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Dishonest wealth and eternal homes
There is a message in the Gospel for today with implications for this life and the next. The first part carries the same kind of warning and encouragement about the coming of the kingdom that we have seen in other parables: be prepared for the time when you will be asked to give an account of your life; and it follows that if you have served others well you will be rewarded. That does not mean that you can achieve your own salvation entirely by your own efforts, but if by the grace of God you can serve others in need you will be rewarded.
The parable of the dishonest manager is unfortunately rather topical. It is all too common today to find media attention focussed on accusations of dishonesty in business. It is ironical in a sense, because popular culture, reinforced by political and business leaders, has tended to encourage people in the belief that only the bottom line matters. All other values are being suppressed in favour of making money, yet when managers follow that way of thinking many of them eventually get into trouble. So we have also had an increase in attention to business ethics and public accountability. The greed is good philosophy still has plenty of supporters, and those who question it, like some of our church leaders, come in for severe criticism at times, but there is also a realisation in the community that there are other values which humanity in general does not wish to see abandoned. That is not exactly what the parable of the dishonest manager is about, but it does show that things are not very different today from what they were when Jesus told the story of the manager who cheated on his owner to win friends for himself.
The difficult, even shocking, thing about the parable of the dishonest manager (or the unrighteous steward) is that Jesus spoke as if he should be praised. The manager adjusted the accounts of those who owned his master some quite large debts, so that when he was dismissed he would have somewhere to go. It could be said that he was only deducting accumulated interest, which should not have been charged anyway under the old law (Deut 23:19); but Jesus still called him dishonest. Jesus concluded:
He added an explanation suggesting that "children of the light", that is believers in God who have nothing to hide, might have something to learn from the sharp practice of worldly managers:
Then it appears we are encouraged to take the dishonest manager as a good example:
Honesty and eternal rewards
What do we make of that? These difficult words are followed by much more familiar sayings, encouraging honesty. Perhaps Luke added them from another part of the teaching of Jesus: Verse 13, for example is found in Matthew (6:24) in a different context as part of the Sermon on the Mount. In any case these additional verses after the parable contain the sort of teaching we might expect. We expect exhortation to honesty such as:
And we can see the point of the saying about not serving both God and wealth:
We understand that because we know that it is easy to fall into the temptation of making a god out of money and letting it dominate our lives. But there is another dimension to these sayings which gives us a deeper insight to the meaning of the parable.
Did you notice the "otherworldly" reference in verse 9 with what appeared to be encouragement to act like the dishonest steward:
The dishonest manager hoped to be welcomed into the homes of the debtors whose debts he had reduced:
But what are the eternal homes? Surely not the ordinary homes of ordinary mortals who had been fortunate enough to have had their accounts adjusted. Their homes would not last for ever. They were not eternal. They were part of a passing world, like their own lives, and they would soon be gone; but Jesus is encouraging people to make use of money or worldly power in a way that will win eternal rewards. Who then are the people who are likely to be able to welcome you into the eternal homes? They are the poor, the outcast, the meek, the repentant outcast sinners like the prostitutes and tax collectors who, as we saw last week, will go into the Kingdom of God before some who are considered righteous people. It is like the sayings in Matthew 25 about giving food to the hungry, or visiting those who are prison:
The use we make of worldly wealth will have an affect on our eternal destiny.
That is the meaning of the interpretation of the parable in verse 9. It is not quite the full meaning of the parable itself, which we will come to in moment. There is a similar theme in following sayings. For example:
What are the true riches that are more valuable than the dishonest wealth? The dishonest wealth is "mammon" in Greek, personified wealth or avarice, the same as the false god that you cannot serve as well as the true God: "You cannot serve God and wealth [mammon]." The true riches that are contrasted with worldly or dishonest wealth are treasure in heaven. So on another occasion Jesus said:
The point is that the treasures we have in heaven have something to do with the way we use our treasures on earth.
Being prepared for the coming of the Kingdom
What then of the parable itself? Its basic meaning is much the same as other parables which warn people to be prepared for the coming of the Kingdom of God. I spoke of this a few weeks ago on the sermon on "A Sense of Urgency". The master in this story commends the dishonest manager for being wise enough to see what was coming and make preparation for it. Jesus chose a dishonest character to give dramatic emphasis to his main point. Be prepared! He was commended for making preparation for his day of reckoning, not for being dishonest. I imagine Jesus had a twinkle in his eye when he gave the unexpected conclusion: And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. He often used unlikely characters to make a point along the lines of the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8): suggesting, if even bad characters will do the right thing, perhaps for the wrong reasons, should you not expect good things done for the right reasons to be rewarded: that is how God acts towards you, and how you should act towards others.
The dishonest steward/manager is commended for being wise enough to prepare for his day of judgement, so should we be ready. We should be wise enough to be prepared. And the kind of readiness expected of us will include a requirement give an account of the way we have used our worldly wealth. Did we use it sufficiently for the benefit of others, especially for those who may well precede us into the Kingdom and there be ready to welcome us into the eternal homes.
Our mission today
What then are the implications for us today? We are stewards or managers of all that God has put into our hands. That includes our money, our job or social position or the means of influence that we have (however small or large), and all those aspects of our social and physical environment which we can affect. It is this sense of stewardship which makes us responsible to God for all that we possess or control or influence. Stewardship is not just about giving money in church offerings, but about how we manage that part of creation in which we have responsibility. It is essentially a matter of attitude: seeing that in the end, as at the beginning, it all belongs to God, and we will have to give an account to God. That sense of responsibility is a sense of stewardship or responsible management. It is very different from thinking that which says whatever we have is ours absolutely. We sin if, rather than our having it in trust, we imagine that we can do with it whatever we like. When we think we can act as we wish we have forgotten God and will end up with money or some other worldly concern as our master and false God: for you cannot serve God and money/wealth.
In our church we have a strong commitment to community service and social justice. That concern for the weaker members of society must from time to time show itself in dealings with government, even in daring to take a prophetic role. Such concern for the weak is seen as an essential part of the mission of the church which is concerned with both evangelism and service, with both service to others and our eternal destiny. The Uniting Church has about 300 community service agencies in Victoria, far more than any other non-government provider, indeed it is about equal to the number of our parishes. Our stewardship as a church directs our attention to many community needs. We are, in that sense, not concerned only with spiritual things, as political and business leaders might sometimes prefer, nor on the other hand is it a matter of using the church for mere political purposes as some secular interest groups think is all we are good for. Jesus taught us to combine an interest in worldly matters together with an awareness of the riches of heaven. The Kingdom he came to establish has to do with both this world and the next. There are eternal rewards for who those are wise enough act as good stewards of what God has put into our hands. Our sense of stewardship, or management of what we have, should express that hope and the prayer which Jesus taught us: Your Kingdom come!
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