Who will we serve? Sermon for Sunday 18 September

Scripture Readings: 1 Timothy 2:1-7

Luke 16:1-13

Who will we serve?

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

A curious tale, today’s Gospel reading. Jesus tells us a parable which seems to encourage dishonesty.

He tells us of a rich man- a land owner, by the sound of it- who, for whatever reasons, suspects that the servant who manages his property isn’t doing his job very well: he’s been told that ‘the manager was wasting his master’s money’. So rich man calls in his manager, and demands that he hand in all the accounts, so that he can check them out.

Faced with the threat of an audit, the manager is horrified. He sees his future before him- he’s going to be caught out, and sacked. And he’s got used to his cushy number: he says to himself: ‘I am not strong enough to dig ditches, and I am ashamed to beg’. And so he concocts a plan which will mislead his master, and at the same time garner him some friends so that if he does lost his job, they’ll be honour-bound to help look after him.

His plan is to go round the peasant farmers who rented land from master. In those days, people would pay rent in kind, rather than in money: in barrels of olive oil or sacks of wheat, and so on. With the connivance of the tenants, the manager falsifies the books. Someone who owes 100 barrels of oil is asked to rewrite the account so that it looks as though he owes only 80; someone owing 1,000 sacks of wheat alters this to only 800. The master is going to be happy because it will look as though the rent arrears aren’t that bad after all. And the tenants are let off with some of their rent. Since they will be grateful, the shrewd manager reckons that they’ll be bound to help him out if he does, despite all this, lose his job: then the manager can go to the tenants and say, ‘I helped you out- how about you helping me (so that I won’t have to dig ditches or beg!)’.

Jesus tells a parable here which almost sounds like a justification for the sort of thing which brought the banks to their knees in 2008. The manager engages in what has been called ‘creative accounting’- he cooks the books in order to make the state of the business look better than it actually is. Jesus ends the story by saying, ‘As a result the master of this dishonest manager praised him for doing such a shrewd thing; because the people of this world are much shrewder in handling their affairs than the people who belong to the light’[1].

When the master discovers what his manager is up to, he might not approve of what is servant his done. But he has a sneaking admiration for the way that the dishonest manager has faced the crisis with energy and ingenuity. Sometimes we feel that way about financial crooks, how they are able to brazenly go through with their nefarious schemes- and, like the dishonest manager of our parable, get others to go along with it. We don’t approve, but we admire their chutzpah.

Yet this is a troubling parable. Usually we think of parables as stories to help us understand what it means to be a Christian. The Good Samaritan tells us to love our neighbour, the Prodigal Son reminds us of God’s forgiveness. This story, however, seems to be suggesting that we should sometimes be dishonest! We can’t describe this kind of attitude to life as virtuous.

And yet, no doubt many of the people who heard this tale from Jesus originally would have enjoyed it. After all, they were probably poor people themselves, and they would all have had a good laugh at this tale of a lazy servant who couldn’t face digging ditches, who cheated a rich landowner, and who also helped some poor traders get off with extortionate rent!

So is Jesus praising theft, forgery and fraud in this story? Is he suggesting that we Christians could learn a thing or two from fraudsters and thieves? Not quite- as his comments at the end of the passage make clear. In the famous saying with which today’s passage ends, Jesus makes it clear that God has to come first- ‘No servant can be the slave of two masters… You cannot serve both God and money’.

Jesus urges to choose between God and Mammon. Not an easy choice to make!

Jesus tells this tale to make a point about this world and the next. If you do have wealth in this world, he says, use it wisely. ‘Make friends for yourselves with worldly wealth’. That sounds like he’s saying we should use what money we have to make friends and influence people. But I think what Jesus has in mind is not big donations to political parties, but big donations to charity. Give your money away, he’s saying, ‘so that when it gives out, you will be welcomed in the eternal home’.

It’s a similar sentiment to one we find in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus reminds us that our wealth here is of no importance- instead, we are to save up our real wealth in heaven.

‘Do not store up riches for yourselves here on earth, where moths and rust destroy, and robbers break in and steal. Instead, store up riches for yourselves in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and robbers cannot break in and steal. For your heart will always be where your riches are’ (Matthew 6.19-21).

The dishonest manager in the story was shrewd enough to organise things so that it would turn out right for him. So Christians are also called upon to be shrewd. The clever thing to do is not to love money for its own sake, but to use it wisely. We’ll be welcomed into heaven if we have used the gifts God has given us to help others, and for the sake of the Kingdom.

Jesus comments that the worldly-wise often beat us to it. ‘The people of this world are much more shrewd in handling their affairs that the people who belong to the light’- those who belong to the light being the followers of Jesus. Yet the people who belong to the light also have to live in the world, alongside ‘the people of this world’. Christians need to be shrewd as well.

But we can never be so clever that we betray our deepest values. It seems that for a long time, many Church leaders, in the Roman Catholic Church and in other Churches, thought that the shrewd way to deal with child abuse was to cover it up. Like other secular institutions- schools and children’s homes- they took the view that it would be bad for the Church’s image if these stories were allowed to get out. They thought they were being shrewd. In fact, their actions were eventually disastrous for the Church’s public image. More importantly, they increased the pain and suffering of the victims, who were denied the chance to see justice being done. All their apparent shrewdness was a denial of the Gospel which is the reason for the Church’s existence. Jesus taught us that we have an absolute duty of care to the ‘little ones’ among us- those who are most vulnerable and who need our care and love. Whoever in the Church fails in their duty to protect children and other vulnerable people, fails Jesus Christ himself.

Perhaps we could sum this up by saying that we are to be shrewd, but not devious. For example: our reading from the first Letter to Timothy contains this advice about how worship should be conducted in Church:

First of all, I urge that petitions, prayers, requests and thanksgivings be offered to God for all people; for kings and all others who are in authority, that we may live a quiet and peaceful life…

Last Sunday, we prayed for our ruler and for the life of our city at the Kirking of the Council. I’ve always felt that a shrewd Church would never give up the opportunity an event like this offers us. It’s a chance for us to bring God into our public life, and to remind our civic leaders of the values of the Gospel. Of course, many people who saw us go down the street, or who read about it in the papers over the following days, probably saw it all as just a bit of colour and spectacle: an interesting bit of ‘heritage’, something for the tourists, perhaps. But at the heart of it all is prayer, worship, a sermon. The Deputy Mayor of Augsburg, our Twin City0 said at the Town House afterwards that the Kirking had been the highlight of his trip to Inverness. The Kirking is a wonderful opportunity for us to speak to our community about Jesus Christ, and to share with the world his message of hope and love.

For the Church ought to be a more ‘worldly-wise’, shrewder, in how we go about our business. We who ‘belong to the light’ as Luke’s Gospel puts it, should be clever in the way that we our handle affairs in the midst of the people of the world. In today’s parable, Jesus is saying to us: ‘Look at the ingenuity that other people put into their dishonest scheming. What can’t you put such ingenuity into spreading my message?’ That’s the point of the parable.

So I think that we could- and should- ‘sell’ the Gospel better. We can learn from professionals in advertising and journalism. We should listen to the advice of those who understand contemporary culture as we seek to reach out to people. Charles Wesley, who knew the importance of a good hymn tune, said that the devil ought not to have all the best tunes. Well, the Devil ought not to have all the best marketing techniques either. Jesus challenges us- look at how clever the enemies of the Church are. You have to be even better at it than they are.

So let’s be shrewd, by all means- but for the sake of the Gospel. Let’s find new ways to make people interested and excited by the message of Jesus. But in doing so we can’t ever lose sight of the Gospel values which we proclaim: God’s love for the weakest among us, such as children. In our personal lives we’re very often eager to put a lot of effort and ingenuity into finding ways to make money and to get on in the world. But we serve God, and not Mammon. God is the object of our desires, not money. Giving away God’s free grace is what we are about- not hoarding up wealth for ourselves.

Most of the messages people hear day by day tell them they need more stuff, they need to buy more, they need to be richer. But those messages are not messages of hope. We have the best message there is- the message of Jesus Christ. His Gospel of love, acceptance and forgiveness deserves to be spread by all means available. So let us, with wisdom and joy, share the Gospel message with a world which needs, more than ever, to hear it!

Ascription of Praise

The God of grace who calls you all

to his eternal glory in Christ

restore, establish and strengthen you.

All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.

Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2016 Peter W Nimmo

 Notes

[1] vv8&: see Franklin in Oxford Bible Commentary, p948).