Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Sermon for Trinity 9 August 4-5, 2012

9th Sunday After Trinity                                   Luke 16:1-13  
“Steward of Unfaithfulness or Faithful Steward”        August 4–5, 2012

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Why did the Lord Jesus Christ present this parable to us? What was His purpose? Surely He did not approve of the unrighteous servant who cheated his master, who is caught with his hand in the cookie jar, as they say, and when he is fired he sticks his hand into the cookie jar again instead of making up for his transgressions from his own means? Why does the Lord set this parable before us?

In the parable of the servant of unrighteousness, we see a certain rich man who has found out that his trusted steward has been squandering his possessions, and therefore his wealth, by mismanaging his affairs. The rich man fired the steward telling him he “can no longer be steward.” (Luke 16:2) The rich man called the steward to an accounting and the books were about to be opened and examined. There was about to be an audit.

But, this steward was a shrewd character. After some quick weighing of his options, he quickly came up with a plan. He knew he could neither dig nor beg. Both options were a bit distasteful to him. Instead, he called all his master’s debtors to him and reduced the amount they owed so that they would look favorably on him when he was out of a job.

Not only had this steward cheated his master once, but also when he was found out, he cheated his master again, so as to preserve his comfort to which, I am sure, he had become quite accustomed. But the astonishing thing is that the rich man then commends the steward for his shrewdness. To this Jesus says, “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light.” (Luke 16:9) So again I ask…why does the Lord set this parable before us?

In a worldly sense, the shrewd steward acted very wisely. But Jesus seldom, if ever, praises the world and certainly the wisdom of the world is chided by His Apostles in the epistles of the New Testament. So while this steward in our text might have made an excellent CEO at any major corporation, Jesus certainly is not promoting his corruption. What, however, Jesus does commend is the man’s shrewdness. He used his master’s riches to ensure that he would continue to be provided for after losing his position in his master’s company.

The point Jesus made here is that non-believers, or children of this world, are much more adept at using the unrighteous things of the world to better themselves, to selfishly improve their position and temporal lives, than children of the light are at using the same things for love and in service to their neighbor. The sons of the world far surpass us when it comes to a single-minded dedication and zeal for using worldly wealth to gain a  temporary advantage for themselves in this life, than we believers are when it comes to using the same gifts for the good of our fellow men and women, for our neighbors, and for the Church.

Jesus encourages His listeners to imitate the steward, but not by being unrighteous. “The sons of this world” are “more shrewd” in worldly matters because they know how to be unrighteous—to bend the rules, play the game, or beat the system—in order to accomplish their goals. But Jesus wants those who follow Him to be ignorant or unlearned in the practice of such unrighteousness, because it is advantageous only in this “generation,” this present age, this life, and is actually harmful for those whose hope is in the age to come. “The sons of light” are to be shrewd by recognizing that true riches are to be found in heaven and maintain their focus on where their hope truly resides…in Jesus Christ, God’s Son.

You see, there comes a time for everyone, no matter how wealthy, when worldly possessions, even our most treasured possessions, become meaningless. Those of you who have sorted through things that belonged to someone who is now dead may understand what I mean. I know that I was struck by the meaninglessness of worldly possessions when, after his funeral, I sorted through the things that had once belonged to my father. I realized that they never really “belonged” to him a t all. At best, he possessed these things only on temporary loan, for they are still here in time, while he is there in eternity. Our possessions cannot provide for our eternal future. They fail us when death comes into view…and often, even before. What is important then, is not how much we have, but what we do with the things we have while we have them.

Jesus said, “Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in what is another man’s, who will give you what is your own?” (Luke 16:11-12) In other words, “If you can’t be faithful in what I have loaned to you in this life for use in service to your neighbor and the Church, how can I trust to you the true riches of everlasting life?” What is Jesus’ conclusion to this question? “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Luke 16:13) If our true Lord and Master called you to an accounting today, if He opened your books and did an audit, if He looked over your use of the time, talents, and treasures He has blessed you with, would the books balance? Is there any justification for a charge against you that you have wasted God’s goods? The steward of our Gospel text was intent on providing for himself alone. He had been charged with wasting his master’s goods. I wonder. “Are we any better than the steward?”

People of the world are willing to go through many trials just to enjoy a few fleeting moments of pleasure. How many lives have been destroyed by alcohol and drugs? How many families have been destroyed by adultery and pornography? How many people have died or been made sick because of illicit sex? How many have lost everything— family, home, job, career, and reputation— because of gambling? People risk families and careers and their very lives all for the pleasures of this world. Yet, where is the Christian who is prepared to risk all for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Where is the Christian who is willing to give up his job, his friends, his family, to have the Gospel, to hear Christ’s life giving Words preached into his ear, to receive Jesus’ very Body and Blood into his mouth? Where is the Christian whose heart aches as much when he hears false doctrine, as it aches when he hears that his 401k has gone down again? Where is the Christian today, who is willing to give up the things of the world so that he may keep his immortal soul? Where is he who is willing to say, “Lord Jesus, in you I put my trust” ?

Oh that we Christians were as zealous for God as the worldly are for earthly gain. But we are often lethargic and careless in divine matters. We struggle with the old Adam, to do what is truly good, right, and salutary in the sight of God— to meditate without ceasing on the Word of God, to teach our children the faith, to serve the people God has put into our life with patience and gentle love. Even to spend just two hours a week in worship and in study of the Word of God is too much for some of us. We have other concerns. Other things capture our attention, other things seem so much more important, taking hostage our time and our lives…and in the end, our eternal lives.

The children of unrighteousness, like the steward of unrighteousness, do indeed set a good example for the Christian in terms of their shrewdness and persistence in worldly endeavors. We, who are the baptized children of God, are called to do no less in spiritual, eternal realms. This is what Jesus meant when He said, “And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home.” (Luke 16:9) We are to be shrewd in material things, but not in the way of the steward of unrighteousness, but in the way of Christ: not selfishly, but selflessly. All that we have is the Lord’s. He may have made us stewards, but He is the Master and Lord. We are to use His possessions for the good of our neighbor and the proclamation of the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. In this way, we are selflessly using the possessions Jesus provides us in faith, trusting in our Master to provide all that is needed for this body and life.

So we come to the second reason for the telling of this parable. Jesus commended the steward of unrighteousness not only because of his shrewdness, but also because of his faith in the mercy of his master. He believed that this master, who did not throw him into prison when he could have done so for the waste of his possessions, would be merciful to him by honoring the reductions in debts the steward had agreed to, though he was under no obligation to do such a thing. He truly believed his master to be a man of generosity and forgiveness. On that, he staked his future and his salvation. He did well, for it is that faith which his master praises.

So, too, we trust that our Master is a God of mercy who will forgive our debts through Jesus, that we may be received into our everlasting home. (Luke 16:9) In this, our hope is certain, that God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. We believe that God the Father will be merciful to us because of the debt paid on our behalf through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ. It is that faith that our Father desires and praises. We have squandered our heavenly Father’s possessions in selfishness and sin, but Jesus, who is the Steward of Righteousness, has cancelled our debt, knowing that His forgiveness will be honored by the Father because of His holy suffering and death upon the cross. Jesus made eternal friends of us, not by hoarding things for Himself, but by living as one with no home of His own, having no place to lay His head. He became poor so that we might know and receive the riches of His mercy. He even gave away His own Body into death, that through His atoning and all-sufficient sacrifice we might be cleansed from all unrighteousness. Yes, Jesus relied on the Mercy of His Father. He trusted that the Father would honor His death in our place to cover the debt we owed.

So come now and receive from the hands of this steward the marks of your zero balance account. Know that by receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord that your account of sin has been closed. It is my privilege to announce unto you the grace of God and to place into your mouth that which declares your debt fully paid. Kneel down, take your bill and write…paid in full. Your books are balanced. Your account reads zero. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. 

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