Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
September 22, 2019
“No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” — Luke 16:1-13i
Did you come here this morning thinking Jesus would encourage you to defraud your employer? I doubt it. So, we have an immediate problem. We have to square this saying from Jesus with the Jesus we expected. That’s our first task but the second is more important and touches us where we live — we need to find a way to love God in the midst of material wealth. This is an issue that touches us all. Even those who have little can be obsessed with getting more, and perhaps there is a natural tendency to avoid this conversation. As Paul David Tripp humorously put it: “The minute you hear a sermon on materialism, you’re glad somebody else is there to hear it.”
But let’s get back to the first problem at hand — namely, how are we to square this rather odd parable with what we know about Jesus. Let me state the problem as clearly as I can. If taken literally, Jesus is saying that God commends dishonesty, embezzlement and fraud. Whatever happened to “Thou shall not bear false witness?” “Thou shall not steal?” This steward did both.
Given the problematic nature of these words from Jesus, let me see if we can bring some clarity to our understanding. The first thing to note is that in Luke’s gospel, the rich are far from virtuous and those who would follow Jesus are told that the proper thing to do with wealth is to give it away. Here is what Richard B. Vinson reminds us about Luke:
We know about the rich by now: they stand under God’s condemnation (6:24), they can look forward to being sent empty away (1:53) and to perishing along with their wealth (12:13-21). Luke’s readers know that the only proper thing to do with property is to sell it (12:33), and the only good use for money is to give it away (6:30; 14:33). If you’ve been looking ahead…the Pharisees are labeled “money-lovers” (16:14)…1
Given Luke’s view on material wealth, one can argue that the master in the parable shows great nobility because in commending the dishonest steward, the master show how little cares about material wealth. Indeed, the master would have lost face if he had summoned all his debtors and demanded payment. Being rich means you can endure the wait. So, the steward does two things. First, he helps the poor folks who are indebted to his master by lessening their burden. Second, he makes his master look magnanimous. One can argue, then, that this story of the dishonest steward is nothing more than a demonstration of how wealth is to be measured in God’s kingdom — not by how much one has, but by how much one can give to others.
Well, I hope that helps. I had to work to see how others understood this parable’s meaning. It isn’t easy, so if you are still confused, know that you are not alone! With that said, let’s move to the more important message found in these verses — namely the problem materialism places on one’s spiritual life.
At the outset, let us be clear. Matter, the physical realities of life, are not inherently evil. In Genesis God did not create the world and say it was bad. No, the created order was pronounced “good.” It is not matter that is bad. It is our devotion to its collection and preservation. So much of our lives are spent in maintaining what we have or working to get more of what the world tells us we need. We know this in our own lives and often lament the effort our stuff requires. And the drive to have more is an unrelenting message of our age. Mitch Albom has captured the problem of our age:
Owning tings is good. More money is good. More property is good. More commercialism is good. More is good. More is good. We repeat it-and have it repeated to us over and over until nobody bothers to even think otherwise. The average person is too fogged up by all this, he has no perspective on what’s really important anymore.”
We are told of needs we didn’t even know we had and come to measure the worth of our lives by what we have been able to procure. God and things of the Spirit cannot be quantified, they lack the ability of objective measure. Your neighbor can see your new car. She cannot readily see your devotion to Christ. What we have can come to matter most. Bruno Bettelheim shares this:
When I was a prisoner in Buchenwald, I talked to hundreds of German Jewish prisoners who were brought there in the fall of 1938. I asked them why they had not left Germany because of the utterly degrading conditions they were subjected to. Their answer was: How could we leave? It would have meant giving up our homes, our places of business. Their earthly belongings had so taken possession of them that they could not move; instead of using them, they were dominated by them.
Too often, so are we.
And note this as well. The problem with materialism goes beyond the threat possed to our souls. It impacts the health of our nation. John Steinbeck speaking to Adelai Stevenson noted:
“A strange species we are, we can stand anything God and nature can throw at us save only plenty. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much, and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy, sick.”
Awash in stuff our focus on freedom is lost.
You cannot serve two masters and while we need material things to survive, we need the guidance of Christ to find purpose. Turn, then, not to the commercialism of our age to but the abiding truth of the cross. Humans are to be measured by what they give away, not by what they refuse to share. A clinched fist can grab and hold, but only an open palm can receive.
The task before us is not an easy one. The sirens of this world are unrelenting and even the church has succumbed to the lure of materialistic measure. So often I have been caught up in lamenting the numerical decline in church attendance. I find that I, too, have succumbed to the quantifiable, as if numbers were a measure of faithfulness. It is time we all looked and rejoiced in who is present. The stakes are too high, the moment too desperate for us to embrace the measures of our world. We are called to affirm the power of the resurrection. As a great preacher once put it:
“…we live in the power of the conviction that the resurrection of Christ is our assurance that the things that matter most – all the values of life – are not finally at the mercy of the things that matter least.”
Let us be guided by this truth that we might lend a voice to a world awash in things but poor in soul. Let us pray…
1 Richard B. Vinson, Smyth, Helwys, Bible Commentary: Luke (Macon, GA., 2008), 519.
i Luke 16:1-13
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”