I think most of us, when we are looking for guidance or advice, like to have clear, direct options; even if the choices are hard, at least we want to have clarity about what they might be. Probably the only time we like ambiguity is if we are reading a mystery novel, or watching a suspense film when obscurity and mixed motives and the occasional red herring just add to the enjoyment of the plot’s twists and turns. We certainly don’t want our spiritual or moral guidance to be ambiguous or hard to discern, and yet Luke
has presented us once again with a parable and Jesus’ own commentary on it that are very hard to grasp.
It’s known as the parable of the Unjust or Dishonest Steward, and it only appears in Luke’s Gospel, so we can’t even try to compare it to another version in Matthew or Luke. What makes this story so difficult is that the master/employer commends his steward/employee once he finds out that not only is the steward cheating his master, but then turning around and very shrewdly adjusting the accounts to the customers’ benefit. And part of Jesus’ commentary on this is that “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” – meaning essentially that those who are not trying to live by God’s values and purposes are often quicker and more willing to size up a difficult and ambiguous situation, and to act in their own behalf that people of faith are. So is Jesus really saying we are to be like the dishonest manager?
The steward – at this point still representing his employer - certainly found a way to give the customers a break (giving them what amounted to a rebate), which then made the master’s business look good and probably engendered some brand loyalty for him and maybe made him willing to give the steward a reasonable reference, and the steward curried favor and created an “in” for himself for a possible job with the customers – all at the same time. You have to hand it to him – that was pretty clever. And Jesus doesn’t want us to be naïve and foolish in our dealings with world; elsewhere in Matthew (10:16) he says: ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.’
OK, that seems fairly clear, but there’s still a lot of ambiguity here about what Jesus is asking us to do. He talks about being faithful in small ways and small amounts as the predictor of where we can be faithful in big ways and with large amounts of money. He also tells us that we cannot serve both God and wealth, comparing us to a servant or slave with two masters: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.”
Once again, this can be confusing and can make us uncomfortable; is Jesus saying that we shouldn’t care about money, or be concerned about things like paying the mortgage, funding our 401K, or saving to send our children to college? While God does care about the details of our lives, there’s a bigger, deeper question at work here. And that question is: as people of faith and followers of Jesus, what is our relationship with money? We all have one; some of us are intimidated by money – how to handle it, and so maybe we don’t make such good decisions about how to invest, save and spend; some of us may be envious of other people’s wealth – we work just as hard and maybe longer hours, why do they earn so much more than we do, or have a nicer house or a better car…that list can be endless, and debilitating.
Some people have made the pursuit of wealth, and the status that can come along with it, their highest goal and greatest good – regardless of what they have to do to accomplish this goal; and others – once they have achieved their financial goals – cling to their money for all they are worth, effectively saying: this is mine, I have earned it, and no one else can have a penny.
Now, I realize that I have drawn these different attitudes pretty broadly, and there are certainly lots of other ways to describe a person’s relationship with money – these are just a few; but they all start from the assumption that our primary loyalty and allegiance is to accumulating wealth, at whatever level. But Jesus challenges us on that, and offers us a different way. He urges us to love God, to make God our highest priority and greatest passion and loyalty, and then to order our decisions about how we make and spend and save money based on that. In other words, our relationship with God is what shapes and drives our relationship with money – not the other way ‘round.
So how does this work? It starts by recognizing, at a very fundamental level, that everything we have, everything we make or earn, everything we are, comes from God…as a gift, an expression of God’s bounty and God’s love for us. God has made us, and God knows us intimately, and God loves us enough that Jesus died and rose again for us – that’s a pretty heavy-duty investment on
God’s part. And because God knows us so well, God also knows what we need; God knows that we need to buy groceries, educate children, have a safe and comfortable place to live, celebrate the joy of friends and family, be enriched by art and music and beauty, have meaningful work and ways to use our talents and passions – that’s the way God made us, that’s what it means to be
human. God knows all of this. And what he asks of us is that we hold all that he has given us lightly, reverently, as a gift that we have done nothing to earn or deserve, a blessing.
We are stewards, God is the master, and we have been given the task of caring for God’s gifts, wisely, prudently, even shrewdly – God doesn’t want us to be foolish, after all – but we also take on this task and responsibility with a light and joyful heart, knowing that everything we have belongs to God in the first place. Once we get that straight, then we can more freely ask God how he wants
us to use his gifts, his bounty – including money. The answer will be as individual as each one of us and our circumstances, but there are some basics, some answers that apply to all of us:
- Be thankful for what you have, every day.
- Give some of it away – to God and for the benefit and joy of others.
- Let the way you earn and spend and save be an expression of your faith as a follower of Jesus.
- Pray for God’s guidance.
- Remember to say thank you.
Let us pray.
O Lord, giver of life and source of freedom, we know that all we have received is from your hand. Gracious and Loving Father, you call us to be stewards of your abundance, the caretakers of all you have entrusted to us. Help us to always use your gifts wisely and teach us to share them generously. Send the Holy Spirit to work through us, bringing your message to those we serve. May our faithful stewardship bear witness to the love of Jesus Christ in our lives. We pray with grateful hearts, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
~ Archdiocese of St. Louis
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Episcopal Church
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 22, 2013