badminton players, bushels, crooked manager, eternal dwellings, financial planning, life of the world to come, london olympics, money, money matters, people of the light, priorities, shrewd, unjust steward, worldly wealth
For this week’s bulletin, click here (scroll down for all info): Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be 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 houses.’
5 “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
6 “‘Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied.
“The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.’
7 “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’
“‘A thousand bushels 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. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
If you’re looking for signs of how terrible the world is getting, look no further than the London Olympics – specifically, the badminton competitions. It seems that badminton players from different nations, among them China and South Korea, actually tried to lose their matches so they would have better matchups later in the tournament. This brings to mind several questions: If you’re a good enough athlete to compete in the Olympics, why would you be okay with losing? If you try and lose, and you do, but you do it so badly that you get kicked out of the Olympics for it, did you win or did you lose? Did you even accomplish what you wanted? Badminton is an Olympic sport?
The Olympics aren’t the only place where people will try and pull a fast one. CEOs who give themselves million-dollar bonuses, politicians who abuse the powers of their office to line their own pockets, as well as those who turn outright to crime — people can do just about anything to make a buck. (That’s the central premise of much of reality TV.) We see more dishonesty in our Gospel for today. The more we think about this parable of Jesus, the more troubling it is. We’ll need to pay close attention to this parable so we interpret it correctly, and so we take away from this word of God what Jesus wants us to know. Today Jesus will show us how to be Use Worldly Wealth the Right Way.
Jesus never told a more troubling parable than the one before us today. A crooked manager cooks his boss’s books – he gives clients an unauthorized discount on their bills so they’ll owe him a favor. Then he’ll have a golden parachute when he’s fired. Pretty clever, pretty easy to see why it would work – and pretty crooked too. So what does Jesus say at the end of the parable? “Don’t be like the crooked manager – God loves an honest giver”? No! “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” It’s hard to avoid the uncomfortable feeling that Jesus actually approves of what this crooked manager did! He seems to be holding this chiseler, this cheat, up as an example to follow! The difficulty is even more striking in Greek. The word that’s used for “master” is kurios, which can also be translated “Lord” depending on the context and what you’re talking about – Lord, as in God the Lord. So what is Jesus telling us here? What does He want us to take away from this parable?
Jesus is not praising the manager’s dishonest actions. What He’s praising is the manager’s presence of mind and readiness to act. This steward saw what was coming down the pike, he saw his opening, and he went for it with both feet. He used what he had at his disposal – which happened to be his boss’s cash flow – and he used it to his advantage. He looked ahead, planned ahead, and acted quickly to make sure he achieved what he wanted. That’s what Jesus commends here, not the man’s dishonesty. God always wants His children to be “without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which [we] shine like stars in the universe, as [we] hold out the Word of life.”
Jesus wants us to use worldly wealth the right way – He wants us to use our earthly money for spiritual purposes. He wants us to take the long view – not just ten or twenty years, as some investors do, but eternity. That’s why He says, “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”
When Jesus talks about worldly wealth, more literally He says “the mammon of unrighteousness.” That’s how the King James Version rendered it too. Mammon is a Greek word that basically means money, and it doesn’t have very positive connotations. It’s similar to the way we say “filthy lucre.” Just a few verses later in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus uses the word almost like the name of a false god, which is pretty fitting when you think about it. Jesus calls it the “mammon of unrighteousness” because money is used for a lot of immoral purposes in this world. Some people will do anything for money, and for some that taint sticks to money.
Sometimes Christians view money as being too worldly or too dirty to bother with. Sure, you need a certain amount to live and so on, but beyond that, believers shouldn’t be too concerned with money, the thinking goes. Nothing could be further from the truth. What we do with our money matters to God, because it’s His money to begin with, and we are responsible to Him for what we do with it. In just a few verses after our Gospel for today, Jesus says, “If you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?” Jesus’ questions are haunting. We need to pay attention to the way we use our worldly wealth, because it has eternal consequences.
How will we make friends with the “mammon of unrighteousness”? One way is by helping to support the work of our synod. We can help fund missionaries in places we can’t go personally. Our synod also does humanitarian work in foreign countries as a way of using the mammon of unrighteousness to make eternal friends. We drill wells in Africa and send money and supplies to places that have had natural disasters, either overseas or here in the U.S. By helping others with worldly wealth, we open doors for people to be interested and hear the gospel, which is the only thing that saves them.
Even more than the work our synod does, each of us can use worldly wealth the right way on a personal level. The openings are limited only by your imagination, and to a certain extent, your resources. You can pay a bill for someone who’s struggling and didn’t expect it. You can loan money to someone who’s just getting started and not be too strict on repayment. You can sell an extra vehicle or an old vehicle to someone who needs one for ridiculously cheap. You can buy someone lunch when they’re having a hard time. These are just examples of things you could do – I’m sure you could come up with a lot better ones on your own. The bottom line is to put your faith in the life of the world to come, your Christian love, and the earthly resources God has given you all together – and then apply them to someone in need. Christians will always know how and when to make friends with worldly wealth, because that’s a fruit of our faith, and we aren’t as attached as the sinful world is to their possessions and their money – or we shouldn’t be, anyway. (Right?)
Some people have a very strict personal policy of never giving other people money. “Never a borrower or a lender be” are words to live by for many. Give others food or clothes or other tangible help, they think, but “never give money” is the hard and fast rule. You don’t know what they’ll use it for, after all. You don’t want anybody to take advantage of you, and so on. Those are good and valid points in and of themselves; but could it be that the fact that someone might be generous in a situation where most people would hang on to their money with both fists would be why Jesus tells us to make friends with the mammon of unrighteousness? There’s a line between being generous and being gullible, but maybe Jesus wants us to reconsider where we draw that line. After all, it’s just money – right? You can always get more. Maybe you’re snorting to yourself right now, thinking, Yeah, right, Pastor – if money matters so little to you give me yours. That kind of a response illustrates exactly why Jesus would tell us to use worldly wealth for eternal ends. There’s nothing the world loves more than money, and nothing it pays more attention to, either. If you are generous and help others with the money God gave you, that will get attention – and then you’ll have an opening to share true riches with someone.
The choices we make with our money should be just as clever and shrewd as the crooked manager from Jesus’ parable – but unlike him we should be honest and upright in everything we do, as our reading from 1 Corinthians reminds us today. Don’t fall for the temptation to use worldly wealth the world’s way – hoard it, hang on to it with both hands, enjoy it and love it, and the poor can go hang. Instead, be conscious always of your inheritance which is kept for you in heaven. Our Lord Jesus Christ made us rich when we were poor by becoming poor for our sakes. He made us rich toward God. He shed His holy, precious blood for our sins, because we are valuable and precious in God’s sight – even more precious than His only Son. Through our baptisms we receive all of God’s riches that He has to give – life, peace, salvation, a clean conscience, and forgiveness of sins. Those kind of riches never lose their value because they’re based on the eternal Christ, who has forgiven our sins, made us His own, and promises us an eternity of joy in heaven with Him. Because we always keep our spiritual riches in mind, we will want to use our worldly riches to help make others spiritually rich, as we are.
At the same time, we need to be careful that we don’t lose our spiritual priorities either. We dare never forget that we can’t buy heaven, and neither can anyone else. Money is not a means of grace. Riches can sprout wings and fly off into the sky like an eagle, Proverbs tells us. If we start trying to make friends with the mammon of unrighteousness the wrong way, by thinking we’re earning God’s favor in helping others or in giving to our church, then we’re in trouble. People in the Middle Ages often mistakenly thought that that’s what these verses were referring to. They often left money to the church to buy vestments and more and more decorations for their church, and to pay for prayers and Masses to be said so they would get out of purgatory sooner; there you see how one false teaching or wrong interpretation reinforces another. They gave huge sums of money to the church, convinced that this was pleasing to God and this was how they were going to make friends with the mammon of unrighteousness. They were wrong, frankly – as is anybody who thinks that way nowadays. In his day Martin Luther complained, correctly, that the churches where covered in gold and jewels and the poor were starving to death. Not much has changed in that regard. I’m not saying it’s wrong to leave money or give a gift to help with improvements around church. What’s wrong is thinking that your earthly gift will somehow get rid of your sins or bring you closer to God. Do not be deceived; God and heaven cannot be bought.
That goes for people joining the church as well. We might not be so crass as to think we can buy someone a ticket to heaven, but the subtle temptation is always to put our faith in money and not in the living God – that if we do things big enough, if our funds are fat enough, if the offerings are high enough, good things will happen in the kingdom of God. Always remember that true faith is a work of God, not people. The objective in using worldly wealth the right way is to get people’s attention and help bring them into contact with His Word, which is the only thing that saves. At the same time, people’s souls are so precious, and God has such great riches to give — eternal riches! – that we will want to use everything we’ve got, everything He’s given us, to help and serve our neighbor. Keep God always in view. Make pleasing Him your highest aim and goal, even when you’re making your family’s budget or planning ahead financially. Be mindful always of eternal things and your relationship to your Lord – and how you can help others to come to know Him too. Then you’ll be using Worldly Wealth the Right Way. Amen.