Saturday, 21 September 2013

Prudent Stewardship

Luke 16:1-13
The Parable of the Dishonest Manager
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer. ’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes. ’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master? ’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil. ’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty. ’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe? ’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat. ’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty. ’ And 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. And 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.
“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 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? 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.”

And 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.

Did we really read that in our gospel today?
And did Jesus really say: If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?
This is another of those gospel passages that preachers want to avoid like the plague!
There are so many ways we could look at this passage today, so many ways it might speak into our world today.
Often, the more uncomfortable the gospel is, the more pertinent it is too!
So, for starters, lets attempt to enter the story Jesus told and see if we can figure out what the manager in the story is up to.
Faced with the prospect of losing his job, his income and his status, what does he do?
He calls in all his master's debtors and writes off huge portions of their debt.
Today, we might think of that kind of action as spite.
But, in the society in which Jesus and this manager moved, saving face was a massive cultural necessity.
So - the manager is about to lose his job.
The folks he calls in to reduce their debt will see that he still has power and, when he leaves his current employment will be better disposed to still include him in their society circles.
His magnanimity, however, also gives his employer the ability to save face.
No longer is he the wealthy landowner who has been cheated - he has in his employ a very shrewd businessman.
Not only that, but he is able to demonstrate that he is big enough, even after all that has happened, to commend his manager for his actions - a huge cultural win for him, one that, in today's dog eat dog culture we have difficulty understanding.
As I re-read the passage in this light, it struck me that recently, the UK Government might have embarked on a face saving exercise that would have had far reaching effects.
David Cameron, defeated in his quest to use military force against those responsible for chemical warfare in Syria, might have creatively explored other ways to gain support not just in this country but worldwide.
Since funds were clearly available to embark on yet more military action, our political leaders might have considered instead using those funds to alleviate the suffering of those affected by the chemical attacks.
What a difference that would have made.
Not only in Syria, but throughout the world as other leaders witnessed the UK's generosity.
And saw history being made in funds raised for war being used to bring about peace.
So - this parable explores the cultural concept of saving face.
It also explores our relationship with prosperity.
How we might reconsider the way that we share what we have and reapportion our resources, even redeeming what might be considered ill gotten gains for good in our communities.
There's a myth about the church - that we are always looking for money.
And, given that we are in the midst of a Stewardship campaign, that myth might have just grown legs.
There is also a myth that we shouldn't talk about money in the church - it just turns people off. And we know we simply can't afford to do that!
Well I've never been afraid to offend people by preaching the gospel.
And the gospel, over the next few weeks, is clearly preoccupied by issues around money.
If we keep avoiding the subject how can we ever establish a healthy relationship with money and how can we ever engage with all the questions that surround our wealth - or lack of it.
The last couple of years, as you know, I've been involved with the Church of Scotland's National Youth Assembly.
One of the most popular workshops is one on managing money. Our young people, wrestling with unemployment and all the vagaries of the benefits system or with further education and student loans, want advice on how to handle their finance in a responsible and caring way.
Those same young people are also actively involved in speaking out against the injustice of tax avoidance that has become the norm for so many large and prosperous corporations.
Because the truth is that what we do matters - in our personal finance and in our public finance.
When we hold on to what is not rightfully ours, others suffer by our injustice.
Withholding our taxes has a direct impact on the suffering of the poor, those who need us to be just simply to survive.
But, of course, injustice it's not just about withholding our taxes.
Taxes that find their way into government aid, social security, health and welfare.
Injustice also occurs when we are not willing to share whatever we have to help others in a much more close up and personal way.
I can remember when Hospices grew up in communities, resourced by the generosity of people in the community giving not just their money but also their time.
Some people refused to give, maintaining that such a vital service should be funded by the government.
Our communities would be a whole lot poorer if we simply relied on government funded programmes and facilities.
Indeed, communities are created by people getting together to share the resources that they have to help one another and even those they will never meet.
This community we call church is no different.
It relies on generosity, on good will, on the love of those involved - for the sake of others.
We who are a part of this community model the love and generosity of God each time we share our resources - with those we know and with those we will never meet.
And it's not about looking good.
Or about saving face.
It's about genuinely caring enough to put our wealth at the disposal of others.
So this awkward gospel passage, echoing cultural conundrums of its time, speaks clearly into our culture today.
How will we choose to model the love and the generosity of God.
How will we put our resources at the disposal of the community we serve?
How will we redeem our tarnished reputation, embrace our prosperity, and serve God with our money?
God calls us as we are and asks that we honour God by offering all that we have to serve God's people.
To God be the glory.
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