Readings: 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Psalm 79:1-9; Luke 16:1-13
The ‘poor’ preacher
After worship one Sunday a little boy told the pastor, “When I grow up, I’m going to give you some money.”
“Well, thank you,” the pastor replied, “but why?”
“Because my daddy says you’re one of the poorest preachers we’ve ever had.”
I’m guessing that you and I are alike in that we’re uncomfortable talking about money. Most of us are. As a preacher, I feel particularly awkward about it as I don’t want to come across as a phoney tele-evangelist-type. These days, with skyrocketing inflation and astronomical housing costs, we may be particularly sensitive to the topic.
And yet, Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook. Jesus offers teachings about our attitudes and practices towards money more than any other topic. And that’s what we’re left with in today’s gospel reading. So, let’s explore the story a bit, naming the uneasiness we may feel in approaching the subject, so that perhaps we might hear a fresh and even inspiring Word from God today.
Firstly, a bit about the context. Jesus has just offered teaching to a crowd of people, and he specifically addresses the religious elite, the Pharisees, and their attitude toward the marginalized of his day. Last week we heard the parable of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin, and this is followed by the parable of the Lost Son. These are stories of the radical hospitality and reckless love of God for each of us, and especially for the ‘lost’ ones. Now, Luke tells us, Jesus turns his attention back to the disciples.
The story itself isn’t overly complicated. There is a household manager who apparently is not very good at his job. When he learns that he is about to get fired (and would likely become destitute), he hatches a plan. He decides to approach people indebted to his master and he lowers their debts, thus putting them in debt to him. Presumably, these folks would be the first he could turn to when he loses his job. When the master of the household finds out about this, he actually praises the shrewdness of the manager and his skills at self-preservation.
Where the confusion lies in the story is how it is interpreted. Is Jesus praising the dishonesty of the manager? Are followers of Jesus to use deceit to further their own ends? Did the manager reduce the debts by going without ‘his cut’ or was he taking from the principal owed? What does Jesus mean when he says to be faithful to dishonest wealth?
There is a lot of scholarly debate about these questions, but I’d like to principally avoid them for our purposes today. I think the take-home here is rather straightforward: How do we respond to situations of need as they present themselves to us?
‘What then shall I do?’
Principally, this story is meant to challenge Jesus’ followers to consider their responsiveness both to his presence (and what that means for their lives), and to the perceived needs in front of them. ‘What then shall I do?’ is the question the manager asks himself, and it echoes the instance when the rich young ruler approached Jesus and asked him what he should do to inherit eternal life. This story, like today’s, deals with the question of what our attitudes and practices around money are in the context of following Jesus.
When Jesus says at the end of the passage that we cannot serve both God and Mammon (or ill-gotten wealth), he makes sure we know that ultimately this story is about serving God, and not the pursuit of wealth.
Using what one has
The manager is praised by Jesus not for his deceit, but because he knew how to operate in his world effectively. He used what was at his disposal to meet the need before him (in this case, his own preservation). The disciples, on the other hand, struggled to know how best to navigate life in the Kingdom. Frequently they misunderstand Jesus, and often times would-be followers are sent away dejected when Jesus demands they lay down everything in order to follow him.
They also seem to be guilty of not seeing the needs right in front of them – or at least, they fail to respond appropriately by giving of their resources for the betterment of the poor. To put it another way, Jesus is likely using this story to teach his audience the importance of almsgiving – giving to the poor, helping those in need, these are the best ways to use one’s resources as one lives according to Jesus’ teaching.
What does this mean for us?
What can we take home from today’s gospel? I think the basic meaning of the story is a reminder to make connections between following Jesus and the resources at our disposal. Over and again, Jesus cautions his hearers about the siren’s call to the pursuit of wealth and material possessions. In Jesus’ day, and perhaps even more so in our own, the temptation to find security and happiness in what one owns is all too great. Sometimes we are driven by greed, but more often, I think, we’re simply looking to find peace and security for ourselves and our loved ones. We use the term ‘financial security’ as one of our primary goals in life so as to ease our anxieties.
This is not a bad goal in and of itself, but Jesus offers a caution to his followers that financial resources are temporary, and life has a way of stripping us of our securities if we’re not careful. Our focus should be on following Jesus first, whether we are in financial distress or not, so that our hearts moved by love of God and neighbour are prepared to act when opportunities arise.
Giving as Spiritual Practice
Finally, I’d like us to consider the claim that what we do with our resources, including our time, talent, and treasures, can be considered a spiritual practice. In my Thanksgiving letter that you’ll receive this week, I talk about the insight gleaned from Henri Nouwen, the famous spiritual writer. He wrote a little book called ‘A Spirituality of Fundraising’ where he talks about a shift in his thinking when it came to raising money to support his ministry. He grounds the act of giving in prayer undertaken in gratitude.
He writes, “Prayer is the radical starting point of fundraising because in prayer we slowly experience a reorientation of all our thoughts and feelings about ourselves and others…. Prayer allows us to see ourselves and others as God sees us….(that is, as the beloved of God)… As our prayer deepens into a constant awareness of God’s goodness, the spirit of gratitude grows within us. Gratitude flows from the recognition that who we are and what we have.” In this light, how can we not be moved to give out of that which we have received in a spirit of love and generosity?
Our offering shapes the future
Please don’t hear today’s homily as a plea for donations. I hope these words, inspired by the gospel, will help us to appreciate the many and varied ways all of you have been making ministry happen at St. George’s. We can only give from that which we’ve received, and you have shown over the years by the giving of your energies and resources a profound gratitude for God’s gifts. In the coming weeks and months, your continued support of the ministry at St. George’s will play a significant role in the shape of ministry to come.
Know that what you contribute, in whatever form that takes, matters. It matters to God, and it matters to this community of which you are a part. And I pray God would continue to use all that we have to offer back in gratitude for the furtherance of God’s Kingdom here in Lowville, Milton, Burlington and area. Thanks be to God.