Sunday, 19 September 2010

Balancing the scales

Sunday 19th September 2010

Readings: 1 Timothy 2 v 1-7
            Luke 16 v 1-13

There was an interesting legal question posed in The Expository times recently, a magazine I don’t often find myself reading. But this article intrigued me:
It seems that one lovely Sunday when the sermon was overlong, the congregation rushed, as usual, from its pews on the first syllable of "Amen!"
Faithful Abigail, the only worshiper held entranced by the sermon, moved more slowly than the others and was trampled underfoot.
She duly sued the church and its officials for damages.

"Those in charge of the church know that most of the congregation stampedes after long sermons," Abigail argued. "They should have recognized the danger in the situation. Not being prepared to cope with it, they were negligent."

The church's lawyer argued like this in response: "A church is a non profit organization staffed for the most part by volunteers.
No one has a right to expect it to be run with the smart efficiency of a business concern.
Abigail, therefore, has no real claim."

If you were the judge, asks the writer, would you award damages to Abigail?

What I found interesting in this hypothetical situation was the characterization of the church. "A church is a non profit organization staffed for the most part by volunteers. . . No one has a right to expect it to be run with the smart efficiency of a business. . . ."

Why not?
What if we were as good at what we do as McDonald's is at what they do, or Coca Cola or Microsoft or Apple Mac?
What if we were as committed to spreading the good news of the kingdom of God as commercial business is to winning new customers?
This is the point Jesus is trying to make in our gospel this morning.
Jesus wants people who bear his name to not only be nice people but to be people who make a difference in the world.

The Pharisees are standing off to the side watching Jesus as was their custom.
Jesus’ disciples are listening intently as he tells his story. A large number of followers are gathered around.
Jesus tells them about a steward who handled the business affairs of a wealthy man.
But the steward has squandered his master’s money; he was reckless and wasteful.
Then he does something so shrewd and so conniving.
As he is cleaning out his desk and clearing out his things he calls in his master’s debtors, those who had outstanding accounts, and he cuts those debts in half.
You owe 800 gallons of olive oil? Write me a check for 400 and we will call it even.
You owe a thousand bushels of wheat?
Write me a check for 800 and we’ll consider it cancelled.
He forgives the debts that are not his to forgive, and he gains friends in the process.
And, the strangest thing of all, when his boss finds out, he commends him for his actions.

So what is Jesus’ point in telling this story?
That’s a question that folk have been struggling with for a long. long time.
As you may have gathered by now, I like to preach from the lectionary – the bible passages set out through the year – and that means that sometimes, maybe even often, it’s necessary to wrestle with difficult texts.
I often find myself working with passages that I’d love to avoid.
Today’s gospel is one of those.
Just what IS Jesus trying to teach here?
That it’s OK to rip folk off?
That when the chips are down, we can all play Robin Hood – robbing the rich to feed the poor?
Who knows?
What I’ve also learned from studying some of the more difficult parts of Jesus’ teaching is that sometimes it’s Ok not to understand.
Not everything is clear cut.
Not all of Jesus teaching makes sense.
And that’s OK.

But there are some pointers in the text, layers of meaning that we can glean even if it doesn’t all make total sense to us.

First, Jesus is explaining the wise use of worldly wealth.
It is often said that one of the wisest things you can do with your money is give it away.
It’s not the only thing but it’s one of the wisest things. Jesus tells us that if we are generous in this life, we will be rewarded in the next life.

We often get this wrong in the church.
We come up with lots of reasons why we should give.
We try the business approach.
We give because we need 5% more money this year over last year.
We try flattery. You have the means; only you can give this amount.
We try guilt trips. “You are wealthier than 95% of the worlds population.
We give for every reason except the right reason.
Giving because Christ supremely gave.
Giving, because, we are not truly human until we become a giver.
Giving to keep grace alive within us.
Giving because it reflects the nature of a God who gives.

Those are the reasons we should give but Jesus has a very strange way of making this point.
The dishonest steward gains friends by cooking the books. His master then commends him.
Commends him for his dishonesty?
Jesus doesn’t even call it dishonest.
He calls it shrewd.
Then the story ends and Jesus uses this unethical man to make a religious point:
“People of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of light.”

People can be pretty ruthless in their business dealings, taking care of their bottom line.
But why are we to be that way?
After all, we ARE the people of light.
We are not the people of this world, the people of darkness.

So are we really to take as our model a careless man who is dishonest to the core?
The answer would appear to be: Yes!
But not because he’s a scoundrel.
He becomes our model because he used his resources.
It’s not his actions that Jesus commends.
It is simply that he acted.
It is not for his selfishness that Jesus commends him; it is for his assertiveness.

We Christians don’t have that same tenacity toward the things of God.
I tell you, Jesus said, use worldly wealth to gain earthly friends so that in eternal dwellings you’ll find a heavenly home.
The crooked steward acted to ensure his own livelihood. We, on the other hand, are not to increase our standard of living; we are to increase our standard of giving.
Because in the end, when all the money is gone, how we have used our resources here will determine our welcome up there.

That leads us to the second point that Jesus might be making.
Trustworthiness is measured by character.
Let me ask you. Who would you trust with your money?
I think Jesus speaks for all us when he says that the person who can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much.
Watch how someone handles the little things and you’ll know how they handle the big things of life.
Faithful in little. Faithful in much.
That’s the principle.
That’s the acid test for character.
Events where honesty is needed in the little things.
If you have not been trustworthy with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?
That’s Jesus’ question for you and me.
All the resources that have been placed in our care here on earth are but small tests.
How we use earthly things tells our Lord how we will use spiritual things, what he calls True Riches.

And what are “True Riches”?
What spiritual things or eternal things is Jesus talking about?
Jesus doesn’t actually name them but how about the partners we love, the children we nurture, the home we keep, the work we do, the money we make, the friends we enjoy, the neighbours we know, the strangers we meet.
We have been entrusted with these.
Do we have character?
Have we been found trustworthy?
Are we responsible with these earthly riches?
If so then we will have true riches in heaven, what ever they may be.
Our worldly wealth.
Use it graciously, responsibly, with fidelity.
Our futures depend on it.

And that is why, thirdly, Jesus said : We cannot serve both God and money.
The family and friends and resources we have been entrusted with are only temporary.
God is eternal.
We can’t make the mistake of putting our trust in worldly wealth.
We live in a temporary world that has eternal consequences.
Lets use wealth wisely, be faithful with the little things, and devoted to our God.
All of us have been entrusted with much.
Lets use it generously – for the glory of God.

1 comment:

Dot said...

Thanx for this, Liz, gives a very clear perspective on this passage. Blessings. Dx