15th Sunday after Pentecost – 9/18/2022
"Money, money, MONEY!" so sang the very popular group ABBA back in 1974. In their song, they not only bemoan the futility of a working person ever getting ahead and enjoying the good life, but they also sing of their plan to change all that. They sing, "If I got me a wealthy man, I wouldn't have to work at all; I'd fool around and have a ball... So, for them, happiness, a life well lived, is all about money—someone else’s money, at that!
We can’t seem to get away from money, can we? Why does money seem to be the central theme of our Gospel reading from Luke 16? However, far from endorsing a fascination with or a love for money, Jesus says quite bluntly, "You cannot serve God and money."
The English Standard Version of the Bible, from which we read this morning, can be a bit misleading. The Greek word Jesus uses in this text is mamona, which itself is a transliteration of an Aramaic word that meant wealth or even possessions. (Oxford Dictionary)
As Jesus uses the word in context here, clearly, he has much more in mind than simply dollars and cents. Just a few verses earlier, and using the same word, Jesus says, "If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth (that is, "mammon"e same word, Jesus says, "If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth (that is, "mammon"), who will entrust to you the true riches?" Worldly wealth, goods, and possessions and one’s administration of them seem to be more what Jesus has in mind for Mammon than coins and cash. He is also stretching the term "Mammon" to be referring to a god that one serves, clearly evidenced when one’s happiness and security are seen as dependent upon the acquisition of wealth and possessions.
Jesus does the same in His Sermon on the Mount: "No one 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 (Mammon).
Now, for those of you who are a bit worried today that we are going to be spending the next 15 minutes talking about your money and how the church needs it, let me just say that Jesus is not giving us a lesson in money or wealth management. Neither is he merely preaching a message on being a good steward of all that God has given us. He has something much more important and eternal on his mind.
In fact, throughout what He says, there is a thread of eternal accountability and urgency. He says in verse 9: "I tell you, make friends for yourselves through unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings." Jesus is talking about your and my salvation. Accordingly, I have titled my sermon "Money and Salvation." There is a connection between the two, but it might not be what you’re expecting.
Our text begins with Jesus telling a story, or a parable, not merely about an unjust steward but a rather resourceful steward. Jesus says there was a rich man who had what the Greek refers to as an oikonomos. Our English versions usually translate this term as "steward," "manager," or even, sometimes, "servant. The Greek word formed the words for home and law. This person quite literally ruled the household of his master.
In this story, however, the steward was entrusted with not only his master’s household goods, but with his master’s whole business as a true landlord. This master owned much land that others farmed, paying him a certain percentage of their harvest. This particular landlord was considered a righteous man and was well respected in his community.
We cannot say the same for his oikonomos (steward), however. The landlord was informed by others that this steward was quite literally squandering his possessions. The landlord was understandably incensed. He summoned his steward to appear before him. Dazed that this man, whom he had so completely entrusted with his whole enterprise, could turn around and cheat him so, the landlord asked him, "What is this I hear about you? You’re fired! turn in the accounts that you have been handling."
It was now panic time for the steward, who had not been expecting this. He wasn't simply losing a job and having to look for another. Once word was out in this tightly knit Palestinian community as to just how dishonestly he had served this pillar of the community, he would be ruined. No one would hire him. His very livelihood and even life were on the line. He 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."
Well, as they say, "Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures." The steward hastily called in all those who were under contract to his master and, in their handwriting, had them re-write their agreement, significantly lowering what they had to pay. For one who owed 100 measures of oil, he had him rewrite 50 measures, and for one who owed 100 measures of wheat, he had him write his new contract to say 80 measures.
Now, here, Jesus’ story takes a most surprising turn. Instead of scolding this steward for significantly reducing his income, Jesus said the master praised the manager for his "shrewdness," or we might say his resourcefulness! His secretary was quite the manager after all. He pulled off the greatest management scheme that a landlord had ever seen.
Many have great difficulty with this parable because Jesus appears to be praising a dishonest steward. But Jesus is in no way complimenting this steward for squandering his master’s wealth. He is not praising his unfaithfulness, thievery, and deception. He is praising the steward for resourcefully realizing that his only hope of salvation was to take advantage of his master’s grace.
This fired steward’s plan to save himself completely depended on the good name and gracious nature of his Lord. You can be sure that the tenant farmers were already rejoicing and, perhaps, even celebrating the landlord’s graciousness. They knew him to be a good and fair man. But such generosity was overwhelming. How could the landlord now go and tell all these people that the steward had cheated him and had been fired and had no authority to have them reduce their debts? Doing so would only make him appear small and stingy.
You and I are stewards. We have squandered our Lord’s possessions. Everything in this world and the next is God’s. He created mankind to be stewards of His creation. He has entrusted us to manage His goods to His glory. But we have used all things for our self-centered purposes. We have even convinced ourselves that all we have is ours to do with what we want.
As unrighteous and dishonest stewards, God has fired the whole lot of us. He cannot trust us with anything or entrust us with anything. Being cast into outer darkness is all that awaits us. As Holy Scripture assures us, "The wages of sin is death," and there is nothing we can do about it.
We are too weak in our sin to live the righteous and moral life our Lord demands of us. Even our good deeds are tainted with selfish and ulterior motives, making them all as worthless as filthy rags in the sight of the only one that counts, and that is God. We cannot even begin to earn our way back into the good graces of our Lord.
And here we had better take heed of the eschatological undertones of this text. Beginning with the steward’s immediate release from employment and then his sense of panic over what in the world would now become of him, as well as throughout the steward’s sense of urgency and haste to carry out his plan before he could be discovered, Jesus is reminding us that the day of final reckoning will soon be upon us as well. And this final accounting is not Judgment Day. The books of our stewardship will be reviewed by our Lord at our death. What shall we do?
The steward in Jesus’ parable was praised for his resourcefulness. What was his resourcefulness? He realized there was only one way he could be saved. He went forward, completely entrusting himself to his Lord’s grace, even to the point that he was willing to risk everything. If his plan failed and he was discovered before he could fully implement it, he knew that imprisonment or worse would surely be his end. But the gracious nature of his Lord gave him the courage and confidence to go forward anyway.
His Lord had even emboldened him even more with His grace by demonstrating that he was willing "to pay the full price for his steward’s salvation" (Poet & Peasant; Kenneth E. Bailey, 1976, Eerdmans, p. 102) The Master did not send this steward to jail and even allowed him to put his accounts in order.
Today, if you were fired for mismanagement, your employer would no doubt immediately demand your key to the office, seize the books, escort you out of the building, and perhaps even file criminal charges against you.
But his Lord did none of those things. Instead, by his grace, he emboldened the steward to be confident that his scheme to secure not only a home for himself but possibly even a new job for himself could succeed.
Dear fellow unfaithful stewards, this "dishonest manager" found salvation in the grace of his Lord. How much more can you and I be confident that our salvation is to be had in the grace of our Lord God? He has not only spared you and me from punishment for our dishonest stewardship, but He has also been willing to pay the full price for our salvation Himself. He has willingly punished His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, in our place, making full payment for our failed stewardship. Saved by grace in Jesus Christ is the mantra of all God’s stewards.
Jesus has only one imperative directed to His disciples in this text. It does involve, to a certain extent, your money. But it is really about your hope of being saved and how that impacts your utilization of your money and all your worldly possessions. We read in Verse 9: "And I tell you, make friends for yourselves through unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings."
God has not entrusted His possessions to us to indulge ourselves at the expense of others. No, being our gracious Lord, He gave to us that we might likewise graciously use what we have been given for the sake of others—that is, to resourcefully invest it all in the lives of others.
Take something as simple as time, perhaps the most valuable worldly possession we have been given. Are we investing it in the lives of others by serving them and their needs or squandering it all on ourselves?
People are always talking about their "Bucket List." What about an eternal bucket list? How am I going to manage the time I’m given so that eternal life in Heaven will be a sure blessing to me and not an eternal curse?
How much time do we have to invest the gifts of God in our children’s lives to ensure they will be there to receive us at Heaven’s doors? I only had 28 years with one of my children. Some of you had even less time.
As Christians, we sometimes seem to operate as though Jesus is our God forever but "Unrighteous Mammon" is our god for everything in this world. We become very shrewd at using and manipulating this god to get great gain for our worldly comfort, security, and happiness. But has it ever occurred to us that our money and other worldly resources have been given to us solely that we might invest them to better the lives of others, whether that be to clothe and feed them or to give them Jesus through the proclamation of the Gospel? Will others joyfully receive us into heaven because we made wise, loving transactions with "unrighteous Mammon" on their behalf?
Then, too, where is our urgency in making eternal transactions? Are we hastily investing the gifts of the Lord’s Holy Word and Sacraments in our lives and those of others? We have this nasty tendency to think there will always be tomorrow to get serious about faith and our eternal salvation.
Jesus had only 33 years on this earth, but look at His stewardship! He willingly gave up His divine glory that He might carry in His own body our eternal disgrace and remove it from us forever. He was willing to live in this world with no place to even lay his head so that you and I might dwell in eternal dwellings. He gave up all that He had in this world so that you and I might inherit all the eternal riches that are His in the world to come. Thanks be to Jesus for His faithful stewardship! Thanks be to God for His grace toward us in our unfaithful stewardship!