Sermons That Work

All Throughout Scripture…, Proper 20 (C) – 1998

September 20, 1998

All throughout scripture there is attention paid, and tension within, the relationship between money and piety. Money and possessions signal God’s blessing in many stories. God’s blessing follows those who live an upright and righteous life. There almost seems to be a quid pro quo equation between having money and possessions and the assumed goodness of the person who has them. However, from both Jesus’ story, and in Amos this morning, we hear about the peril of such assumptions. Jesus’ story this morning is a story about making choices, about pursuing with determination and zest, and with whole-heared creativity, the path that has been chosen. At first hearing, this story probably inspires a collective, “What? What was that all about? This bible stuff has reached new heights of obscurity today!” Admittedly, it takes a little unpacking, but it’s well worth the effort.

It is important to remind ourselves of the setting of this story. As there is no indication that there has been a scene change in the movement of Jesus, we can assume he is still at the same dinner party where he is sitting with outcasts and sinners… and a group of Pharisees whose nose’s are out of joint. They are on the Search. How best to live, is the question they pursue with zeal and this new teacher has some compelling, though sometime odd, insights. Throughout the party, Jesus has offered the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Two Lost Sons (or the Prodigal Son). The three stories about God’s love, not rejection, of sinners and outcasts, plus the setting of their telling in an intimate table fellowship, give the disciples and the other guests an experience of how good God’s desire for them can be when they are together. The appropriate attitude towards “outcasts and sinners” is an open heart, one that instructs through the love that expresses itself in willing the best for another, no matter where that other comes from, or what treatment popular opinion says they deserve.

I can imagine that Jesus’ audience has had a vast array of visceral responses to these stories. The parables go right to the heart of identity issues: how does God see us? how do they shape how we see one another? how do I convince myself of my righteousness or goodness by making others less than I am? We are known by the company we keep and if Jesus’ stories have had any impact, this group is about to begin keeping new company. They will be breaking down ancient barriers, re-arranging their vision of God, and opening themselves to new lives shaped by a new vision of who they are, formed by God and not popular opinion. Jesus is no dummy. He knows that one of the biggest divisions in any setting, in any time, between people is between those who have and those who have not. The next issue he examines for this fledgling new community is the faithful use of a disciple’s worldly possessions. Apparently “all sorts and conditions” of people are present in the room. Every person around the table is addressed in the next story.

As if to drive home the point, Jesus next tells an outrageous story that has some pretty dicey ethics, at best. To say that Jesus is encouraging his hearers to “think outside of the box” is an understatement, but in so doing he illustrates the zeal and determination he is seeking from his disciples to choose the Kingdom of God and live in it. So, he tells the story of the Shrewd Steward. Richard Obach and Albert Kirk in their commentary on Luke have a great description of the story:

“As the parable unfolds, a servant is about to be dismissed for wasting his employers money; he was neglecting his responsibilities. The servants future looks very bleak. Beggary awaits him because he lacks the strength for manual labor. As he ponders the bind he is in, he receives a flash of insight and realizes how he can solve his dilemma. He then makes a decision that has a bearing on his entire future – the security of being welcomed into the homes of his master’s former creditors, he reduces their indebtedness by giving up his rightful commission. As a steward he had a right to a percentage of what he collected for his employer. The employer praises the steward, not for his earlier neglect of his duty, but for having the foresight to give up his commission for the sake of what would be needed later on when he had no job…”

The moral of the story is that Jesus wants his hearers to see that the choice before them is of the same magnitude as that of the steward. Their whole future hangs in the balance. Jesus wants them, like the Steward, to be shrewd, daring and willing to sacrifice for the future. This is an all or nothing proposition. The people, in fellowship around the table that evening, have already tasted something new in what life can be. Jesus is asking if this is going to be a one night stand or do they see the crucial importance of re-orienting the way they live to the Kingdom’s standards and values?

It is very important to see in this parable that Jesus cracks up the old equation of justification. If you have lots of stuff, God’s blessing is on you and if you don’t have anything it’s because you’ve lived a unrighteous life. Jesus neither condemns or condones having money and possessions. It is the choice to serve God, seeking God’s Kingdom and its righteousness, that will shape the believers’ relationship to their money and possession. We may have a little, we may have lot, just as the people around Jesus’ table that night long ago. Regardless of how much we have, we still have to decide how to use it.

The sayings of Jesus that follow the parable answer many of the questions that probably were buzzing in the heads of the people at the party. “If I am to give myself to God’s Kingdom and I am family, kin, in equal status with everyone here, how do I use what I have? ” “If I have lots, what do I give and receive; if I have little, what do I give and receive?” Jesus says, “Make friends with money!” In other words, get lots of it. Go for it so that you can use it, direct it, for God’s purposes. Ask, seek, knock to find out what God wants done with money and then do it! Make lots for God, spend lots for God. Not just skimming the surplus, but going the whole hog. Andrew Carnegie, builder of libraries, universities and museums, understood this principle. He said that a man who dies with all his wealth dies ashamed. Jesus says, walk the Kingdom’s ways now, so you will know how to get there later on; build riches that last unto eternal life. Money spent helping others teaches us to live as God does, giving and giving to build the other up, to widen the river of blessing, whose living waters nourish creation. Being faithful to God in the riches of this world, even though it is nothing to the One who can make the Crab Nebula as well as a buck, teaches us the way of uniting our lives and wills with God. In right stewardship of money we learn God’s ways in the here and now in order to take our place as contributors to the uplifting of creation, to be creative and blessed. In so living now, we taste the eternity that is foundational to the Kingdom and the joy that only fulfilling God’s desire can bring.

All throughout these sayings, however, Jesus is clear. Money is not and can never be the end in itself. If the end of our working is money alone, without its ultimate use in mind first, we will be shaped – or should I say stunted – by the values that money for money’s sake engenders. Money, when it is a vehicle for God’s love, will take us far along our spiritual journey through our interactions of working and giving to those whom God seeks to build up. For money to be a vehicle, we have to be faithful in our relationship to it. The money is not ours, it is God’s. We’re the stewards. If we keep the money, thinking it is ours with an occasional tip for God, we are, in fact and indeed, the roadblocks, the impediments, for the Kingdom’s presence in the present. We are servants of an idol. An idol is anything that takes God’s place in our lives and I think there’s nothing easier from which to make an idol than money. We think that what it will do, bring, provide will give us our lives, our happiness, our identity. Wrong. The prophet Amos puts it pretty plainly, and Jesus resounds this theme, that money pursued for itself becomes an idol, demanding service and sacrifice that has nothing to do with God’s Kingdom and everything to do with our own little ego fiefdoms. The end of money that is sought for itself, for myself alone, however, leads to smallness, not greatness of spirit. The power of mammon serves itself and sees no wrong, or more aptly put, does not see the suffering of widows and orphans, sinners and outcasts, because they are not a part of the picture of making more mammon. They exist within a secondary or utterly ancillary field of meaning and purpose that has to do with mammon’s leftovers. If there is time, I will… but the key problem to serving mammon as an end in itself is that, ultimately, it leaves no extra time or energy. Mammon is exclusive. It wants no other company. Mammon has its own self-corroborating reality and justifications. Mammon is consumptive. Mammon is destructive on its own because it demands that we treat others, sisters and brothers as Jesus has identified them, as objects easily sacrificed to the getting of more mammon.

And neither Amos nor Jesus were fools. They knew that the servants of mammon frequented the Temple. They sat in the places of honor at Yahweh’s casts, even as they asked, in smug sighs of those going through the motions in order to exploit the potential that results from giving the right appearances, “When will the New Moon festival be over that we can get back to the real business of selling grain? (that is, making mammon)?”

The only way to “tame” mammon is to deprive it of its idol status and revert it to servant status. The only way to do this is to seek first the Kingdom of God, to commit your life and faith, your identity and your pocketbook with as much earnestness as the crafty steward. We have to choose who will we serve, we can’t serve both. We can’t have the Kingdom of God and the idol of mammon. Our identity and being is shaped by who or what we serve. In one temple, we are the servant who thinks he is the master. In the other temple, we are family welcomed home and full partakers of the fruits of our Father in Heaven.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Even as Joshua was called to state his declaration three millennia ago, so, too, are we called to state our allegiance today. “Jesus calls us to name it and claim it; to go for it full steam ahead and cry with joy, like Joshua, “Choose this day whom you will serve. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Amen.

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Christopher Sikkema


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