Sermon for Sept. 18, 2016: 18 Pentecost (Proper 20) Year C preached by The Rev. Kathie Galicia
The Parable of the Dishonest Steward
Last Sunday, we heard about the lost sheep and the lost coin, and I mentioned that Jesus liked to use the element of surprise, even shock, to capture his listeners’ attention. Today’s reading from Luke is another good example of that kind of a parable. The main character in Jesus’ story is not a very nice man. He is a dishonest steward, working for a rich man who learns that his manager is squandering his wealth. He is very good at thinking of sneaky ways to make money, and he comes up with a scheme that will save his bacon when he is thrown out on his ear.
Hearing this parable reminds me of a story I heard from Brian Terrell, who has been supportive of the HUB ministry in Stockton. That’s the group that Deacon Steve Bentley started as a ministry of St. John’s. The Hub provides bicycles to people who have no other means of transportation and who cannot afford to purchase a new bike. The staff collects donations of old bicycles and parts and assembles them into usable vehicles. Deacon Steven needed to get rid of a bunch of junk in order to make room for more useful items, and Brian stepped in to provide him with a big dumpster. Knowing that downtown Stockton is not always the safest place to leave things of value, the container was fitted with extra security in order to prevent the recyclable material from being stolen. Even with these extra measures, Deacon Steve found that someone managed, working diligently through the night, to overcome an eight-foot-tall cyclone fence and break into the container, stealing anything that might have any value.
Using intelligence, creativity, and hard work, thieves managed to thwart the formidable security of good people who are trying to make life a bit easier for those who have very little. We see this in the world of cyberspace, too, as we have all learned to be cautious of computer hackers who put their intelligence, creativity, and hard work into stealing information from good people who work hard to earn a living and contribute to society.
Like the dishonest steward, there are still people in the world who use their gifts not for good, but for criminal purposes. After learning that his job is in jeopardy, he calls in all of his master’s debtors. Notice how devious he is from the way he calls each of them in separately; he does not want them to talk to each other and compare notes. The dishonest steward makes each debtor an offer that is hard to refuse: he tells one to knock off 50% from his bill, and another to take off 20%. In his world, giving deep discounts to those who are indebted to his master is the solution to losing his job; he figures that they will be so grateful, they will take him in. He will never be in want for a decent meal, at the very least.
But here is the shocking part of the story: the landowner actually praises the dishonest manager for thinking up this scheme! Wouldn’t you think that the master would be enraged that his profits were being reduced even further by this dishonest man whom he had just fired? But no; as Jesus tells the story, the master commended the steward for his shrewdness, for “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” While this seems a little obscure, the next thing Jesus says seems quite clear, but is, once again, a bit shocking. He says, make friends for yourself with worldly wealth, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into your eternal home. It almost sounds as though Jesus expects us to bribe each other with money or services in order to ensure our survival not only in this world, but in the next!
I don’t think this is what Jesus wants us to believe. Rather, I think that Jesus is making a comment on the lack of shrewdness in his own disciples. He knew they were lambs in the midst of wolves! Christians should show the same enthusiasm for thinking up honest ways to advance the kingdom of God as that dishonest steward did in maintaining his material comfort. In other Scriptures, Jesus makes it clear that we are expected to use the material wealth we gain in our lifetime to benefit others who are not as fortunate. In the Gospel of Matthew, for example, Jesus advises us to “store up our treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:19-21) Jesus wants us to use material things as things, and not to make them into idols that distract us from taking care of each other. In this way, the dishonest manager was very wise, because he knew that by taking care of his master’s debtors, they in turn would take care of him.
As the parable in this passage from Luke closes, Jesus offers several more thoughts about wealth. He stresses the importance of taking responsibility for our material possessions. If we mismanage small amounts, we will never be trusted with anything more. But if we are faithful and honest in using what we have, we will gain even more. Jesus implies that our faithfulness in the area of money will be rewarded.
Jesus urges us to use our money wisely so that the eternal treasure of God’s kingdom is readily available to us when our earthly riches become useless. Money is a tool, without which we cannot function in this world. But if we make money more important than people, we can be sure that when we reach the end of our lives, we may die materially wealthy but we will be very, very lonely.
Jesus recognizes the danger that material wealth poses for each of us. There is a very real danger that our possessions may actually take possession of us! Jesus warns us that no one can serve two masters because we will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. This is strong language when we consider that Jesus is talking about God and wealth. He actually uses the word “mammon” to describe wealth, which seems to give it a very real personality and presence. Mammon is a word that would be recognized by anyone in Jesus’ time who spoke Hebrew or Aramaic; it is a word that conjures up the image of a false god. Some things have not changed very much in two thousand years; there is still a tendency in human beings to allow material wealth and possessions to become our master, a master that captures our attention at the expense of our love and devotion to God.
It takes a conscious effort to avoid the trap of mammon. To give our devotion and love to the Lord means having to recognize that all we have, all our worldly possessions and material wealth, come from God and belong to God. We are the stewards of God’s possessions. By managing them wisely, we can hope to be entrusted with what Jesus calls “the true riches” that we will receive when those worldly riches become useless to us. I don’t think Jesus wants us to emulate the dishonest manager in order to get to heaven. But perhaps we can try to remember that in spite of all our hard work and dedication to the process of earning and keeping money, in the end we, like that manager, will need to let it go and recognize our one true Master, Jesus Christ.