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 nations – over 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).
ii Source: Information Please Database, © 2007 Pearson Education, Inc.
iii Weissman, Robert; Multinational Monitor; July 1, 2003.
iv Gandhi, Mahatma; Mahatma, Volume IV (1934).
vi Craddock, Fred; Luke (Interpretation commentary); (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990); p.192.
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