Proper 20C Sermon (2010)

Proper 20 (September 18-24)
Texts: Luke 16:1-13;
Amos 8:4-7

GRACE FOR OUR JOURNEY: BECOMING JUST STEWARDS

At the Children’s time (at 10:30) all the children got a name badge with the title “Steward” on it. I’m “Steward Paul.” We can all call ourselves stewards today and every day. But there is one problem. Today’s parable is traditionally called the Parable of the Unjust Steward. I’m not sure why they translated the word as “manager”; it makes me think of a guy with a badge at the grocery store, not our Christian call as Stewards. We don’t talk about managership at church. We talk about stewardship.

Pastor Dave did a great job getting us going last week on these parables from Luke’s gospel that we are in the middle of by showing us parables are not simply cute stories to make a point more obvious. In fact, Jesus used parables to jolt his listeners into thinking a new way. The main points of his parables were anything but obvious to conventional wisdom. But that was the problem — Jesus’ teaching often seemed to swerve off the course of conventional wisdom.

Last week we met the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep behind to look after one Lost Sheep, breaking all the rules of Shepherding 101. And we met the woman who makes a thorough search to find one Lost Coin, and then spends a bunch of coins to celebrate with a party, going against Budgeting 101. And finally, we met our favorite father who throws a huge party for the Prodigal Son who totally wasted his inheritance. We love this gracious Father, but we also have to admit that he’s not the standard model of good parenting. Who rewards their child for such irresponsible behavior?

This morning, Jesus follows up that well-loved Parable with one of the most mystifying parables of all, the Parable of the Unjust Steward. Let’s begin by noticing that the Unjust Steward isn’t necessarily unjust. That would be harsh. In fact, Jesus uses the same words for the steward as he does for the Prodigal Son. They both squander property: the son his father’s property, and the steward his master’s property. Before he’s the Unjust Steward, he’s simply the Prodigal Steward. But this time instead of rewarding bad behavior like the huge party the father throws, the master fires the Prodigal Steward. That’s more like it! That’s what we expect the consequences to be for someone who wastes away another person’s property. The Parable of the Prodigal Steward begins more conventionally.

But here comes the first twist, and why we call the steward unjust. With the Prodigal Son, it’s the father who starts throwing forgiveness of debts around liberally and throws a party. We may question the father’s actions as too gracious and not good parenting, but at least it’s his own debts and money he’s throwing around. In the Parable of the Prodigal Steward, we end up calling him unjust, too, because it’s his master’s debtors that he begins forgiving. Wow! I know Jesus is big on forgiving one another’s debts – “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” But forgiving debts when they aren’t even yours to forgive? Forgiving his master’s debtors is basically cheating his master. And that’s why this is called the Parable of the Unjust Steward.

But that’s not the last of the strange twists that Jesus throws us. He finishes by commenting, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” What?! The guy cheats you and you commend him for acting shrewdly? That might be an even stranger ending than the Father throwing a party for his Prodigal Son. Fathers might at least be excused because of that unconditional love business. But in this parable, business is business. Why commend someone who cheats you? Unless the commendation went something like this: “Why that no-good, crazy Steward – crazy as a fox! He may have gone from the frying pan and into the fire with me, but he was clever enough to make some friends and allies.

What in heaven’s name is the point that Jesus is trying to make here? I think looking at another short parable from Luke can help us:

“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’” (Luke 12:16-20)

This is known as the Parable of the Rich Fool, and there are a couple things in common with our other parables. The first thing is that the Rich Fool, like the Unjust Steward, is asked to give an accounting of his stewardship. It’s more subtle in this parable because God is asking him when he is about to die. “And the things you have prepared,” says God, “whose will they be?” The answer, if you think about it a moment, is that the things will be God’s. Why? Because they always have been God’s in the first place! They were God’s when the Rich Fool was alive, and they’ll be God’s after he’s dead. What makes him a Rich Fool, therefore, is that he lived his life thinking otherwise. He lived thinking everything he had was his to do with as he pleased. He no doubt even believed that he deserved it all.

How do we know? Because he talked to himself — which is the second thing in common with today’s parables. It’s very noticeable here since he even addresses himself as, “Soul.” The Prodigal Son and Unjust Steward both talked to themselves, too. The Prodigal Son talks about what he’ll say to his father when he gets home; and the Unjust Steward talks about his options, knowing that he hates hard work, hates getting his fingernails dirty! Apparently in Jesus’ parables, if you talk to yourself, you’re in trouble!

The difference is the Prodigal Son and Unjust Steward talk to themselves because they know they’re in trouble. But the Rich Fool doesn’t know yet that he’s in trouble. For him, it’s the other way around: he’s in trouble because he talks to himself. He thinks he’s in charge and so talks only to himself. He thinks he’s master of his own destiny without ever realizing that he’s actually steward of God’s creation. When he is asked for an accounting of his stewardship, he doesn’t just fired. His time to get it right has run out – it’s his time to die.

How do you and I stand if asked to give an accounting of our stewardship? Hopefully, we’ve done a respectable job of teaching and living Jesus’ main stewardship point: we own nothing; everything is God’s. We simply care for it, use and share it wisely. If that’s what these parables are meant to get through to us, then we’re OK, right?

But here’s where I think the overall mysteriousness of Jesus’ parables comes in: Jesus’ parables had many jolting twists and turns because he was trying to teach us about God’s kingdom breaking into this world, and God’s kingdom and God’s wisdom isn’t anything like ours. Jesus didn’t teach conventional wisdom because the conventional wisdom of humans is saturated with sinfulness.

Jesus not only had to teach in parables, in riddles, in mystery; he had to live it, too. Even though he was God’s sinless son, he let himself be viewed and treated as if he were the Prodigal Son. He let himself be treated as the Unjust Steward, a criminal thrown aside. He even let himself be tried and executed under the laws of human kingdoms so that we might finally be able to rise with him in faith to the powerful unconditional love of God’s kingdom, the love of the Prodigal Son’s Father, that welcomes him home no matter what.

So what does this mean for our stewardship? It means that we can’t stand on our own. We are the ones whom the prophet Amos chastises this morning. For example, this year Pastor Dave asked us to raise $40,000 beyond our budget to fund a mission trip to Guatemala. We raised almost $50,000! Great, right?! Yes . . . by conventional human standards. Forty-five of us also went to Guatemala and put in hundreds of hours helping them. Great, right?! Yes . . . by human standards.

But by God’s standards I’m afraid we are still Unjust Stewards. For how did our Guatemalan neighbors get so poor in the first place? Did we have nothing to do with it? Do you see how far our stewardship might still fall short of the standards of God’s kingdom? We have a long way to go in sharing the suffering of this world’s least, lost, lonely and left out.

Fortunately, we don’t stand alone. We stand with the one who has marked us and now sends us for the sake of the world. We stand with the one who let himself be treated as a Prodigal Son, as an Unjust Steward, that we might be able to stand with his righteousness before God and at least claim our dying and rising with him to a new standard of stewardship, the standard of God’s kingdom which goes far beyond those of this world’s kingdoms. With Jesus standing beside us in grace, we find ourselves increasingly standing next to all the least, lost, lonely, and left out of this world.

Yes, going to Guatemala was a huge and important undertaking. But it’s only the beginning. With the grace of our baptisms, our dying and rising with Jesus, we have grace for journeying into even bigger things. Amen.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, September 19, 2010

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