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Stewards of God's Gifts – Br. David Vryhof

A sermon based on Luke 16:1-13

It was a time in which “money was becoming more than simply a social convention, a medium of economic exchange.  People were beginning to pursue money as a primary goal; and the amount of money one acquired determined one’s status in the community.”i So author Donald Spoto describes the socio-economic climate at the beginning of the 13th century – but his words could well apply to the age in which we live. For many in the world today, the pursuit of wealth has become the primary goal, and wealth still determines social status, power and influence – just as it did 700 years ago. The gap between those who have wealth and those who do not is growing – in our country and throughout the world.

In an article published in the International Herald Tribune earlier this year (March 29, 2007), Pulitzer prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston reported that income inequality grew significantly in 2005, the most recent year for which data is available.  The top 10% of Americans, he reported, reached a level of income share not seen since the Depression. While total reported income in the United States increased almost 9%, the average income for those in the bottom 90% actually fell.  The gains went largely to the top 1%, whose average income rose 14% over the course of that year. The data showed that 300,000 Americans collectively enjoyed as much income as the bottom 150 million Americans, the top group receiving 440 times as much as the average person in the bottom half earned, nearly doubling the gap from 1980.

The widening gap between the rich and the poor is evident not only in America, but throughout the world.  In 2003, for example, the richest 20% of the world’s population earned 85% of global income, while the poorest 20% earned only 1.4%.ii Robert Weissman, editor of the Multinational Monitor writes, “There is something profoundly wrong with a world in which the 400 highest income earners in the United States make as much money in a year as the entire population of 20 African nationsover 300 million people.”iii

There is no denying that in today’s world the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer.

And so we should listen carefully when Jesus speaks about wealth and possessions in the gospels, as he does in today’s lesson from The Gospel of Luke. It is a subject he returns to often; in the gospels Jesus has more to say about money than about any other topic, including prayer. In this 16th chapter of Luke’s gospel, two stories are told, both beginning with the same words: “There was a rich man…” The first story, which we heard today, speaks of the constructive use of money, while the second, the story of the rich man and Lazarus, which we’ll hear next week, shows how destructive money can be to the health of the soul. The love of money can be spiritually fatal.

The first of the parables, the one we have before us today, seems an odd choice to illustrate the constructive use of money. Why would Jesus commend a steward who clearly acted dishonestly – in effect, stealing from his master in order to provide for his own security in the future? What is Jesus trying to say by using this example? Does he actually find the dishonest man’s actions praiseworthy? A closer examination of the story reveals that Jesus praises the man’s foresight, not his dishonest methods. He urges his disciples to exercise the same foresight in their use of material goods, using what money and possessions they have to secure for themselves heaven and the future. He admonishes them to be “shrewd” and “clever” in these things. Elsewhere Jesus warns of the dangers inherent in acquiring wealth, but here he claims that it is possible for us to manage our goods in a way that is appropriate to our lives as citizens of the kingdom of God.

What characterizes a right approach to material things? What can this story teach us about wealth and how it is to be properly managed?

Its first lesson is this: that all things belong to God and that we are stewards of what we have for God’s sake. The relationship of a steward to his master in biblical times was clear: the steward’s work was to care for whatever the master entrusted to him, and he was to use these things solely for master’s benefit and to accomplish what he intended. The things for which the steward was responsible were not his own; they belonged to the master. They were not his to use for his own ends; he served the will of the master.

In the same way, the gospel implies, we are stewards of the gifts that God has given to us. Our heritage, our upbringing, our education, the social and economic and political status that are ours by virtue of our race, ethnicity, and class, our individual gifts and abilities, even our desire and determination to succeed – it all comes from God and belongs to God. We are stewards of God’s gifts, not owners.

Now this sort of thinking runs contrary to what many of us believe. We like to believe that the wealth and privilege we enjoy are the fruit of our hard labor, that we are responsible for them and that we deserve what we have. But the truth is that we did not create these things, nor can we rightfully claim them as our own.

All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given Thee.” Everything we are, all that we have, ultimately comes to us from the gracious hand of God. Haven’t we received the gifts of intelligence, of healthy bodies and sound minds, of creativity and industriousness and resourcefulness? How can we possibly claim them as ours? Did we decide to be born with healthy bodies and minds? Did we determine the opportunities that would be given to us in life? The truth is that all things come from God, and there is nothing that comes to us that is not, first of all, a gift from God’s hands.

When we truly understand this, gratitude is the result. “To be grateful,” writes Thomas Merton, “is to recognize the love of God in everything He has given us, and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace…”

We are stewards of these gifts – of our money and material possessions, of our bodies and our minds, of life itself. We are given them for a time so that we might fulfill the loving purpose of the One who has given them to us. They are given to us for a purpose, a purpose that is related to the purposes of God.

The great spiritual leader of India, Mahatma Gandhi, similarly taught his followers that “Those who own money [should] behave like trustees holding their riches on behalf of the poor.”iv If this understanding were to really penetrate our thinking – that we are stewards of what we have, trustees who hold these gifts on behalf of others – if we were to meditate on this thought constantly and try to act up to it, then, says Gandhi, “life on earth would be governed far more by love than it is at present.”v Charity would replace greed. Generosity and concern for others would replace obsession with our own prosperity and comfort.

So we must ask ourselves, “Have I thought of myself as the owner of all that I am and all that I have, or as a steward or trustee of these gifts?  And how have I used them? – for my own pleasure and comfort and benefit or for the service of others, especially the poor, who are so close to God’s heart?  How shall I, from this day on, view my money, my time, my possessions, my talents, even my life itself?”

Jesus counsels us to use these things in ways that will bring glory to God and that will further the reign of God on the earth. It is that for which we pray daily when we say, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” We are agents of God’s reign on earth, builders of God’s kingdom. If we learn nothing else from this gospel lesson, we must learn to see ourselves as we truly are: as stewards, not owners, of what we have and are. This gospel story teaches us that the choices we make in these matters will have eternal consequences. In gospel language, either we will gain our lives by losing them to become channels of God’s love, healing, forgiveness and reconciliation – or we will lose our lives by gathering to ourselves all that has been given us and using it first and foremost for our own ends.

Finally, Jesus teaches his disciples to be faithful in small things, so that, as he says, God may entrust them with “true riches.” It’s easy to be indifferent to small things while dreaming of being entrusted with great matters, but Jesus’ admonition is to attend faithfully to even the smallest and most ordinary things, no matter how insignificant they may seem. As biblical scholar Fred Craddock points out, “Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with the queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake. More likely the week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county commissioner, teach a Sunday school class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice, and feed the neighbor’s cat. ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.’”vi

We live in a world in which there is tremendous disparity between those who have wealth and control wealth, and those who are without these resources and without the benefits that come with them. How then shall we live?

Live as stewards of all that has been entrusted to you. Use what you have been given for God’s glory and for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. Use it to bless the lives of others, to bring hope where there is despair, to create possibilities where all seems dead and lost. Manage your gifts – all of them – as if you have been entrusted with them and as if you will be held accountable for what you do or do not do with them. Attend carefully to even the smallest things.

Then you will know the joy of finding true life, the life that secures the future. Then will those comforting words be spoken to you: “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master” (Mt.25:21).

i Spoto, Donald; Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi; (New York: Penguin Group, Inc., 2002), p.57.

ii Source: Information Please Database, © 2007 Pearson Education, Inc.

iii Weissman, Robert; Multinational Monitor; July 1, 2003.

iv Gandhi, Mahatma; Mahatma, Volume IV (1934).

v Ibid.

vi Craddock, Fred; Luke (Interpretation commentary); (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990); p.192.

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22 Comments

  1. Elizabeth Anne September 21st 2017 on September 21, 2017 at 20:02

    Thank you Brother David for reaching out with your Sermon.
    How many of the top 1% are out there reading and thinking about what they can do for others?
    The gifts we receive and appreciate, the simpler things in life and the opportunities to help others abound with love. To be thankful for all we have. Family, community and friendship.

    • Mary Brown on September 23, 2017 at 12:44

      Brother David, all you said was so true. We have to be thankful for all we have, so many people have so much less. If we can see & hear all our God has created, that itself is a blessing. Thank you so much.

  2. Marshall Keys on September 21, 2017 at 13:32

    While I agree with your ends and with your sentiments, I think it is detrimental to our/your cause to make statements that are not borne out by facts.

    Both “George” and “Jose Latour” make valuable points.

    In my life I try to live in such a way that the hope of the poor is not taken away.

  3. SusanMarie on September 21, 2017 at 10:00

    This is an important sermon. While it can be uncomfortable, I’m always thankful to confront what makes me uncomfortable. I’ve heard some preachers say that their job is not only to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable. We need to hear this message, yet I often feel stuck. For better or worse, we live in a society in which we are expected to prepare financially for life after work/income. One of the other commenters stated being thankful for having accumulated enough to live comfortably. In this society, if we don’t prepare for the future, we will end up on the streets and thus become a burden to society and/or our families. There’s really no way out of this that I can see. It’s similar to being a widow in Jesus’ time or even in some countries today. So while we’re accumulating that wealth for our own security, is that wise or greedy? Even if along the way we’re giving a lot to those who have little, it still doesn’t make things equal. It’s a band-aid. Another option is to live in communes as the early Christians did and some still do today, and that arrangement doesn’t always work well, nor does Communism.

    So it’s obvious that I struggle with this. Fact is, I struggle deeply with it. I feel that my husband and I live wisely, responsibly, and generously, but even in our generosity, others still suffer. Having said that, I realize the problem is not mine alone to solve. I think about this often and welcome sermons like this, but would appreciate some realistic guidance. It seems like we’re all living in scarcity mode. I also feel trapped — and frankly dismayed — by the idea that in this day and age we need to prepare for possibly 30 years of living after work/income. YEESH!

    And with utmost gentleness, I’d like to point out that sometimes it’s difficult to read a message like this from someone who I presume as monk in a monastery does not have to give much concern for being taken care of monetarily in “retirement.”

    I am trying to live with faith, trust, and Peace about all this, but it does get complicated, at least from my point of view.

  4. Rhode on September 21, 2017 at 09:44

    Everything belongs to God. Yet, we receive Gods free gifts everyday… air, sun, stars, water, grace and the ability to choose our god. When we choose our life and money over the love of God we choose a poor god. All our efforts to maintain our status, security, health will be for nothing as we turned on the TV this week and viewed how quickly all can be removed. Perhaps the greatest gifts we can give God are the ones God gives to us freely, commitment and love. Because true love always desires to be giving, to be present, to face hardship and find ways to help alleviate pain and suffering with any resources. Even if all we have is one ear to listen and pray. All God asks is for us to be willing to try. God promises to provide what we need, teaching us to trust in his mercies. Even if those mercies appear after our physical death. For there is much more after this life. Which is why Jesus acknowledged that the rich have their consolation now.

  5. Elizabeth Hardy on September 21, 2017 at 09:41

    This very morning I was worrying about my retirement income…when really I should be on my way to the parish I am currently working with. Thank you Lord for working in a mischievous way! Time to stop just thinking and preaching it and live it out myself…my parishioners will love it when I tell them. Great sermon… the percentages are probably even greater and more troubling ten years since this was preached.

  6. george on July 21, 2015 at 07:40

    Thank you–i agree with everything except one point. income inequality has gotten progressively more tilted since this was written, but that’s comparing the growth rates of income, not their absolute levels. the poor are not getting poorer in an absolute sense, their incomes are not growing as rapidly as the rich, but they are growing. part of this is due to the rapid adoption of new technology–it’s easier to get wealthy quickly (think Mark Zuckerberg)

  7. Ruth West on July 20, 2015 at 20:35

    It is interesting that we are so nearsighted that we miss the point of your sermon, that is, that we are stewards of our possessions, not owners. I am nearing the time when I look around at my meager possessions and wonder how they will be disposed of after my death. I dare not hold on to any of it very tightly! I just thank God that we were able to accumulate enough for our comfort while here on earth and share some for His glory. Thanks for this homily. We sometimes resist being hit in such a sensitive spot– our pocketbooks!!

    • rakgadi khobo on September 21, 2017 at 15:58

      wow, thank you Ruth for the reminder, of this truth- we are stewards not owners

  8. Michele on September 18, 2014 at 17:47

    Thank you for this posting. I must admit that I sometimes take my talents and gifts for granted. I am so grateful for this posting. Thank you.

  9. Jose Latour on March 3, 2014 at 09:32

    America’s wealth gap is growing, as it is worldwide. True Christian charity guiding prudent government policies can make the difference between creating a culture of dependance and creating true opportunities for people to find their marketable and respectable place in our economy. Teach a man (or woman) how to fish if he or she can; if the poverty is that of a child, of the elderly, of the disabled, then charity – both private and public – is the only Christian response.

  10. Ann on March 3, 2014 at 08:50

    Thank you.

  11. Rick Porter on March 3, 2014 at 08:48

    It is difficult but important to address from a broader perspective. Those who get the short end of the stick in the eyes of the world live under the same gospel message. Everything they have is also a gift of God. And yet they have the same responsibilities to use what they have been given for God’s glory to help others.

    But what an extra burden so many carry. Who deserves to be sexually abused or profoundly physically challenged? Is it fair that some are born into poverty with severe learning differences? Do the wealthy deserve their fair share? Are “deserve” and “fair” even concepts that can have any meaning in God’s world?

    We are all at a different point on the spectrum with regard to possessions, health, challenges, opportunities and options. But it seem to me that Jesus teaches the same lesson to everyone of us, notwithstanding our circumstances. The widow with the one coin to donate is in the same place that I am in. It is only a matter of quantity. Her gifts may be limited to the one coin and a smile to a sad person.

    It distorts our view of the world God has created to always focus of the wealth divide. Of course it is huge and the worlds resources are and always have been unevenly distributed. The wealthy have this unending burden to share in to material ways to help the disadvantaged in terms of economic security and opportunity.

    But we limit this message of Jesus way to much when we read these lessons on the wealthy in this narrow manner. We are all wealthy in God’s eyes and we all have the responsibility to share with love what we have been given in love.

  12. Margo on March 3, 2014 at 07:15

    Perhaps it helps to add what Gandhi’s identifies as social sins and remind ourselves that economic inequalities are the result of our choices!
    Wealth without Work
    Pleasure without Conscience
    Science without Humanity
    Knowledge without Character
    Politics without Principle
    Commerce without Morality
    Worship without Sacrifice- Gandhi
    Beginning of a great sermon. Thank you Margo

    • Christina on July 20, 2015 at 11:15

      Over the years I must have read this sermon before. This morning though it made me angry as I wonder how the people at the other end of the financial world see their lot in life: their gifts!
      I know of a small group of people who suffer from schizophrenia. Most of them are on a disability income: $1,000.00 a month. Rents in this city probably cost them $6-700.00 a month, so they have the balance to live on for four-five weeks. Their Association, decided in its wisdom, to shut down the local support office – while it continues to enjoy superb offices in Toronto.
      I wonder how these suffering people view their gifts of health, quality of life, etc. etc.
      And, what do I do about it? Not enough.

  13. Anders on December 15, 2013 at 08:00

    As I struggle with the concept of wealth and my own financial management, I appreciate your words. On one hand, we are trained to be consumers or producers, and that only that which can be measured “exists”. There may be thousands of words for money, but none can explain the dynamics of my great uncle plotted my father and uncles against another through gifting houses, or the situation a friend of mine is in depleting his retirement savings to pay his rent. I can only look at the breath which Merton describes as a gift and grace, one that is both involuntary yet conscious, as the only real real currency we have.

  14. George Roberts on September 16, 2013 at 12:36

    Timely, still, as we see from the reference to the time of St. Francis. We are so caught up with power, position, and stuff that we clutter our path to God – we struggle to move closer. Thank you for reposting this sermon!

  15. Bob on July 24, 2013 at 20:42

    Br. David this is very much about the individual. What about our responsibility as communities as members of nations? Do we continue to collude with what produces these effects or do we protest and make hard choices to live more simply that others might simply live? Why doesn’t the church take a corporate stance to this effect and talk about greed not just poverty? Why do we Episcopalians support million dollar mortgages in our NY city head quarters?
    Why do we support paying some clergy people corporate salaries which are 10 times higher than others? Is this part of good stewardship? It’s just the way we do it! Our embrace is very wide. Margo

    • Margo on September 18, 2014 at 06:16

      A year later, I have discovered that our tradition has a church In NY city that has property that supplies it with more than a billion dollars a year. One of the uses these resources are put to is to employ a clergy person on a salary of about a million dollars. Can this good stewardship? Is the American way of valuing people by what you pay them good stewardship? Margo

  16. Ruth West on July 24, 2013 at 19:15

    “To whom much is given, much shall be required.” This applies, not only to spiritual gifts, but also to our finances. This is such a good sermon, and, as
    you pointed out, a subject which Jesus, by his words, felt was very important.
    Thank you.

  17. Barb Yatsevitch on July 24, 2013 at 05:22

    Joy, joy, joy! So THAT’S what losing one’s Life means! Thank you SO much!
    Many Blessings and much gratitude, Barb

  18. E Black on September 5, 2011 at 09:27

    Very much on target.

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