Text: Luke 16:1-13
Date: Pentecost + 8/5/07
Jesus said it simply, making it very clear: “You cannot serve God and money.” But when we hear that we get confused. How do we handle that? For isn’t that exactly what we as Christians are forced to do in this world, serve both God and money? Are not our days spent precisely with the task of juggling unrighteous wealth on the one hand and the true riches on the other without dropping either of them? So we don’t like to hear him say that, or at best just don’t understand.
The parable is called “The Parable of the Dishonest Steward.” And that he is called dishonest poses something of a puzzle. We’ll agree that he was shrewd, clever, a sharp operator—but how, pray tell, can Jesus hold up a dishonest cheat as any kind of example for us? As the steward of a rich man he had been accused of graft, corruption, dishonesty, and though the charge had not yet been proven, without a hearing, without due process, the big boss simply ordered his dismissal. “What is this that I hear about you?” he charged. “Turn in your books. You’re fired.”
This was obviously a crisis hour for that steward as those well know who, just as things were going smoothly and the bills were paid and the family had enough to eat and one could afford a round of golf at Oakland County prices, suddenly the job or position was gone. For some of us it would be like having social security cut off, the pension fund go broke, and losing all our investments at the local Savings and Loan. The steward lost his job and his options suddenly narrowed. His first option, of course, would be to fairly close out the accounts making sure that the master got his rightful claims, collect the outstanding debts and turning in the books with every cent accounted for. But his situation made him wonder whether he was really obligated to be sure the rich man’s pockets were lined at the expense of those less fortunate who owed the money. Wouldn’t it really be the wiser course of action, he thought, to be certain that this old skinflint got his due? His only other options were to get a job in the trenches and dig for a living, but he had this back problem in the lower lumbar region which would never tolerate that. Or option three was to get out and beg, but for that he was ashamed—a man of his position one day turning beggar on the next.
And so the sleepless night went on. You know what that feels like, don’t you? Oh, maybe you were lucky enough to go to bed at your normal time, but when 4:00 a.m. came along, or 2:30 a.m. you were wide awake, making the coffee and finding out that there’s nothing worth watching on the tube at that hour in the morning. Finally, however, at last, the answer dawned on him, and he could plot a course of action. “By golly,” he said to himself, “I know what I’m going to do!” And so he called in the master’s debtors one by one, in private. “How much do you owe? How much is your mortgage? How large a payment do you have on the carriage in your garage?” And by a not-so-little manipulation of the books (actually having each debtor write out a “replacement” contract!) he reduced each of their debts and put them under debt to himself. He made friends with the wealth of unrighteousness. And in this way, out of gratitude to him, these new friends would help him through the crisis and make it possible for him to get another start. When the big boss heard about this, he could only shake his head in wonder, saying, probably, “Touché! That sly fox really got ahead of me on that one.” He was impressed because like good Americans he could recognize a fast one when he saw it. And the master commended the dishonest steward for his prudent wheel and deal. And there you have it: how to serve two masters at the same time.
But now back to the surprising detail that Jesus, as he told this parable, seems to offer this dishonest steward as somehow an example for us to emulate. “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light” he says.
Well, of course, it is not the dishonesty of the man that Jesus is recommending. The steward’s dishonest act made sense only by the moral standards of the world—looking our for number 1. We can recognize that easily enough.
The main theme of the story is money, the unrighteous wealth—what one does with it, how one invests it, and, as importantly, what that money and the investment of that money does with us. And that’s perhaps the reason why this parable of Jesus is among the least familiar of his many parables, one to be avoided like the plague, for most of the difficulties people have with God and most of their attempts to escape him are not theological or doctrinal at all, but are found at the point where the unrighteous wealth gets mixed up in our lives—money, creature comforts, possessions, investments, taxes, interest rates—as from sunrise to sunrise one thought consumes us: how can I get enough, build my empire, insure security after 65, ignore the appeals of human need, and keep myself solvent and happy? The truth is we do not possess wealth so much as we are possessed by it, in bondage just as bleak as Israel’s in Egypt. We want to be rich in things, even as we are indifferent to being poor in soul.
Now the truth is that our Lord was right not wrong when he said, “No servant can serve two masters.” But hear him out, please, to the end. That’s the way the children of the world maneuver and if they can be that sharp and prudent, clever and aggressive in the use of money for the service of themselves, then how much more so the sons of light should be in using money for the service of their God? And here it must be told what it means to live as children of light in the midst of the world, to be mixed up with the wealth of unrighteousness and thus to live with dirty hands, and yet, at the same time, to live joyfully under the forgiving goodness of our Lord. Jesus could commend this fellow because at least he used his money FOR something, albeit to serve his own ends (even as we so often do). But at the same time it serves as a demonstration of what the children of light can do on their level. The man had little time left. Soon he must be separated from all the wealth that he had in his charge, and so in that brief respite, he just let it fly. He gave it to people who needed it, performed a work of mercy, and by that work made friends.
And this is precisely what Jesus turns into a parable for our own life, and what he means when he says, “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”
It is clear that all of us, likewise, have little time. One day we will be left destitute, when we will stand naked before God, stripped of everything in which we placed our confidence. We will stand before the throne of God without a house, without money, without reputation, in utter poverty. And in that place where money is neither received nor spent, where all our values have been turned upside down, in that place God will ask, “Who can testify for you?” And then perhaps there may be someone who will witness, “He once gave his last penny for me.” “He put me on my feet when I was a refugee,” and your God will say, “Blessed are you my faithful child. You have made the unrighteous wealth righteous, for you used it to feed the hungry and the poor, to clothe the naked.” We look over to see who it is that says he was helped by us and we see…Jesus, our faithful witness! “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, thirsty and you gave me something to drink, naked and you clothed me.”
It has been said that the only thing we can take with us is what we gave away to human need. Therefore, we can turn unrighteous wealth into righteous wealth. We can let it fly because it isn’t ours in the first place. We can spend it like it’s going out of style. We have been purchased from its slavery so that we don’t belong to money any more.
The Lord who told this parable has cast new light across our pathway and around our lives, and in that light it is impossible for us to go furiously acting only in our selfish interests anymore, or even flaunting it to get the admiration of the throngs for selfish interests. In this light it can no more be called the wealth of unrighteousness, for now it is in your hands, the sons of light, where it responds in haste to hunger of the body and starvation of the spirit, pain and sorrow, poverty and need. That same dollar bill that passed through shady deals in the hands of greedy grafters, multi-million dollar athletic stars, that was laundered (a strange name I have to say) through Swiss Banks for drug kingpins, that dollar bill is now in your hands as the children of light. It has been redeemed because you are redeemed.
It was overheard in a restaurant, in the next booth, someone making a joke, saying, “Jesus saves, but Moses invests.” Well, Jesus saves, indeed, but in the saving he has made a great investment, and the investment he has made is you. As the Apostle Paul said it, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards” not that they be found successful, but “that they be found trustworthy,” faithful [1 Corinthians 4:1-2 (ESV)]. Let that be the last word, then, that we take with us from this parable: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” [Rev. 2:10 (ESV)].