Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

 

I know a financial advisor, very sharp, with a good grasp of the forces that move the markets. He manages the accounts of a number of retirees. They trust him, even when there are steep downturns, and their statements reflect sizable losses.

 

From time to time, he hosts events for his clients. After he and his team treat them to a catered meal, he gives a presentation on the state of the markets, and what to expect going forward.

 

There is one point that he never tires of repeating: the earlier you begin investing, the greater your chance of higher returns.

 

That is why he encourages the retirees who attend to bring their children and grandchildren. He wants to bring home the lesson to them: prepare for the future. 

 

There is a man in our gospel lesson for today who must learn and apply this lesson. Only he doesn’t have youth and time on his side. He appears in a parable that has come down to us as the parable of the unjust steward.

 

The steward has been working for a rich man. To be more precise, the rich man is a landowner and the steward is his estate manager. The landowner rents out plots to tenant farmers, and the estate manager has the job of going out to collect the rents, which the farmers pay in the form of a share of their produce.

 

The steward has a comfortable life. He makes a good living. It may not be the most exciting work in the world. But he is content. Then one day his boss comes to him. He tells him he has to clean out his desk.

 

Note that Jesus doesn’t tell us that his boss is justified in firing him. Maybe the steward is corrupt, making extra money “under the table” by overcharging the renters, and not recording these amounts in the signed bills.

 

Or maybe he has enemies among his fellow stewards, and one of them is trying to frame him. We don’t know. The steward is only rumored to have mismanaged the accounts.

 

Whatever the case may be, life can longer continue for the steward as usual. He no longer has the inertia of a daily routine and the security of a regular income to carry him along. He has to figure out how he’s going to prepare for the future. And he has to do this in a hurry.

 

What happens to us when our routine breaks down? Some of us panic. We curl up into a ball, unable or unwilling to adapt to new realities. We shrivel up inside. We may even develop health problems.

 

Others, however, do adapt. They size up their new realities and begin to ask what these are demanding of them.

 

This is what the steward does. He’s in a precarious place. He’s too old to find another job in his field. And because he’s too old, he can’t fall back on manual labor. He could always beg, but that’s humiliating. What then can he do?

 

He can take initiative. To take initiative means to exercise your freedom to determine a course for your future. Most of us do not do like to do this. That’s why we prefer routines. By definition routines do not require us to take initiative.

 

But when the routine is no longer an option, then what? Most us do not take initiative unless forced to. The steward is in this place. He comes up with an idea. He goes to two of his boss’ clients to settle accounts. He makes them a deal they can’t pass up.

 

To the first he goes and asks, ‘How much do you owe my master?’

He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.

 

And to the second he goes and asks: And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty’ (Luke 16:5-7).

 

This plan accomplishes two things. Since he’s about to be fired, he doesn’t have to turn this money over to his boss. He has provided for himself a financial cushion against a hard landing.  Second, since he’s done these clients a favor, he can expect a favor in return. They will welcome into their homes until he can get back on his feet.

 

When the boss saw what his former steward had done, he commended him for acting shrewdly.

 

Jesus applies the lesson of the parable. “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” (Luke 16:9).  

 

You may be saying to yourselves: “Okay. That’s interesting. But what is the lesson exactly that we are to draw here?”

 

If you asked yourself this question, you are not the first. The parable has confused readers throughout the centuries. The fourth century Roman emperor Julian the Apostate used it as evidence to argue for the moral inferiority of the Christian faith and its founder.

 

We can at least see how Julian may have arrived at his position. If Jesus was a great moral teacher, as most of the world has assumed at least since Julian’s time, then what possessed him to tell this parable? How can he approve of the actions of the unjust steward? And how can he commend him as an example for his disciples to follow? Does that mean he’s condoning unethical conduct here? And if so, how can one in good conscience maintain that he is a great moral teacher?

 

More recently, a Bible student had the audacity to say this:

 

The passage brings before us a new Jesus, one who seems inclined to compromise with evil. He approves a program of canny self-interest, recommending to his disciples a standard of life that is generally recognized as inferior. “I say to you, gain friends by means of money.” And that is not the worst of it; he bases the teaching on the story of a shrewd scoundrel who feathered his own nest at the expense of the man who had trusted him; and then appears to say to his disciples, “Let this be your model!”  

 

But is this really what Jesus is trying to say here? 

 

In the first place, let us remember that the parables of Jesus have a surprising list of unsavory characters. In addition to this steward are the unjust judge, the neighbor who does not want to be bothered in the night, even the good Samaritan, whom Jesus’ Jewish audience would have despised.

 

This parable is no different. The unjust steward is an unsavory character. But Jesus is not commending the steward to his disciples for his dishonesty. He acknowledges that what he did to his boss is characteristic of how children of this age deal with their own. The same cannot be said of the children of the light.

 

But, as Bible student Chelsea Harmon puts it, the “children of this age”—which includes the dishonest steward–“embody a truth that the “children of light” (which includes Jesus’ disciples) have not yet grasped: that what we do now is meant to be done in view of the future. In fact, it is good to “cheat the present” for the riches of the future.”

 

Of course, when Jesus talks about the riches of the future, he’s not talking about cars and homes and stock portfolios. He’s talking about the things that make us rich towards God. Just as the unjust steward took shrewd action in the present when he saw where his future was going, so the followers of Jesus are to carefully weigh current decisions regarding the use of their time and money with a view to their future—a future that does not lie within the horizon of this world, but the world to come. If they want to “feather their nest” they need to do it now, for they do not know how long they have, and they need to do it in ways that are rich towards God (Chelsea Harmon).

 

Some say that what we do, how we live, how we spend our time and money, makes no difference when it comes to life in the world to come, when it comes to the eternal homes, to repeat the words that Jesus uses in this parable.

 

If they don’t say it verbally, at least they say it by their lives.

 

It’s been said that if you want to know someone, look at what he has on his bookshelf. When I was in grad school, this is what I used to do whenever I was invited to a house party. Instead of going straight to the table where the drinks and snacks were served, I went to the bookshelf. If I saw books on health and fitness and diet, for example, I formed a certain impression of the kind of person the host of the party must be.

 

That is true enough. But it’s also been said that if you really want to know someone, then look at his bank statements. These will give you a more accurate, a more complete picture of who this person is. For they show you his interests, his loves, and his priorities. They show you where he truly lives his life, regardless of what he says.

 

Now make no mistake. You can’t buy your way into heaven. This is not what the church teaches, especially one that traces its descent from the Reformation. As you know, the Reformers absolutely rejected the practice of the buying and selling of indulgences, the buying and selling of masses for the dead, as if the purchase of these things can somehow get you into heaven, or otherwise improve your standing there.

 

Against this, the Reformers insisted that the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ is a free gift, which is to be received by faith.

 

That is true. But the question is: Do we really want this gift? Is it our true treasure? Do we have our hearts set on receiving it? “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21).

 

In the Gospel, Jesus presents this gift in terms of the kingdom of God, which is to come. It’s as if Jesus is making this appeal: “Do you really want this future that I am announcing, that I announce, embody and represent in myself?” What’s it worth to you? Are you willing to give up the pursuit of worldly wealth for it? Or rather, are use willing to use worldly wealth with a view to this future?

 

In this light, verse 9, which has occasioned confusion, makes sense. “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

 

Bible student Klyne Snodgrass gives a helpful paraphrase: “Put yourself in a good position through the use of your money, which can lead you astray, so that when the age is over God will receive you into his eternal dwelling.”

 

Greed and the love of money can easily corrupt us. Indeed, Jesus consistently teaches that money is a rival that competes with God for the allegiance of our hearts. “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 16:13).

 

We can understand this easily enough. Money promises to give us security. That is why we tend to accumulate and hoard it, to hold onto it with a tight grip. But God wants us to look to him for security. He promises to provide for us, to give us what we need.

 

This is nonsense to the world, and even to us in our natural selves, since we naturally distrust God. But as we grow in grace, we grow in our realization that God is faithful to his promise. And this changes our attitude to money and how we use it, as much as we have, for as long as we have it. 

 

According to Jesus, God will judge us for how we use our money. He will judge us for what we have done with what we have. When we have turned it into something in service to him, God is pleased. There is then the confidence that God will entrust to us true riches. God will give to us what’s our own.

 

So then, just as the steward’s boss in the parable demanded an accounting, so also God will demand an accounting from us. Let us be able to present to him what we have done with what we have so that we may hear from him: “well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:23). Amen. 

 

 

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