Monday, 23 September 2013

Stewards of dishonest wealth

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 

22 September 2013 

Luke 16:1-15  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.  2 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.'  3 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.  4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.'  5 So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?'  6 He answered, 'A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.'  7 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.'  8 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.  9 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.  10 "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.  11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?  12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?  13 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."  14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.  15 So he said to them, "You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.

Amos 8:4-7   Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land,  5 saying, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances,  6 buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat."  7 The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.

A Story – Based on Luke 16:1-15

I was born into a family that loved God.
            In an unbroken line from Abraham to me,
                        my forbears had sought to serve faithfully the Lord who has saved us.

The weight of my Jewish heritage sat on my shoulders like a golden cloak
            – surrounding all that I ever sought to do or be,
            with a glory and a brilliance that guided my very thoughts.

Since early childhood I had learned to love the Law,
            with all its wisdom and grace.
Its commands lit up the path of my own life,
            as I sought to love the Lord my God
                        with all my heart, with all my mind,
                        with all my soul, and with all my strength.

I suppose it was inevitable that I would end up entering the priesthood.
            Ever since I could remember, I had wanted nothing more
                        than to serve the Lord with everything I was;
            and no other occupation seemed to offer the same possibilities as being a priest.

The opportunity to spend my days in full-time service of the Lord,
            being recognised as one of those whose lives
                        were dedicated wholeheartedly to his will,
            was something that I could not afford to turn down.
So it was that when I reached adult-hood, at the age of 12,
            I went on, for further education, to the big synagogue
            in the town near where I grew up.

It was at synagogue school that I learned of the different orders of priesthood,
            and I resolved early on that I was going to be the best.
If I was going to dedicate my life to the Lord,
            then it was going to be done properly.

Not for me some half-hearted service,
            diluted with the day-to-day drudgery of employment.
Not for me some mediocre religion
            which consisted of a life of compromise and hypocrisy.

I was going to serve in my master’s house,
            and I was going to do it the very best that I knew how.
I am sure that you can understand this desire, can’t you?
            After all, what is the point in knowing the one true and living God
            if we then go on to live half our lives as if he didn’t exist?

I was never able to understand how people could profess to follow the Lord,
            yet at the same time live their lives as if they had never heard of him
                        – going about their daily business,
                        while confining God to Saturday worship and holy-days.
            If God exists, as I fervently believe he does,
                        surely he deserves more than this?

I resolved to give him everything!
            He was going to reign supreme in every area of my life
                        - in my behaviour, in my relationships, in everything…
            If I was going to be a priest, I was going to be the best.
                        So I began my training as a Pharisee.

The life of a priest has much to commend it.
            I can think of no other way of living
                        that combines all the elements contained within the priesthood.
            The education is second to none.
                        I was trained to think in ways that I had never imagined possible.
                        I understood the Law of the Lord,
                                    and spent many years learning to apply it to every area of life.
                        I learned how it could be interpreted
                                    to cover just about everything that it is possible for humans to do,
                                    and this became my delight.

To show people how God’s claim on their lives
            could affect every waking hour of their existence.
And to be paid for doing it!
            What more could a man ask for?
I would have done it for free,
            but having no independent resources,
                        I accepted the wages that were due to me,
            in order that I might be free to pursue my calling.

Sometimes I thought I must be the richest man on earth!
            I loved my life, I was free from the burden of financial want,
                        and I was able to devote myself to serving the Lord whom I loved.
            But over and above this, I was entrusted with the great privilege
                        of helping others to serve him also.

Can you not share in my delight?
            God had truly been gracious to me,
                        giving me the means and the opportunity to serve him
                                    and share him with others.
            Would you not also desire to live your life as I have lived mine,
                        un-compromised, devoted, set aside?
            Every area of my existence permeated with the Law of God.

From the moment I awoke to the moment I shut my eyes at night,
            it was my delight to obey and live the law,
                        modelling for others how it can be done.
By my public prayers, by my attire,
            by my clear and eloquent exposition of the scriptures,
            I enabled others to see how pure a life devoted to the Lord can be.

Of course, the demands of public piety can take their toll after a while.
            The exterior does not always match up to the interior.
Sometimes I wondered if I was just a hollow shell,
            projecting the Lord for others,
                        while inside I struggled as they struggled.
But the nature of my calling was to be a focus for the community.
            I was set aside to be strong and faithful
                        where others were weak and faithless.
            My service to God was to be found in my service to others.
So I persisted in my prayers, in my careful dress, in my teaching.
            And still they supported me in it.
            I was truly blessed by the Lord.

I wasn’t the only teacher to be found in Palestine, not by a long way!
            And part of my responsibility was listening to, and debating with,
                        other exponents of scripture.
            Weighing what they said, and applying it for the community that I served.

This was how I first came across Jesus of Nazareth.
            A strange man: compelling, yet disconcerting.
Not trained as a priest at all,
            I believe he spent most of his life as a carpenter,
yet he had a command of scripture that I would have given my right arm for!

As was the case with some teachers,
                        he rarely preached sermons.
            He taught by telling stories.
Many professional teachers found this repellent,
            that someone would reduce the exposition of the law
                        to common story-telling.
Yet I found them interesting.
            A creative way of communicating his message.
So I often used to make the effort to stop by
            and listen to him when he addressed the crowds.
I often found myself wondering if I could make use of his technique
            to enhance my own teaching style.

It was on just such an occasion
            that he told his story about the dishonest steward.
This man had been entrusted with handling his master’s affairs,
            and had eventually been called to account
            for his handling of the wealth he had been trusted with.

Just when it looked as if he about to have the rug pulled out from under him,
            since he had been squandering his master’s property,
            he pulled a solution out of the bag which saved his neck.

Caught in his squandering of his master’s goods,
            the steward retrieved the situation by yet further squandering.
He was truly a shrewd man, this steward,
            because if he had attempted to move wealth in his own direction,
            the master could surely have done something about getting it back.
But the steward did the exact opposite
            – he acted for the benefit of others,
                        thereby ensuring that they owed him a debt of gratitude,
                        which he could then call in when he was out of his job.

A very fine story, I thought.
            The steward had been so shrewd in his handling of his affairs,
                        that even his master had to grudgingly commend him in his cleverness.
Even after the steward had been found out in his crime,
                        with his number clearly up,
            he still found a way to swindle his master yet again right under his nose,
                        and in such away that the master, even though on the spot
                                    and alerted to the steward’s ways,
                        could do nothing to restore the situation.

A clever, realistic story,
            and the application, I thought, was clear:
We are to be worldly-wise in the way we deal with the world’s riches,
            and heavenly-wise in the way we deal with heaven’s riches.
Let us use the wealth of this world
            to further our own higher purposes,
            so that we can be free to follow the Lord’s calling on our lives.

You can see how this story would appeal to me.
            After all, was I not doing just what this Jesus was suggesting?
I was living my life holding heaven in one hand
            and the world in the other.

I was dedicated to the Lord, and committed to serving him,
            and I also had the financial support
                        and consequent freedom which enabled me to do this.
I gratefully received the money that came to me,
            treating it as if it was from the Lord himself,
and I used it so that I could fulfil my calling as priest,
            dedicated to the service of the Lord from whom all riches come.

Not for me the disgrace of digging or begging for my living.
            I used what my master gave me,
            to buy myself the freedom to fulfil my calling.

I liked Jesus’ story,
            with its realistic recognition of the nature of the world
                        in which we find ourselves.
After all, which of us is totally free from dishonest wealth?
            All the money we touch
                        must have at some point passed through dishonest hands.
            Who can ever claim that their bankers have behaved with ethical integrity?
                        We don’t ask them to – they would earn us no interest if they did!
            This Jesus seemed to me to have a very firm grasp on the nature of reality.
                        Use worldly wealth for higher purposes.
                        Purify it by our use of it!

These thoughts were going through my mind
            as I stood mulling over the story he had just told,
and it was then that I noticed him looking at me.

He seemed to be concentrating on me particularly.
            I have to say that I found his slightly knowing smile most disconcerting,
                        and his dark brown eyes bore straight through me.
            It was almost as if he and I were the only people there.

He started to quote proverbs:
            “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much,
                        whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much”,
            “if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth,
                        who will trust you with true riches?”,
            “No servant can serve two masters”,
                        “you cannot serve both God and money”.

What had this to do with me!?
            Was he implying that my loyalties were divided?
                        Was he saying that I could not be trusted?
Me! who all my life had sought to be the one who got it right,
            in the midst of a world that was getting it wrong.
Me! who fought against compromise
            and championed integrity.
Me! who prided myself on combining a firm grasp on reality
            with an unswerving love for the Lord.
Me! with my realistic approach
            towards the benefits and rewards of this world.
How dare he?!

I looked back at him, and as I did so I could feel my heart growing angry
            and my gaze growing defiant.
A slow boiling started in the pit of my stomach and rose through me like a fire.

Who did this man think he was?!
            This uneducated carpenter who told stories,
                        this simplistic naïve fool with no grasp on reality!
            What was his point?
                        Why had he told the story of the dishonest steward?
            And why did he keep looking at me?

Why didn’t he turn his gaze to others in the crowd
             – there were many there who were far more compromised than I.
            There were many there who never even attempted to serve God.
And yet here was I, dedicated to the service of the Lord,
            and he was condemning me!

But his words gnawed away at me,
            sapping my self-confidence.
As is often the way with those who appear so sure of themselves,
            uncertainty always lurks not far beneath the surface,
and the expression of his face wasn’t so much one of condemnation
            as it was a look of pity and compassion.

Could it be that I had misunderstood his story?
            Could it be that I had misunderstood something about my own life?
            Could it be that I was wrong about what God was asking of me?

But then the anger returned,
            as I realised that this Jesus seemed to be implying
            that I was hopelessly compromised.

This simpleton without two shekels to rub together
            seemed to be implying that I had sold out.
That I was serving money not God.
            That I was not fit to be trusted with heavenly riches.

But what does it mean to be trustworthy with worldly wealth anyway?
            What was he getting at?
Had I not done as the steward in his story had done?
            And had not the steward been commended?

And then I stopped.
            And a cold sweat started to break out on my forehead
            and ran down my spine like a chill.

I realised that that was not the point of Jesus’ story.

The point this carpenter was making
            was to do, not with human wealth at all,
                        but with eternal riches.

I was using my wealth here and now.
            Living in relative luxury, buying myself my freedom to live now.
Everything about me was focussed on the present.
            And I justified my existence on the basis of my life today.
Believing that all the good things in my life
            were mine by right,
            given to me by God as his response to my faithful service.

But what if, just what if, none of this meant anything to God.
            What if my life today, with its freedom and ease of living,
                        was worthless in God’s sight?

What if God had trusted me with such wealth and privilege for a higher purpose,
            and I had been dedicating my life to simply squandering it on myself,
and then publicly justifying my actions in the sight of others
            by claiming that I was doing God’s will.

That surely would be the worst kind of waste!
            And it would make me the worst kind of hypocrite!

Then, truly I would be like the steward in the story,
            but the steward before master caught up with him.
Using his position to live a life of ease and luxury,
            squandering his master’s wealth on himself.

What if this was where I fitted into Jesus’ story:
            a privileged and wealthy man
                        making the most of my life and my opportunities,
            believing that the master had entrusted all this to me,
                        for me to use as I saw fit.

But what would it do to my life, to the way I lived,
            if the master still wanted me to squander his wealth,
                        but not on myself.
What if the master wanted me to waste his wealth on others?
            What would it look like if I became like the steward
                        after the master had caught up with him?
            What if the Lord wants me to take his wealth,
                        not just my material prosperity, but all the riches of life and eternity,
                        and start giving it away freely to others?

What if the purpose of having
                        is not to have and enjoy,
            but to give away
                        to the benefit of others.

What if the master is more pleased with servants
            who win him friends by generosity and grace,
than he is by those who win him profits
            by protectionist practices.

Is it possible that God could be that rich?
            Is it possible that God could be that generous?

This would certainly be a different kind of God.
            This would be a God who loves and gives, and gives and loves.
A God whose eternal treasure-house is inexhaustible.

Maybe the steward in Jesus’ story was commended
            because he finally realised
                        that by squandering his master’s wealth on others,
                                    he was exchanging it for eternal riches.
            Substituting his here-and-now treasures
                        for assets that endure
            Trading his present luxurious living
                        for a welcome and a home that has everlasting value.

What if that was why Jesus kept looking at me?
            What if the Lord is displeased with the way I have used
                        that which has been entrusted to me?

What if he wants me to squander his wealth on others?

            Is God really that rich?
            Is God really that generous?

Questions for consideration

Is wealth always dishonest?
Who is wealthy?
How would God have us use the money and resources we have?

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