Closer to God, A Lenten sermon series from Luke, Week 4 of 5
Preached March 14, 2021, for the 9:30am Worship
This is week four into our five-week Sermon series for Lent Caitlan and I are calling “Closer to God.” So far, closer to God has meant:
Three weeks ago… Not assuming God is just like us, but maybe more like the ones we imagine as our enemy. Can we see the face of Jesus in them, like Jesus asked the Jews to do in the Good Samaritan story?
Two weeks ago, Closer to God meant challenging anyone who blocks justice or mercy, and trusting even the smallest little actions, when we do them for others, can grow God’s kingdom, like Jesus confronting the religious leaders about his healing on the sabbath, and using the mustard seed or yeast in the dough as images of little things that can change everything.
Last week, Closer to God meant, regardless of our assumptions of who does or doesn’t (or should) belong at God’s feast, God’s celebration is way more forgiving, merciful, and inclusive than we dare believe.
This week, let's move Closer to God as we and listen for the word of the Lord from…
Scripture Luke 16:1-13
16 Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of squandering the man’s possessions. 2 So he called the manager in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, else you cannot be (my) manager any longer.’
3 “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their homes.’
5 “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
6 “‘Nine hundred gallons[a] of olive oil,’ he replied. “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’ 7 “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’ “‘A thousand bushels[b] of wheat,’ he replied. “He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’
8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. See, the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than they are (with) the people of the light. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves so that when your worldly wealth is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
10 “Whoever can be trusted with little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with little will also be dishonest with much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?
13 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the first and love the second, or you will be devoted to the first and despise the second. You cannot serve both God and money.”
Sermon True Riches
There are some things about this parable, that we know, and there are other things about this parable we do NOT know. To learn something from it, we’d better clarify what we know, and be real honest where we wander off into assumption land.
For example, we know a wealthy man, a master, a lord is about to fire his manager because he is “squandering” the Lord’s property. Squandering, literally tossing to the wind. It’s the same verb that was sometimes used to imagine the way good wheat and bad chaff are tossed into the wind, so the wind could carry away the light chaff and the heavier wheat falls back down. Just imagine the Lord thinking of this Steward’s money management technique as taking a pitchfork into his wealth and possessions and tossing it up into the air. That’s the image Jesus was hoping the disciples would have as he told this story.
In the story, we know the Lord summons the manager but did not yet speak to him directly. The summons might have been by letter, or verbally by messenger. The summons makes it clear the Lord knows he’s been managing the Lord’s possessions loosely. The Lord demands he appear and bring the accounting books showing exactly how all accounts stand. The Lord also expressed clearly that should things be out of order, he would be relieved of his post.
Note, the manager, the steward did not defend himself against the charges. He didn’t say, “I haven’t done anything wrong!” or “He never told me how he wanted me to do this!” or “Everybody in my job does this.” There’re no excuses, no squirming or wiggling out of his responsibilities, or the accountability and consequences that are coming.
The manager plays with two solutions. He’s not a ditch digger or a beggar. His body is not built for one, and his spirit is not built of the other. He tosses aside both of those options for a third. While he still has time, he will go to the debtors of his master and reduce their bill, so he will have favor with them after he is released.
We also know the manager doesn’t know how much the debtors owe. He is the business manager for the master, but he has to ask them how much they owe his master? When they tell him, whatever they tell him, he reduces it by a percentage.
The first says 100 bathos of oil. A “bath” was about 9 of our gallons, so that’s 900 gallons of oil. Even in our industrial age, that is quite a hefty accounts-receivable. Jill and I just got our radiator oil tank filled the other day… it was over $700 for 250 gallons. The steward says, “Change it to half that.”
A second debtor says he owes 100 koros of grain. Each kor was probably about 10 bushels, so that’s 1,000 bushels, or about how much would fill one of those special semi-tractor trailer trucks for grain or corn or soy we see leaving farms. The steward says “Take 20% off that.”
This is big business, huge, and the steward is tossing around percentages of the Lord’s oil and grain so that the steward will have friends and be invited into their homes when he loses his post for his bad accounting methods.
That’s what we know. What we assume… People speculate all the time why this manager is in trouble, why the steward was called dishonest, and why the manager decides to shave their debts the way he did.
Some say, maybe he was always overcharging them. The debtors actually owed the master 50 or 80, but the manager had been charging them 100 and 100. So when he goes to reduce their bill, he is just putting it back to where it should have been in the first place, reducing his own take, shall we say. That theory is based on the way the tax-collectors got in trouble in ancient times. They pledged to Rome a certain value, and anything extra they could collect, they could keep. But this would have the dishonest steward becoming honest through reducing their bill, and the text says the Lord sees the steward’s dealings and still calls it dishonest, even though shrewd. So this isn’t what Jesus was saying. The steward wasn’t coming clean.
Another assumption is that the bill was right but he was skimming off some for himself before their payment got to his Master. The tenants actually did owe a certain amount, based on their production, and they paid it to the manager, but that full payment never made it to the Lord. The manager slipped a little of it into his back pocket, and then passed to the Lord the rest. The Lord investigates the production rates of his tenants, double checks his income, and realizes that the steward is not depositing everything that should be making it into the Lord’s accounts. So when the steward goes and cuts their bills, he isn’t skimming cash into his pocket anymore. He’s giving to the debtors what he used to keep, in hopes they will appreciate his generosity to them (instead of to himself) and take care of him later. From the tenants’ point of view in this assumption, the Steward has always dealt fairly with them and is now giving them a generous discount. It was only the Lord the steward was cheating before and is still cheating. This assumption works a little better, in that the Lord could still see his actions as dishonest but shrewd. But this steward wasn’t accused of stealing but of squandering, tossing to the wind. I’m not sure this is what Jesus was saying either.
Here’s my assumption. What if the steward had no clue what the tenants really owed his master. He should have been doing his job better, monitoring their production and making sure a fixed and fair percentage was given to his master’s household. But the manager was lazy, or incompetent, or didn’t like checking up on the clients, or wasn’t a very good record keeper… and therefore didn’t know what their production was, and therefore didn’t know what amount they owed his master. It was all just up in the air. Remember, when the steward goes to the debtors, he has to ask them what they owe.
Assuming they are honest with him, and assuming the deal was they would give some flat percentage of their production to the Lord… let’s say a tithe, 10%... then the steward is essentially saying to one, “okay, you can give only 5%,” and to the other, he’s saying, “okay, you give just 8%.” These discount percentages aren’t really his to give, so he’s still being dishonest, or the real meaning of the word, unrighteous, unjust. He isn’t honoring the covenant between Lord and debtor. But at least at this point, the steward has learned what the real bill is and knows what it should be, and now the steward is collecting something for the Lord and has a record of it, and on the side is liked by the debtors. That assumption could explain why the Lord can chuckle, and shake his head, and commend the manager for acting shrewdly with world wealth to make friends.
As a pastor, I kinda like this third option. If you’ll humor me for a minute, sometimes a pastor feels responsible for the giving of a congregation. We can feel like it’s our job to do a good job, with hope everyone here gives generously, a fair and generous percentage. Now, church giving is not all on the pastor or about the pastor… there’s a Session, and a Stewardship Planning team, and a staff, and a building, and feel and style of worship, and Children and Youth ministries… but it can still feel like its all on us as the pastors, right Caitlan?
Under that first assumption, the steward is overcharging the people, asking them to give more than what the Lord is asking, for his own benefit. There are pastors that drive Bentley’s and have jets fly them between satellite-campuses and wear three-thousand dollar suits and $50,000 dollar watches. I imagine God will want to see their books one day, but that isn’t Caitlan or me.
In the second assumption, the steward is honest with the people about what to give to the Lord but is skimming off a portion for himself. In a Presbyterian church, the pastor has very little power over the monies, thanks be to God, just experience dealing with church financials, and influence on direction, budgets, priorities. This year, the Session moved and the congregation passed a salary increase for me and Caitlan, and all staff… I do appreciate that, especially the increases for the staff. But I hope y’all know me well enough just one year into our relationship, I would never come to you asking you to give generously to this Church in hopes I could keep more of it for myself. Whatever you decide my income is, that will be enough.
That’s why I really like the third assumption because as pastors, we don’t know what your incomes are. God invites us all to give a tithe, 10%, to support God’s kingdom, and to give it upfront, as the first fruits, the first check written, the first e-payment sent. We, pastors, don’t know what your incomes are, and at this church, pastors don’t know what families give, or how much.
We do know some statistics about the giving patterns of this congregation. Like, last year, a tough year, the pandemic year, about half of this church’s givers were either new first-time givers, or increased your giving, or were stable givers, giving what you had given before despite the struggle of the pandemic. About a fourth of the families continued giving something, it just needed to be less than before. That’s understandable in a new pastor, pandemic year. And we know about a fourth of the families in this church either stopped giving in 2020 or didn’t give at all.
We don’t have all the statistics on this year's giving yet, but after last Fall’s stewardship campaign, 60% of you who responded were either new, first-time givers or pledged to increase your giving this year. 30% of respondents promised to give the same in 2021 as you did in 2020. 10% pledged to give a little less or just time and talent. But a large number of families in this church don’t pledge. You just give, and Session just trusts it will be generous and enough.
I come to you with a shrewd deal. Go ahead in the privacy of your mind, remembering Caitlan and I do not know what your income is or what your giving is… Imagine those two numbers. What is your total income? What is 10% of that? Do you give a tithe of your income to help build God’s kingdom through this congregation or organizations beyond it? If not, that’s okay. I come to you today like the Lord’s manager suggesting you know your tithe. If already give it, wow, thank you. If you do not, take your tithe and reduce it. For some of you, reduce it down to 8%. For others, reduce it all the way to 5%. Some of you might need to just get started at 1%.
I don’t ask you to give because I want more for myself, or because I want to be known as the pastor of a successful church. I ask you to give because I came here a year ago with God’s promise, and one year in, despite the pandemic, I see amazing and beautiful things happening here for God’s kingdom beyond this pandemic.
I also ask you to give because we cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve God and wealth. The shrewd solution is to put the wealth of this world in service of God.
Please don’t hear me saying I or this church needs money. They are not our monies anyway. They are God’s, whether or not we give them, all of it is God’s. But I do hear us being asked to practice the disciple of giving a generous percentage to building God’s kingdom, in, through, and beyond this church.
To God be all glory and honor, now and forever. Amen.
Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.
Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown