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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Luke 16:1-13: The Small Faithfulnesses

Pentecost 17C, 2010


Sometimes Jesus’ parables are pretty clear in their meaning and application: the good Samaritan, the lost sheep, the prodigal son, the sheep and the goats. Love your neighbor, search for the lost, welcome the repentant, care for the poor. That’s why preachers’ eyes light up when those stories come around in the preaching cycle: don’t have to wrestle this week – I’ve got at least ten sermons in the barrel on that text!

And then there’s the parable of the dishonest steward. This one doesn’t get preached very much. In fact, I’ve never heard anyone except me preach on this text. And it’s little wonder why: for all intents and purposes, Jesus concludes this story by commending the fraudulent accounting by the steward. This passage could be the favorite text for Enron, AIG, Bernie Madoff, Lehman Brothers, and the United States Congress. In the parable, a rich man figures out that his business manager isn’t managing his accounts well. He asks for an audit of the books before the man is fired. The accountant realizes he’s in big trouble, because years of bookwork have rendered him unable to do manual labor, and he doesn’t want to be a beggar on the streets. So, he calls in each of his employer’s creditors and reduces what they actually owe. There are some forced interpretations of this passage, trying to protect Jesus, which argue that the manager is only eliminating his own commission. If that were so, Jesus would not refer to him as dishonest. The hard truth of this parable is that the manager steals from the employer about to fire him, in the hope that the creditors will be so grateful they will take care of him when he has no job. Jesus concludes the story with an incredibly troubling admonition in verse 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. What in heaven’s name is going on here?

Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Godfather films tell the story of a poor Sicilian immigrant, Vito Corleone, who stands up to a bully controlling a neighborhood in New York, and begins to protect his neighbors from abuse. When he has done, or is about to do a favor for a neighbor and they ask how they can repay him, his answer is always the same: Someday I will ask you for a favor. When I do, I want you to remember what I did for you. Don Vito’s career begins by protecting his family and friends, and he builds his crime syndicate by calling in favors from those he has protected.

The parable of the dishonest manager is a first-century version of The Godfather. The manager is doing favors, so he can call them in later on.

The entire gospel of Luke is filled with concern with how wealth and possessions can be primary obstacles to discipleship. Parable after parable reflects the view that anxiety over wealth – by both rich and poor – diverts energy and attention from faithfulness. From the Magnificat of Mary to the sermons of John the Baptizer, to the blessings and woes on the Plain, the parable of the rich fool, warnings about anxiety, advice to hosts and guests, and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the gospel of Luke, in the words of the great preaching teacher Fred Craddock, insists that a generous sharing of one’s goods can free one from the danger to the soul which lives coiled in the possession of things.[1] Jesus is saying that the best use of money is to bless others, not ourselves.

Craddock points past the dishonest steward to the next few verses: Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is unfaithful in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? A few verses later, Jesus, speaking to the Pharisees, concludes God knows your hearts; what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God. The parable, Craddock says, is meant to point out how the children of this world act decisively in a crisis to provide for their future. The steward is going to lose his job anyway: the master announces at the beginning of the parable that he is going to be fired. In response, the steward cooks the books so those who are in debt to his master will be grateful and perhaps welcome him into their homes. They might not want to hire him as their accountant, but he has reduced their debt and they may respond accordingly.

If the children of this world act to care for their earthly future, Jesus asks, shouldn’t those of us who are entrusted with eternal riches also be wise stewards of that gift? You and I have been given the gift of eternal life through the love of Jesus. More than that, you and I have been made stewards – caretakers of that enormous account. What does it mean for us to be faithful with that pearl of great price?

I believe this parable tells us that it’s the little faithfulnesses that really count in most of our lives. Probably none of us will be lined up against a wall and threatened with death if we confess Jesus as our Lord and Savior. Probably none of us will ever be asked on national television to account for our faith. Few of us will have to make a life-shattering decision about whether we will be obedient or not. Perhaps none of us will ever have to quit our jobs, give away our money, be rejected by friends and family, lose our homes, or otherwise change our lives dramatically in order to follow Christ.

But every day you and I are called to the little faithfulnesses. This week you will have the chance to write someone a note or call them on the phone. You will have the chance to tell a child a story, to visit a nursing home, to befriend a stranger, to feed the neighbor’s cat, go to choir practice, say yes to a church office, give a cup of cold water, offer a ride, vote for someone running for office. You will have the chance to teach Sunday School, to let someone into line ahead of you, to pick up something someone dropped, to forgive someone a trespass, to give money to the needy, to run an errand, to introduce yourself to a new neighbor, to invite someone you don’t know well to dinner. You will have the chance to attend a play or a ball game for a child in your neighborhood or in the church. You will have to opportunity to volunteer at a school or a library or a roadside cleanup. You will have the chance to pray for an enemy, to lend a book, to tell someone you love them. You will have the chance to thank your pastor, or a fireman, or a doctor, or a nurse, or a teacher, or a policeman, or a member of the government, for what they do. You will have the chance to listen to a child, to cry with a stranger, and to laugh with a friend.

Oh, but I heard you say, “I don’t have time.” The time you spend on Facebook, or watching something on TV you really don’t care about, or a hundred other little harmless distractions adds up to hours and days and weeks you could be blessing someone else.

And then, there’s what we can do to change the world with our money. I don’t know you very well yet – maybe hiding in our congregation is a Bill Gates, a Warren Buffet, a John D. Rockefeller – and if you’re out there, we have a great opportunity for you. But you and I have the chance every day to make a difference with our money. Little things add up. In the stewardship materials you’ll receive soon, you’ll see a chart showing how much coffee at Starbucks, or one pizza a week, or a daily soft drink, or that unused gym membership adds up. He who is faithful in a little will be faithful in much. . .

Every day you and I are offered a thousand chances to exercise our stewardship of the eternal riches. Once in a great while some of us have the privilege of making a life-or-death difference for someone – a deathbed conversion, a marriage saved, a tragedy averted, a life-changing insight imparted. But the hard truth is that even for those of us who preach and teach week after week, our work is measured not by tidal waves but drop by graceful teardrop on the hearts of people. As the roughest stone is slowly worn away over time by water, so our lives are shaped by small kindnesses, small loves, small faithfulnesses.

The Christian psychologist Keith Miller tells of a couple he had been counseling for a long time over their conflicted marriage. The husband and wife had huge differences in their expectations of each other, and battled nonstop. After months without progress, one day the couple came in smiling and holding hands. “Things are wonderful,” the wife reported. “What happened?” the astounded Miller asked. “It was the garbage,” answered the husband. “I decided I would stop fighting about the garbage, and I took it out. That changed everything for her, and for me.” In reflection, Keith Miller wrote The hinge on which great doors swing open is often very small.

The children of this world, Jesus says, are wise enough to use the small things to change their future. You and I have been given gifts great and small, including the greatest gift of all: the love of God in Christ Jesus. Today, and tomorrow, and every day, you and I will have a dozen, a hundred, a thousand chances to live out the little faithfulnesses. Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is unfaithful in a very little is unfaithful also in much.

[1] Luke: Interpretation Commentary, John Knox Press, 1990, p. 189

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