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Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 18, 2022
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
People can be very clever and creative and committed when it comes to feathering their own nests.
I received an email this week from someone asking for emergency financial assistance. They said they needed help with their rent. They had a compelling back story and just enough information to sound legitimate, so I emailed back. We have a system in place to handle these kinds of requests, so I started to help this person through that process.
It should have been a red flag for me right away when the person said they couldn’t come into the office in person to fill out the application, but I bought their excuse and emailed it to them, asking for a copy of the lease agreement as well so I would have something to verify. From there, little things started to make me increasingly skeptical. I spoke with the supposed property owner on the east coast, who sounded a little too rehearsed. When I asked where the property was, she stammered and said, “Harbor, Washington.” There were other details in the story that didn’t hold up. I discussed it with some of our staff and we agreed that it didn’t smell right. So I politely declined the request and provided our community resource list with other sources of help, just in case we got it wrong. The nasty response I got confirmed to me that it was indeed a scam.
I’ve been fielding these requests for more than two decades now, and so my BS detector is pretty sensitive. But in this case, they almost got me. I was pretty close to putting a check in the mail to a P.O. Box on the East Coast for someone I’d never met in person! As angry as it made me, I had to give them credit. They were clever. They were creative. They were committed.
This morning we hear Jesus tell a parable featuring a similarly scheming scoundrel. The parable starts with his boss bringing charges against him for squandering his property, so he already has a record of financial mismanagement, if not embezzling, and on his way out the door he comes up with a scheme. He’s too lazy to dig ditches and he is too proud to beg, so he goes to the people who owe his boss money and he starts to cook the books, slashing their debt. “How much do you owe? $100? Now it is $80.” He does this over and over again, so that he will have a network of support after he is fired.
This, by the way, is why when people are fired today they are often escorted from the building by security. Businesses don’t want disgruntled employees sabotaging their business or poaching their clients on the way out the door, which is exactly what this man seems to be doing!
You’d think that the boss would be furious when he finds out what has happened, and maybe he was. But what Jesus tells us in the parable is that the boss actually commended him! Maybe it was a begrudging commendation, but the boss had to admit he was clever! He was creative! He was committed! Perhaps the boss was a cutthroat businessman himself and recognized a good scheme when he saw one.
Now there’s a lot about this parable of Jesus that I don’t understand. I have a hard time fitting all the pieces together. It is hard to know when Jesus might be being sarcastic and when he is being earnest. I can’t make all the characters neatly line up as an allegory, where each one represents someone else. It is hard to know how exactly Jesus is using his protagonist, whether he is a Robin Hood-type hero or an admirably cunning villain. And it doesn’t help that there is no agreement among Bible scholars about any of this. Every single commentary I read about this passage this week started by saying something like, “This is Jesus’ most difficult parable to understand and there is no consensus on exactly what he means.” Thanks a lot!
But even with all the confusion and uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding this parable, there is one overarching theme that seems to be fairly clear. Jesus seems to be making the point that his followers, the children of light, should be as shrewd, as resourceful, and as driven as what he calls “the children of this age.” We are to be as clever and creative and committed about our stewardship of God’s gifts as the scheming manager in the parable.
The children of light, of course, are to do so faithfully – without the dishonesty, without the manipulation, without illegal or unethical practices. But we are encouraged to be similarly shrewd, similarly clever and creative and committed. We are to be faithful with the little things, so that we might be good and faithful stewards of the true riches God gives to us, the riches of his kingdom.
And so this parable, at least in part, seems to be about how resourceful and driven we are with the money entrusted to us. Are we both shrewd and faithful? Do we manage our money in such a way that our master would commend us? Are we bold and clever and committed with our finances so that the true riches of God’s kingdom can grow and flourish?
Many of you are! We make a point here at Oak Harbor Lutheran Church to protect your privacy in giving. There are only one or two people in the office who see who is giving what and I am not one of them, so I don’t know who gives what here, but I do know that we have people here who give regularly and generously to support our ministry. We have people who make additional gifts throughout the year to support our ministries of the month or when there is a need. We have people who give through their smartphones with our Tithely app or through electronic deposits through their bank. That’s clever! That’s committed! We have people who give additional gifts through their Thrivent Choice dollars and through the Amazon Smile program. We have people who have named our congregation as a beneficiary in their will with a planned gift. We have people who have established and given to and managed two endowment funds, which continue to generate money for ministry and for scholarships. How very shrewd all of this is! How very resourceful! Thank you!
This is all great. But I also know that it is part of our sinful nature for all of us to cling to that idol of money. We all want to feather our own nests, and we are equally clever in coming up with excuses for why we should hold on to our money for ourselves. You’ve probably heard the old observation that $20 looks like a lot of money when it is in the offering plate, but not like very much when you’re at the movie theater or the yarn store or the golf course or the book store. $100 seems like a lot to give to the church, but like nothing at all when you’re in the market for a new TV. $1,000 seems like a lot of money to tithe, but doesn’t seem like much for travel. Our relationship with money tends to bring out the scheming scoundrel in all of us. People can be incredibly clever in coming up with ways to appropriate God’s money for themselves.
“You cannot serve both God and wealth,” Jesus says. Money is important. We need it. But when we begin to look to money as the source of joy and security and meaning in our lives, it has become our god. There’s a reason Jesus says what he says here! Money is God’s greatest competition in the battle for our hearts. As Martin Luther wrote in the Large Catechism, “Money is the most common idol on earth.” Our hearts regularly cling to this idol. And when we’re clinging to this idol, we are not clinging to God. When we put our trust in our bank accounts, we are no longer putting our trust in God. When our chief purpose in life is to make money or to keep our money for ourselves, then our chief purpose is no longer to serve God.
This idol creates a distance between us and God. In the Bible that distance is often described as a debt. St. Paul describes sin as a debt. This language is even used in one version of the Lord’s Prayer, where it is said, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
Our worship of the fake god of money creates a debt that we owe to God. There is a debt we owe to God when he gives us all we have, and we live for the gifts rather than for the Giver, when we worship the gifts rather than the Giver, when we serve the gifts rather than the Giver. This is a debt we all owe. This is a debt we all need to have forgiven.
Thankfully, Jesus bears a bit of a resemblance to the clever manager in our parable today. You may not think this is a flattering comparison, but think about it – the Pharisees had been complaining about how Jesus had been squandering God’s kingdom as he welcomed sinners and ate with them. The Pharisees accused Jesus of being a law-breaker as he healed on the Sabbath. They wanted to fire Jesus as the Messiah, thinking he was doing the job wrong. Jesus was going around writing off everyone’s sin. He was going around cooking the books on the debt sinners owed to God as he went around proclaiming the forgiveness of sin. It looked like a big scandal to the Pharisees, and God the Father just grinned and commended him for it. God just patted him on the head and said, “You are my Son, my beloved, with you I am well-pleased.”
When Jesus died on the cross he said, “It is finished.” What Jesus says here in the biblical Greek can also be translated as “Paid in full.” It is a single word in Greek and it is the word that was stamped on the bills of the ancient world when an account was settled. This is what Jesus has done for us all. And so Jesus is at least somewhat like the shrewd manager in the parable – only Jesus didn’t just reduce our debt, he paid it in full. As St. Augustine said, the cross was a mousetrap for the devil, a clever scheme that sets us free from our debt. Talk about being clever, creative, and committed!
As we receive this forgiveness for our failures – financial or otherwise – our hearts are set free to live for the Giver and not the gifts, to worship the Giver and not the gifts, to serve the Giver and not the gifts. Our hearts are set free to cling once again to God and God alone.
And as our hearts cling to God, our hands don’t need to cling quite so tightly to our wallets, our purses, our checkbooks. Instead, we can be the clever, creative, committed stewards our Lord is calling us to be, so that the whole world might know the true riches of his grace.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church