Text: Luke 16:1-13
I have to admit, when I saw this text from Luke’s gospel pop up as one of today’s lectionary readings, I immediately thought, hmm… let’s see what the other passages are. I’ll pick one of them to preach on! After all, the story from Luke’s gospel is about a subject I would just rather not touch: it’s about money. And not only is it about money, it is also a confusing parable on top of that. So seriously, why not just avoid the trouble of trying to deal with it? The other passages I had to choose from I found to be much more preachable! But as much as I tried to avoid this story of Luke’s, God kept reminding me that it is these tricky and undesirable passages that probably need the most attention. So here I am, about to preach on the most uncomfortable topic and probably what many of us would consider to be the most personal and private: money. The gospel of Luke addresses the issue of wealth and poverty more frequently than any other issue. In fact, Next week, the gospel passage continues with this theme in the story of Lazarus and the rich man, so let’s consider today to be the first of a two part series on money. This isn’t just a call for you to put more money in the offering plate. It’s not just about tithing. These two gospel lessons we will explore actually call us to do something much more difficult and significant than that. So let’s begin with today’s story.
Today’s gospel lesson is one of the more difficult to understand of Jesus’ parables. It is a story that upon first glance, appears to advocate a dishonest use of money. The story begins with a rich man discovering that his steward has not been acting in a way that is financially responsible. We don’t know exactly what he has done. Maybe he has spent his master’s money too freely, maybe he has been stealing out of the petty cash, perhaps he made some book-keeping “errors”. Regardless, the story tells us that this steward has been accused of wasting his master’s goods. So naturally, the rich man fires the steward.
So now the steward is in a difficult position. He’s been accused of wrongdoing, and whether or not those accusations are true or false, he will have those rumors following him around, and now he also has no job, no stability. Like any person in his position, he is worried about his future, so he comes up with a plan. Before word can get out that the steward is no longer employed by the rich man, he goes to each of the people who owe the rich man some money and says, you owe 100? Pay 50 and we’ll call it even. You? 100? Pay 80 and that will do. That’s a smart move on the steward’s part! Those whose debts he lessened will see him as a generous man and will welcome him into their homes in the future. And of course, when the rich man discovers what this steward has done, he is probably not best pleased, but he does commend the steward for thinking on his feet and acting craftily.
So if that is the story, does that mean that Jesus is commending dishonesty? I mean, Jesus says, “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light! Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings!” At first read, that actually sounds like Jesus is saying, use your wealth to make friends! Is this what Jesus is actually saying? What does he mean?
Let’s take a closer look at the steward’s plan to ensure that he still has a future. Up until this point, the steward participates in an economy dictated by gaining and maintaining financial wealth. He is in charge of the rich man’s account. A good steward is one who not only keeps the wealth, but also multiplies it. We are reminded of this in Matthew’s gospel where the master entrusts money to each of his servants. While the master commends each servant who then goes and invests and multiplies the initial amount that was entrusted, the third servant goes and buries the money in the ground, doing nothing with it. This servant is then condemned. So that story reminds us that a good steward is one who multiplies financial wealth. The story today begins with the steward belonging to an economy that is dictated by gaining more and more material wealth. This is his initial priority. However, when he learns that he is about to be fired, his plan indicates a shift in priority. His new plan is not to go out and acquire money so he can live happily on retirement. Instead, he goes out and partially forgives his employer’s debtors of their debts. The steward is certainly not going to come out of this financially well. Instead of being driven by making more money, he offers instead generosity. Why? So that they may welcome him into their homes. What we see here is a shift from money as a priority to relationships.
I am going to rely now on one of my professors from Duke to help me make some more sense of this parable. Sam Wells is a professor of Christian ethics at the Divinity School, and he is also the Dean of Duke Chapel. He has a real knack for making sense out of tricky passages, and has some helpful insight for us today.
Sam Wells says that in this story, we find two different economies that are meeting head on: an economy of scarcity, and an economy of abundance. The rich man’s world is driven by this first economy: the economy where there is concern that there isn’t enough to go around, where one needs to multiply his individual wealth to make sure that he can stay on top. This is an economy motivated by fear, and consequently greed. I have to make sure, that in a world with a limited amount of cake, that I at least get what I deserve on my plate. The bible would probably call this economy the economy of mammon. Mammon is the word used in Luke 16:13 to describe material wealth and greed. The other economy is the one that the steward discovers after he has been fired: the economy of abundance. This is the economy of relationships, of community. When the steward finds his economy up a creek without a paddle, he realizes that it may be time to invest in someone else’s. It may be time to make a shift from thinking about personal financial gain to the wealth that comes through being in relationship with other people. The bible would probably call this economy the economy of manna. Manna was the food that God gave to the Hebrews in the wilderness, and there was always more than they needed. It only dried up when they tried to take more than they needed. The manna was for everyone, and it was freely given by God. Manna is characterized by grace.
In a sermon he preached on this text, Sam Wells sums up this passage in these words: “What happens in scene three of this story is that the manager gives up trying to squeeze people for a living and starts making friends instead. He realizes the friends are more important than the money—or even the job. He moves from mammon to manna, from an economy of scarcity and perpetual anxiety to an economy of abundance and limitless grace.”
So that might all sound good in theory, but what does that actually mean for how we live our lives? We live in a world where we have to make money in order to buy food, have shelter, and provide the appropriate care for our families. If we don’t get a paycheck, we will undoubtedly be facing all kinds of anxieties. Why is this? Because we primarily see ourselves as individuals and individual family units. We must be self-sufficient in taking care of ours and our own. But as Christians we now have a new definition of “ours and our own.” Being a Christian is not just about personal salvation. It’s not something that just happens between me as an individual and God. Being a Christian is about more: it is about being a part of a community called the Body of Christ. In this community, relationship is the priority. In this community, “ours and our own” takes on a new meaning. Or at least, it is supposed to. Unfortunately though, when we become Christians, that doesn’t automatically snap us out of living according to an economy of mammon.
Let me tell you a story about a particular Christian community that thrived not on the economy of mammon, but on the economy of manna. This was a poor community in Jerusalem. They didn’t have a whole lot of financial wealth and most would probably consider them to be living on the margins of society. Most of the people who joined the church did not necessarily have very much money to put in the offering plate, but they became one of the fastest growing churches that the world has seen. Why? Because the people in this community knew how to take care of each other. They weren’t out to gain as much money as they could for themselves and their family; rather, they considered their individual families to be a part of the larger faith family. They were not surrounded by people who just happened to be fellow-congregants, they were surrounded by new brothers and sisters in Christ, and they truly treated one another as such. This faith community shared everything with one another. They pooled their possessions and their wealth together and used it to help out anyone who was in need. They came together for frequent meals and extended generosity to one another. Individuals weren’t afraid of sharing their own resources with others. They weren’t driven by a fear of scarcity.
The community that I just described is the first community of Christian believers we find in Acts 2. Do we really look very similar? What economy is driving us as a Christian community? What today’s parable is suggesting to us is that we, as a community of faith, need to be shrewd. We need to be creative. We need to start thinking about not only our financial wealth in a new way, but one another in a new way as well. To be a Christian means to be a part of community that is characterized by generosity: that lives not by mammon but my manna; a community that lives by an economy not driven by scarcity, but by abundance. This means that we must truly begin to see our brothers and sisters in Christ as true brothers and sisters. It means we have to go beyond the lip service of these labels. Sometimes being a part of a community means we must give generously, forgoing the temptation of the sin of greed. Other times it means we must allow ourselves to receive the generosity of others without letting the sin of pride get in the way. We all face the temptation of self-sufficiency, and this can manifest itself through greed or pride. We may be in a more challenging economic time, this is true. Your own household may be struggling to make ends meet. But if we are to belong to the Body of Christ, then that means that we are no longer alone and we have to relinquish the damaging myth of self-sufficiency. We aren’t supposed to be left to fend for ourselves. Not only does our attitude in general need to be adjusted regarding our own wealth, but we also need to “put our money where our mouth is.” I myself am a chief offender when it comes to this. This is not a task that can or will happen overnight, but I will leave you today with two things: a question and a prayer. First the question: which economy are you living in? The economy of mammon or of manna? And second, a prayer for us all: Almighty God, whose loving hand has given us everything that we have: grant us the grace that we need so that we can honor you with everything that we are, and remember that you have called us to live lives reflecting grace and generosity rather than selfishness and greed. Teach us to be shrewd and faithful stewards who always value relationships above personal wealth. We cannot do this without you. In the name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.