'How much do you owe my master?' He said, 'A hundred measures of oil.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.' Then he said to another, 'And how much do you owe?' He said, 'A hundred measures of wheat.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, and write eighty.' The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”
Now, let me just say at the outset, that quite unlike what many politicians and others are insinuating today in their campaign speeches and political talking points, being rich is not a sin. Jesus is not condemning being rich. He says a certain man was rich. He makes no judgment of this man’s character. Having riches is not the issue. In fact, the focus of the parable is on the attitude and behavior of the manager, or steward, in the employ of the rich man. A steward is one entrusted with the riches, money or possessions, of someone else. He is to manage them for his master. Whether the steward is entrusted with millions and billions or a more modest portfolio, the issue at hand is how faithfully he carries out his stewardship of someone else’s wealth.
It all comes down to the rich man’s charge to his steward: “Turn in the account of your management.” A steward is always accountable to the owner. Does he care for the owner’s wealth and prosperity and so carry out his stewardship accordingly and faithfully or does he simply care for his own bottom line and thus actually rob and pilfer his lord?
The rich man in the parable is actually God and the steward is, you guessed it, you and me. No matter how often we do or try, we cannot lay claim to being the owner of anything. If you really feel that your bank account, home, wealth, possessions, retirement funds, belong to you, then ask yourself the same question God asks in another parable of the rich farmer who had built bigger barns to store all his crop. He asked, “Your soul will be required of you this night. What will become of all that you have? (Lk 12:20).
Holy Scripture is quite clear: God is the giver of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17). He reminded His Old Covenant people, “For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:11) Everything belongs to God. As the Creator and preserver of all things, He is the truly rich man.
Yet, He entrusts us with His wealth. It comes in many form: our very biological life, our family, our time, our abilities, our physical possessions, and yes, the money in our pocket books, bank account or cash reserves. It is all God’s.
And since, all is transitory in this world, nothing is in our possession for long. You and I, like the steward in the parable, face an existential threat in our stewardship. No, it is not climate change! We face an accounting of our stewardship. Whether it be at our death or when Jesus returns first, there will be an accounting of the books one day. That accounting will assess how faithful have we been in managing everything God has placed into our stewardship. Have we squandered our time, talent and treasure on the pursuits of our own flesh or have we invested them as our LORD has expected of us?
The threat we face is definitely more substantial and long-lasting than that of the steward in the parable. Unfaithfulness won’t simply be punished with the loss of our stewardship… the loss of our physical possessions, but it will result in the very loss of our soul. It will mean our eternal judgment under the wrath of God. Now, that is truly existential if anything is!
Jesus is not, however, in any way trying to imply that an accounting our stewardship will reveal if we are worthy or in any way have earned heaven. Eternal life with our rich Lord God is a free gift earned for us by Jesus Himself. He has said, “I have come that (you) may have life and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). And again, He says, “I give my life as a ransom for many”(Mk 10:45). Jesus’ own stewardship of all that He had has earned for us the rich life with God.
No, as sinners we are all unworthy stewards. God’s accounting of our stewardship reveals instead where our heart is. It makes it clear who really is our God? In His commentary on this parable Jesus says, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters, for 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 God and money” (vs. 10-13).
The Greek term Jesus uses, which is translated as money, is the term “mammon.” So prevalent is the lust for possessions and money that it has been commonplace in the church to refer to it as if it were an actual god, the god of Mammon. If money and possession are what we have our heart set on for our security, our happiness, our hope for a better life, and even that which will save us out of all sorts of problems and troubles, then, yes, this Mammon is our God and we are an idolater!
How can you and I tell then if our own heart is set on Mammon or the true God; that is, if we are idolaters? Well, if you go to bed at night worrying if you will have enough money to buy what you think you need or to see you through your retirement, you might be an idolater!... If you imagine that if you just had more money you would be happier, you just might be an idolater…. If you have a vast holding of possessions stored up and not being used to the benefit of anyone’s life, then you might be an idolater… If you find yourself saying, “I don’t have time to go to church, you might be an idolater…. If you say to yourself, I can’t afford to give more to the ongoing ministry of the church, then you might be an idolater….If you have ever said with a bit of anger and frustration, “All the church talks about and wants is my money,” then you might be an idolater. After all, would we be saying these things or acting in these ways if the true God, who has purchased us with His own blood and promised that if we seek His kingdom first, He would supply to us all these things (everything we need to support body and life)( ), were truly the God of our hearts?
As Jesus says elsewhere, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” You and I cannot serve God and Mammon at the same time. We can love only one of them at a time. Either we love and serve God or we love and serve Mammon or some other idol. Our hearts have room for only 1 God.
What, then, is truly unexpected in Jesus’ parable is that the rich man actually “praises” this dishonest steward. He doesn’t, of course, praise him for squandering his wealth. There is nothing admirable about that. In fact, the steward in a backhanded way admits to his self-centeredness and laziness when he laments of what might happen to him when he loses his job. He says, “What shall I do? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” Instead, the master complements the steward for his resourcefulness in securing a future for himself in the homes of the master’s creditors. How did he do that? He dramatically reduced the debts of the rich man’s creditors thus ensuring their appreciation for him, and willingness to perhaps provide for him when he was without a job.
Jesus, then exhorts His disciples in their stewardship, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into eternal dwellings.”
Is Jesus advocating buying friends? That would hardly seem righteous, would it? What kind of relationship would that produce? True friends are not endeared to you because of what you give them but on account of who you are. No, Jesus is speaking of friends endeared to us when what we give fails; that is, is no more. In other words, when we die.” Their friendship is revealed as they joyfully and in all appreciation receive us into eternal life.
What could cause such a reaction? If we make others rich in material goods or money out of what we have been given, would that make them eternally grateful? Hardly! None of such wealth will be with them in eternity. But what if you and I utilized unrighteous wealth to provide something that will last forever in the lives of others? Something, shall we say, like life in Christ?
Money not only cant’ buy people’s true love but neither can it buy them true life. On the other hand, the money, the talents, the time and opportunities the LORD has given to us can provide the means by which people are brought the Gospel of Jesus Christ which can bring them into a faith relationship with Jesus and eternal life! So, talk about an investment in others! Who would not be eternally joyful and thankful for that! Would they not gleefully receive you into heaven when you arrived!
In another place Jesus says to His disciples, “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, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys” (Lk 12:33-34).
Could there be any greater satisfaction at the end of your life then to look back over your personal stewardship and see that God used it to bring others; your children, your spouse, other family members, neighbors and complete strangers to Christ? Indeed, the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe (Ro. 1:16). It does not need mammon to do its work. But in this unrighteous world mammon certainly can be used to ensure that the Gospel is definitely shared, preached and published all around the world. The Gospel will save souls. Think of all who might be in heaven someday because you gave; that is, invested the wealth, money, talents, and time God has given you into their lives. You don’t think they won’t ecstatically receive you in Heaven!
There’s no doubt about it, making disciples of Christ Jesus, Christian Education, in this world costs money. Pastors and teachers need to be paid. Missionaries need to be sent. Safe places of worship and education need to be provided and maintained. And God has given to you and me all the money, time and talents needed to carry that out. But it first must be given to that end! You and I could worship Mammon and squander all that God has given us to indulge our pleasures and make ourselves comfortable in this world. But when it fails, and it will, then what? Who will benefit in eternity? Certainly not us nor anyone else. On the other hand, we could love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and life and invest what He has entrusted to us with an eye toward the eternal salvation of ourselves and others as our investments ensure that the Gospel of Christ is proclaimed and His Holy Holy Sacraments are administered among us and around the world.
One small but eternally important detail of this parable that I believe is often missed is the absolute “hutzpah” of this steward in feeling so free to give away the riches of the master he had so unfaithful served. Without any qualms or second thoughts, he took it upon himself to simply rewrite the amounts the creditors owed his master. Where did he get off thinking he had the right to do that? Yet, unbelievably, Jesus praises him. Why? Because, in spite of all his other faults, Jesus wants us to join Him in admiring this dishonest steward’s utter trust in his master’s mercy. The steward is not afraid of being jailed, tortured or put to death. He feels absolutely free to secure his own future with His master’s wealth!
Yes, I know, dear friends in Christ, this text has made you feel as uncomfortable about your stewardship as it has me. Indeed, it finds us wanting. It shows up our own unfaithfulness with our Master’s possessions. It reveals that, yes, we could be idolaters. But shining brightly in the darkness of our idolatry, is the mercy of our Master. There in the cross of His only-begotten Son, we see the heart of a true Giver. He sacrificed everything to forgive us of our idolatries and to invest in our eternal future by sharing with us all that is His.
As the apostle states, He has made us “coheirs with Christ.” His mercy and grace not only cancels your debt caused by your idolatry but has graciously sanctified you to be stewards of His good gifts in the lives of others! Idolatry might cling to you, but where there is true repentance the blood of Your giving Master covers you!