A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va., on September 22, 2013.
Our scripture lesson this morning is one bizarre parable told by Jesus. It is about a rich man who discovered that his manager or steward was squandering his possessions. So the rich man called his steward into his office, and told him that judgment had arrived. The steward was fired, but before he turned in his keys, he had to show his master the ledger books and give an accounting of how he used the master’s money. So this steward cooked up a plan by cooking the books for the people who owed his master money. Why did he do that? He did it to curry favor with the people who were indebted to the rich man, so that, once he was out in the street, those people might think well of his master and him, and will give him a place to stay. So he went to his master’s debtors and reduced the amount of debt each person owed to the rich man.
I don’t know about you, but when I get to this point in the parable, I’m thinking, “Boy, what is this guy doing? He’s already been fired for wasting his master’s money, and now, he is manipulating the accounting books so that he’s squandering more of his master’s money! He’s digging himself deeper into a hole! Wait until his master finds out about this! This unrighteous steward is not only getting himself fired; he’s getting himself jailed!”
In the last decade or so, we have been exposed to corporate accounting scandals at Arthur Andersen and Enron, Worldcom, Freddie Mac, AIG (American Insurance Group), Lehman Brothers and others, and so, we’re sensitive to people manipulating the accounting books. We are outraged by highly paid CEOs who benefit from cooking the books while many ordinary investors, employees, and consumers are tragically hurt by those illegal practices. Our moral radar antennas go up and get active when we get to this part of the parable, and we expect the hammer of justice to come down hard on this dishonest manager.
I think that’s exactly what Jesus wanted us to expect before he pulls the rug from under our feet and says: “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” The master actually praised this steward for his actions! What we would consider to be totally unethical and illegal, this rich lord praised as “shrewd.” Now, Greek the word for “shrewd” also means “prudent,” “careful in regard to one’s own interests” and “wise in handling practical matters.” So, I don’t think this unrighteous steward was praised for being morally wise. I think he was commended for being “streetwise,” for having the sharp awareness to survive in a difficult situation. He was commended for his cunning resourcefulness in the face of being thrown out into the streets. The master was not praising him for his morals. In verse eight, this man was still described in the Bible as the “dishonest manager,” or the “unjust steward.” Notice also, that this man did not get his job back. He was still fired. So in my mind, I imagine the “commendation” of the rich master was one of begrudging admiration for the lengths to which this streetwise steward would go in handling a difficult situation.
Beth and I don’t go to see movies often, but one movie that we did get to see and thoroughly enjoyed was Ocean’s Eleven. It’s about a thief named Danny Ocean, played by suave George Clooney and ten of his accomplices as they try to rob three Las Vegas casinos at the same time. When we were watching it, we just couldn’t help but admire the sheer ingenuity and effort of those rogues in pulling off this caper. Now, I’m not advocating anyone here to go out and rob a casino. It was just a movie. But I suppose even in real life, we sometimes can’t help but admire the cunning and ingenuity that some people will show in order to pull off a scam, and in order to get a handout. But I’m not only talking about criminals and con artists here – think for a minute about the sneaky efforts and the tactical planning some toddlers demonstrate just to get a cookie! Or the masterful organizing that some teenagers do to avoid doing their homework. It doesn’t mean we morally approve of their actions. We don’t. And if only they would apply half the effort and ingenuity to a legitimate line of work, who knows how far they could go!
So that’s how I understand the rich lord’s commendation of the shady actions of this steward. Frankly, if I were the rich lord, there would be no praise, no grudging admiration. I’d just be really mad. For not only did the steward waste my money the first time around, which was why I fired him, but then he has the gall to reduce the debts so that I won’t receive all that I’m owed. This steward is basically robbing me twice!
It’s surprising to me that, the way Jesus told this parable, we get no sense that the rich master was mad at the steward. This unexpected reaction reminds me of the old Sprint commercial promoting its “Fair & Flexible Plans” for cell phones. We see a pompous business executive telling his assistant that he joined the plan so that, “No one can tell me what to do. I can talk when and how I want. It is my little way of ‘sticking it to the Man’.” The assistant is perplexed: “But, sir, you ARE the Man.” “I know,” responds the executive. “So you’re sticking it to yourself?” his aide asks. “Maybe,” the executive answers.
This commercial is ludicrous and funny, and so is Jesus’ parable, for this rich lord is basically praising the streetwise steward for “sticking it to him!” Once Jesus pulls off the joke, he then immediately tells his disciples: “For the people of this world are more shrewd, more streetwise, more careful in regard to promoting their own interests, than are the people of the light. I tell you,” Jesus continued, “use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”
From my perspective, Jesus told this parable as a funny, ironic setup for one of his major points: value relationships over money. The streetwise steward gave away his master’s money in order to secure friendships for himself and for his master. In my experience, the most successful fundraisers are those who are the best at developing relationships among potential donors. They make people feel valued, important and needed. As a child, what I really wanted from my parents was not money or toys or material things that they could give me. What I wanted from my parents was their time and their attention. As a pastor, I also understand that people give to churches not because we tell folks the amount of money we need to make budget. People give to churches and causes because they value the relationship they have to the people and to the cause.
In regards to money, what did Jesus teach to the children of light? Well, Jesus taught a lot concerning money, more than any other moral topic. But what I have in mind is Matthew 6:19-20, when Jesus said: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Jesus is telling us that it is in our best interest not to store up money on earth. Earthly money is not permanent. That kind of wealth is “easy come, easy go,” and we can’t take it with us after we die. Instead, Jesus teaches us that it is in our best interest to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven where moth and rust do not destroy, where thieves do not break in and steal.
How do we do that? Here we get to Jesus’ second point. The first point was value relationships over money. The second point is value God over everything else. First, we need to recognize that all our earthly money and possessions are not ours. Not our bank account, our investments, our homes, cars, clothes, pets, furniture, not our health, abilities, and talents. Everything we have belongs to God, and they are merely entrusted to us to manage. Secondly, we need to realize that one day, we too will face judgment day, and we will be called by our Master to give an account of what we’ve been entrusted to manage. Erma Bombeck once said, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me’.”
If we are not using every talent and every gift that God has entrusted to us to manage, then the question is, “Will we be streetwise enough to use our ingenuity and resourcefulness now to go to everyone we know and give away our master’s possessions in order to make them friends of God?” Specifically, will we use the finances, time, and abilities that God has given us to minister to neighbors and co-workers, the poor and the sick, the needy and the bereaved? If we do, we will make friends for ourselves and for our Master. Furthermore, we can also make friends for God by forgiving the debts of others—whatever they may be, financial, relational, emotional—because Jesus taught us to pray: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” This parable teaches that the debt people owe us is ultimately owed to God our Master. The really cool thing is that our God is such a rich Lord, He doesn’t mind us “sticking it to Him” because He has treasures galore that can never be depleted!
Our rich Master entrusts us with small things—like our current positions and salaries, our material possessions, our talents—to invest in His kingdom. Jesus says in verses 10-12: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?”
Ultimately, Christian stewardship is the spiritual discipline that helps us to become rich toward God. Giving to others in the name of Christ is vital to our spiritual health! God desires to give us true riches that will never fade or rust or be stolen, but first He asks us to be trusted with what He’s currently given us. While God’s riches are not earthly riches, what we do with our worldly wealth is an indication of whether we are ready to be entrusted with God’s true wealth. No parent entrusts a child with a credit card at the get-go. The parent begins with a small allowance, then a bigger one, then a checking account, and finally a credit card. But even with that, many of us are in debt with credit cards, and unfortunately, credit card companies don’t have dishonest managers who will forgive our debts. So we end up serving Master Card, which severely hinders our ability to fully serve Master Christ. Like Jesus said: “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” So value relationships over money, and value God over everything else.
Baptism is one way in which we publicly declare to the world that we value God over everything else. On this baptism Sunday, let us all remember that we worship a rich Lord who sent to us Jesus as a righteous steward, who forgave not just half of our debts, but our whole debt to our Master. In so doing, it didn’t just cost this steward his job, it cost him his life. And this righteous steward is now knocking at the door of our hearts waiting for us to give him a place to stay. Will we welcome Him, love and serve Him, or will we love and serve money? And in grateful response to what has been done for us, will we be streetwise and go and spread our Master’s wealth so that many more people may become friends of God?
Let us pray. Father God, thank you for your gifts to us. Help us to love you more than your gifts, and help us to share your gifts to others so that they too may come to love you. Amen.