Trinity Reformed Church
|909 North Landing Road; Rochester, NY 14625 --- (585) 381-5330|
September 19, 2010
With the next few sermons, I will be talking about money. That's a dangerous thing, I know. Ministers have gotten into trouble for talking about money. A minister I know was told by leaders of his congregation (and this was a Reformed church not too far away) that he was not to preach about money. At my previous congregation, a friend of mine from there told me that she and her husband always stayed away from church on stewardship Sundays.
The problem with these attitudes is that the Bible has plenty of talk about money, and wealth, and possessions, and how we are to view them and use them. Jesus talks about only one thing more than wealth and money, and that is the kingdom of God. You can't truly hear what Jesus tells us if you avoid all he says about money and wealth.
And so it is that I find that the Gospel readings in the lectionary for this Sunday and next are passages in which Jesus speaks quite directly about money. Sure, I could avoid those passages, and choose a lectionary reading from the Old Testament, perhaps, or something from the letters of Paul. But such avoidance is really not good for any of us.
Yet with passages such as the one I read a few minutes ago, there's a reason for my avoidance over the years. This passage is hard! It's confusing. Usually I have looked at this passage and thought, "I don't get it." So, it has seemed better (okay, easier) to avoid these verses, and look at something else.
Perhaps you felt some of that confusion. Maybe you thought to yourself (as Anita tells me she does fairly often), "Okay, what's Dan going to do with that?" Because it's a stumper of a passage. What are we to make of this? A dishonest manager, who is praised by his boss for being shrewd. The commendation of something -- what? the dishonesty? the shrewdness? -- by Jesus. These verse are challenging, and a bit confusing.
Now, there's always a danger in saying about any Bible passage, "This is what it is all about" or "This is the meaning of these verses." That's certainly the case here. There is much that I could unpack, several directions I could take. There is not one meaning to this passage.
And yet, I do think that Jesus is focusing on a core idea. He is talking about the proper use of wealth. And what he tells us about wealth is that we had best be prudent, we had better be smart about it.
To get going on making his point, Jesus tells this story about a wealthy man. This man was probably a rich landowner, one who had several properties with tenants who would rent from him to live there or to farm there. And he would have managers in charge of each property, empowered to conduct business and make decisions regarding the property on behalf of the master. It was a busy job, this manager gig, full of important and varied responsibilities.
One of his managers was found to be a problem. A complaint came to the landowner about this manager. He was making a mess of things. He was squandering the master's property, treating it as his own personal cash-cow. Clearly, this would not do. Clearly, the master had to fire the manager.
So the master calls the manager into his office. He looks at him long and cold across his big oak desk, giving him the full Donald Trump stare. "What's this I hear about your management of my property? You've been shifty with the accounting. You've been incompetent in your responsibilities." And so the master says to the manager, again in full Donald Trump mode, "You're fired!"
This no doubt was a shocking development for the manager. What was he to do? Jobs were scarce in his field. He wasn't built for manual labor. He had too much pride to beg. So he hits upon an idea. A final condition of his employment as he was being shown the door was to give his boss an accounting of his management. He wasn't escorted immediately from the building with a cardboard box full of his personal belongings, as has become iconic in our day. No, he had some time. So he called in those who owed his master money, one by one. "How much do you owe?" he would ask the client. And for each one, he would reduce the amount owed by some percentage.
Now, it's not so clear to me what was going on here. The manager may have been reducing the amount owed by his standard cut, the profit he typically added in for himself. Or maybe he was cutting into the boss's profit. Either way, it was pretty tricky, in a sense, cutting his losses to generate good will that would help him down the road.
But eventually the boss (or soon to be ex-boss) finds out. And he has to hand it to this guy. It was pretty neat. He had little to work with, and yet he made that little work for his benefit. He was smart with the things at his disposal. And so the master commended him, because he was shrewd.
Now the thing with the parables Jesus tells is that we are to look for its meaning, but we should not press the parable farther than it's supposed to go. So Jesus is not telling us to emulate the manager in his dishonesty (whether that dishonesty lie at the beginning or the end of the manager's story), nor in the incompetence that led to his being fired in the first place. Jesus is telling us to use money wisely and well, in a way, shrewdly. He's telling us that this thing that religious people might find too earthly and soiled to be used for holy purposes, this wealth that might be seen as dishonest, can and must be used for spiritual matters.
You see, it's about faithfulness. That's right: faithfulness in what we are given, whether it be a lot or very little. We must serve God faithfully no matter what we are given. Nothing is too little to use for God's glory. No item of our life, no matter how unspiritual it might look to some, no matter how humble it may appear, is exempt from dedication to God.
Sure, by no means are we to serve wealth. We are to serve only God. You can't serve both; you can't give yourself over to both. Wealth is not a god; wealth is a tool. And the disciple of Jesus Christ must use this tool of wealth to honor Jesus Christ.
Jesus is telling us that, even with wealth and money, we are to serve God. We must be faithful to God in all things, and that includes our money. Even if the amount is small, even in nickles and dimes and quarters, even in those pennies that my son finds so dismaying because they now cost more to produce than their face value, even in the little things, we are to bring glory to God and benefit to our souls with wealth prudently used as a tool and not served as a god. This is how the Christian is to understand and use money: as a tool, prudently, for God's glory. The prudent use of a tool is how the Christian should approach all the mundane, worldly things God provides us.
For sometimes Christians are not so good with those. We are not prudent. We are often, as my mother would sometimes say, "so heavenly minded but of no earthly good." We think that faith in Jesus Christ exempts us from the obligation to be prudent with material blessings. We think that reliance on the Holy Spirit will protect us from our own carelessness with money.
But Jesus points us to a different understanding of money, one that sees money not as something to be served, but rather something to be used. Jesus tells us that we must show God faithfulness in our use of money. That doesn't mean rejecting money. Nor does it mean hording money, gripping it with cold dead fingers extended from fearful hearts with no spiritual imagination.
No, it means using money: to achieve goals that are wise and holy. It means recognizing that money, too, can be used to glorify God, indeed, that it should be used to bring glory to God. Even if the amount of money given to you is, by your count, very little, you must use that little faithfully. "Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much."
Yet we often discount the importance of the little. We think that only big gestures can make a difference. But as any banker will tell us, little things can add up to a lot.
Let me give you an example of what this might mean. Many of you like coffee, and a number of you might now and then treat yourself to a fine latte from one of those nice coffee shops. Perhaps you have that treat once a week, or maybe every day. I did some looking, and from that I hit upon a figure of $3.10 for a premium beverage.
Now, not all of us are going to grab that beverage (myself, I can't stand the taste of coffee) but there are other simple pleasures we enjoy, and we think nothing of it, things that may cost even more than that latte. The money is not much, even if we plunk it down every week.
So, let's think about what would happen if we all saw that small amount of money, $3.10, as likewise no big deal when it came to our financial faithfulness to God, as the least we could do in contributing to ends and purposes holy and faithful and embraced to give glory to God. What would happen if those of us who typically give to this congregation decided to increase our giving every week by the value of that premium latte? What would that look like? What would that little thing (a cup of coffee a week) mean over the course of a year?
Well, what it would mean is an increase of giving in one year by over $14,000. That puts us well on the way to satisfying all of our financial obligations, only for the price of a nice beverage a week, not for every person, but only for every family.
Such is the power of little things.
I'm not fond of cliches. One cliche, however, seems particularly relevant. It goes like this: "it's the little things that count." When it comes to the things of God, when it comes to discipleship and following Jesus, things big and great are made of little things. We show our love for God in every little thing, not only the big things. We neglect the little things at the risk of being unfaithful to God.
How will you be faithful to God in the little things?
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