Proper 20C Sermon (2022)

Proper 20 (September 18-24)
Texts: Luke 16:1-13;
Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113


Instead of beginning this morning with a verse from one of our readings, as I often do, I’m going to begin with the hymn that we’re using for the Offertory during the next several weeks:

We give thee but thine own, whate’er the gift may be;
All that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee.

Fall is a common time to talk about stewardship, and this morning’s Gospel Reading is explicitly about stewardship. It’s all about a steward who has stewardship over a wealthy man’s property. It goes perfectly with the basic idea of Christian stewardship as expressed in the hymn. The whole creation is God’s, and any portion of that good creation which comes under our stewardship is but a trust from God. So when we bring our offerings to church for God’s work through our ministry, we’re simply giving it back to God. Nothing is fully ours. It’s all God’s, so that what falls under our management is simply a trust that we get to temporarily manage for God.

Before we dive deeper into today’s Gospel Reading, let me say a bit more about Christian stewardship, in general. First of all, “giving back to God” includes much more than what we happen to give to church. Don’t get me wrong. Your offerings are important to maintaining this ministry that we share, and we’ll eventually want to say more about that in the weeks ahead. But if everything we have is a trust from God, then all the other ways we spend our money also comes under the heading of stewardship. Most of our family finances are to maintain our family’s life and well-being. That’s stewardship, too! Stewardship isn’t just about what we give to church. Stewardship is about every resource that comes under our management, the lion-share of which involves taking care of our families. How well we take care of our families is every bit a part of stewardship as what we give to church.

But there’s so much more. Stewardship also includes our citizenship in this democracy. Our tax monies shouldn’t be simply a matter of resenting what we have to grudgingly give to the government. No, our taxes are very much a matter of stewardship, too, a portion of our resources that contributes to the well-being of our neighbors, our fellow citizens. In a democracy, we are blessed to have something to say about how our tax revenues are spent for the common good. Learning about all that is something I’ve become increasingly interested in as a pastor. Last week, I mentioned that I’ve taken to reading books about macro-economics, the big picture about how the partnership of government, citizens, and private businesses can best work together for the common good. Especially during an election year, I’m finding it an important part of my Christian stewardship to give to the political candidates who I feel will use our tax moneys for the common good, in just and fair ways. Being politically active and informed is also stewardship!

Since God has given us an entire beautiful creation, stewardship also involves much more than money. Our bodies are also a trust from God. How well do we take care of our bodies? Do we have healthy diets and get enough exercise? That’s also stewardship! God’s creation also happens to be our earth home. How well are we individually and collectively taking care of our environment, our earth home? In this time of a growing climate crisis that threatens everyone and everything on earth, are we acting urgently to take better care of the environment? That’s stewardship, too! And right now it is a particularly crucial part of stewardship that we need to spend some time and effort in addressing.

OK, so hopefully you begin to get the idea of everything that Christian stewardship takes in, because it begins with the fundamental principle, we’re singing about for these stewardship weeks: “All that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee.”

This morning’s Gospel Reading can extend our insight into basic Christian principles about stewardship. Because we see stewardship as taking care of what God gives us, stewardship always revolves around our relationships. Stewardship is never an isolated thing in which we see ourselves selfishly taking care of things that are just ours. Now, admittedly, since the fall into sin, we are inclined to see things in terms of ourselves as individuals who control a certain amount of stuff. At the end of today’s parable, that’s what Jesus is talking about in distinguishing children of this age and children of the light. Children of this age are folks like the rich man in the parable, who no doubt sees all his wealth as simply his. He’s probably not so different from many of the billionaires of today. And this rich man has so much wealth that he needs a steward to help him manage it, a Chief Financial Officer, if you will.

What proceeds to happen in the parable, though, becomes quite puzzling. He finds out that his steward is doing a bad job. The steward is squandering his wealth instead of enriching it, so the master fires his steward. So far, pretty clear. But what happens next is the puzzling part. First of all, this rich man hasn’t seemed to learn how to fire someone. Today, when you fire a manager like the one in the parable, you send security down with him or her to their office to clear out their desk, and he or she is immediately done. Period. End of story. But the steward in this parable has apparently been given a few days to work, so he schemes to take advantage of it. He writes off some of his master’s client’s debts in order to get into their good graces. From all appearances, it looks like he’s gone from being just plain incompetent to also being a cheat. It looks like he’s cheating his master out of some of what he considers to be his money.

But then why would the master commend the steward at the end of the parable? That becomes the biggest puzzle of all. And Jesus, too, seems to go on speaking of the steward in positive ways. How could that be if he was flat-out a cheat? Here’s where scholars might help us in knowing the background of how things worked back then. I’ve seen several varying explanations. Let me briefly share one that makes sense for me. For the rich man to make money, he allows clients to use some of his wealth, but then they need to return the value of those resources with interest. If the rich man gave a client 50 barrels of olive oil to use, he might expect back 100 barrels. Those are the exact numbers in the parable, in fact. The steward goes to a client who owes his master 100 barrels of olive oil but only makes him pay 50. In other words, he has him pay the principal and writes off the interest. Do you see?

Now, that doesn’t fully explain why the master might commend the steward, since he wants the interest in order to make more money. But in a Jewish context, that makes some sense, because there’s numerous passages in the Jewish law against charging interest. So his steward, while not fully complying with his wishes for collecting interest on the principal, is at least complying with accepted Jewish law — and perhaps at least improving his master’s reputation in the process. Especially when you consider that the master might have been doing what we would today call loan-sharking — charging exorbitant interest rates. In any case, his master sees the shrewdness of the steward making friends with the clients by writing off the interest and so commends his prudence.

Here’s an interesting fact about charging interest in today’s world: Did you know that not charging interest is still the case in much of the Muslim world? I learned that recently when watching the movie Peace by Chocolate. Not Piece, p-i-e-c-e, Piece of Chocolate; but Peace, p-e-a-c-e, Peace by Chocolate. It’s based on a true story about recent refugees from Syria who are being helped to resettle in Canada. The patriarch in the family had owned a chocolate factory in Damascus until it was completely destroyed in the Syrian civil war. Now faced with trying to help his family survive in a new country, he starts making his chocolates on the stove in their new, modest home, and then selling them around town — primarily in the church which is helping to sponsor their resettlement. His chocolates are a big hit, better than anything else in town, so it’s time to try to get some money together to get at least a small shop for making and selling his chocolates. As they sit with the local banker to get a business loan, he is surprised to learn that the loan charges 10% interest. He’s not surprised because the interest rate seems high; it’s because there’s interest charged at all. In many Muslim countries today, like Syria, it is illegal to both charge and pay interest. Disappointed, this Syrian refugee must turn down the loan that could help his family get started on a new life. It is against his religious faith to accept such a loan.

But a number of the families at the church who’s sponsoring him pool together a sizable amount of their own money to give him an interest-free loan. He starts his chocolate shop, it is an immediate success, and he is able to pay his friends back in full in a matter of months, not years. It is truly a story of sharing wealth in a way that leads to peace, to bringing together families and communities with shared prosperity.

In any case, we need to conclude this morning by figuring out why Jesus would commend this steward — not just the master in the parable who we’re told commends his steward. But then Jesus also seems to follow that up with his own commendation. The key is that when Jesus does so, he characterizes what the steward did as “making friends.” I didn’t just tell the story of Peace by Chocolate to learn about Muslim practices around loans and interest, but also because it is a good example of using one’s wealth to ‘make friends,’ to build community by sharing the wealth at one’s disposal.

One last story today. Pastor Carolyn Mackie wrote an essay I came across this week (“The Parable of the Shrewd Manager; or, A Gospel Word for Those in Capitalism“) that begins by confessing something common to pastors: we don’t ordinarily look forward to preaching on this puzzling, if not baffling, parable every third year in the lectionary. But the parable began to make more sense to her when she spent a few months in Senegal, West Africa. She describes her experience this way:

Many people in my new neighborhood experienced more poverty than anyone I knew back home. But they were wealthy in social relationships, maintaining vast networks that were wider than those of the most well-connected people I knew back in Canada. During my time in Senegal, I learned that, among other benefits, these social networks provided a financial safety net. Saving for the future in this context was less about personal savings accounts and more about helping out a friend, certain that they would return the help when it was needed.

Brothers and Sisters in Christ, in today’s parable I believe that Jesus is giving us a core principle of Christian stewardship. We began today with basic stewardship principles from our stewardship hymn, “All that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee.” With today’s parable we see more about how we are to make use of that trust. We are to make friends. We are to use the wealth that God gives us to build community and to make for shared prosperity. Next week (Proper 21C), and in the two remaining Sundays of our stewardship emphasis (Proper 26C, Proper 23C), we’ll learn more about what that means — to make friends with our wealth. Amen.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, September 18, 2022

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