Sermon for Proper 20, Year C
September 18, 2016
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 Psalm 79:1-9 1 Timothy 2:1-7 Luke 16:1-13
Theologian William Barclay begins his commentary on today’s reading from Luke by saying: “This is a difficult parable to interpret.” I didn’t have to read his commentary to know that. Jesus tells us a parable about a manager who, upon learning he is being fired, cooks the books so that the people he has been doing business with will be indebted to him. So far this is just another story which we assume will provide us an example of God’s displeasure with evil doers and God’s pleasure with those who do the right thing.
Unfortunately, that is not the direction this parable is heading. Instead, we are told, ” His master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” It is safe to assume that this rich man is himself shrewd and appreciates that quality in others. To him life is a game to be won by whatever means necessary. The master often plays the part of God in parables, but we don’t get that impression here.
The comparison between the children of this age to the children of the light is also confused by what Jesus says next, ” I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Children of the light refers to the righteous, while children of this generation appears to refer to people who have lost their way. So this is saying that the unfaithful are more clever than the faithful – which might just be another way of saying that they are more intentional and they spend more time making plans to accomplish what they want, than do the righteous.
Do we, as Christians, invest as much time planning to do God’s will, to being faithful AND caring for others as we do seeking ways to enjoy ourselves. Here is where you might wish I hadn’t read Barclay’s commentary. He says:
People expend twenty times the amount of time and money and effort on pleasure, on hobbies, gardening or sport as they do their church. Our Christianity will begin to be real and effective when we spend as much time and effort on it as we do our worldly activities.
Please note that he is not suggesting we need to spend as much time at church as we do on recreational activities, but he is saying that we should spend as much time and effort on being a Christian as we do these other things.
For some, gardening, hobbies, and other “worldly activities” can be a spiritual experience. I like to walk. I often spend my time walking in prayer. Creative activities can free our minds from the mundane and open our hearts to God. Sometimes, though, I just walk and I forget to pray. Barclay is reminding us that being in a relationship with God requires effort and time. As we read on in this parable, we hear this from Jesus as well.
In the last two verses of today’s passage, Jesus says, ” 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. You cannot serve God and wealth.” This parable may be confusing, but there is nothing confusing in this message, “you cannot serve God and wealth.” This parable is about what we value most – God, or our own comfort. And what we value is reflected in how we spend our time, our energy and our money.
I believe this to be the key to unlocking this parable. When Jesus speaks of “dishonest wealth,” he is referring to material goods and money – not necessarily that which is acquired by deceit or thief. Thus Jesus says, ” I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Making friends by dishonest wealth means sharing what we have with others rather than hoarding it for ourselves. In the parable the shrewd manager creates for himself a group of people who are indebted to him, who would have reason to take them into their homes. But when Jesus tells us to share what we have with others, he then says it is so they will welcome you into their “eternal homes.”
This parable is about making a spiritual home for ourselves. We do this by sharing what we have. We do this by making an effort to do God’s will. Barclay notes, “Possessions are not in themselves a sin, but they are a great responsibility, and those who use them to help their friends have gone far to discharge that responsibility.”
He makes another point about our material possessions and what Jesus says. The two verses that talk about being faithful with very little and being faithful with dishonest wealth are told to remind us that this dishonest wealth – our worldly possessions, are not really ours. They are instead on loan to us in this life. Jesus says:
If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?
In the parable, the manager has been entrusted with the rich man’s property – just as we have been entrusted with whatever we have in this life. To say that anything that we have is ours is dishonest. Every single thing that we have belongs to God and we are nothing more than stewards of what our laws say that we own.
Jesus is challenging us to invest in our spiritual self by using what has been entrusted to us wisely. Parables often raise questions in our minds. I think this one raises more than most. I’d like to have been told more in hopes that its message would become clearer. But then, hearing that I cannot serve God and wealth might just be more than I can handle. Suggesting that how I spend my money says something about my priorities makes me uncomfortable. That just might be the whole point of this parable – to make us uncomfortable. Being a Christian is not, after all, about being comfortable. Being a Christian is, instead, about learning to share our time, our talents, and our money supporting one another; living in community; and being faithful to our God.
Let us pray.
Loving and gracious God, help us to remember that all that we have does come from you and that what we have been given is for us to do your will. Help us to make you our master and to love and serve only you. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.