The Shrewdness of Faith

For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God. (Luke 16:15)

There are Sundays when the lectionary readings make me wish I could just pick my own text or maybe do a nice sermon series on some benign self-improvement theme. Today is one of them. The Gospel has a bunch of sayings of Jesus all clustered around the uncomfortable topic of your money, calling it “unrighteous Mammon” and capping it off with a parable of a crooked money manager who is praised for being shrewd.

The OT reading, which is paired to the Gospel, has the Amos blasting away at the Israelite businessmen of the north for not being able to stay away from the business deals long enough to worship and reminding them that the Lord won’t forget either their greed or their crooked dealings.

The epistle, which is not connected to the Gospel or the OT, is from 1 Timothy starts off great with a reminder that’s God’s will and desire is to save every single human being through the one Mediator who is Jesus Christ, His Son. But then he goes on to give instructions regarding prayer, women dressing modestly including a criticism of braided hair and pearls, and an admonition that women learn in silent submission and not hold pastoral authority in the church.

Given the choices, what’s a preacher to do? Let’s talk about money, shall we?

First the parable. Jesus is telling this parable to His disciples in the hearing of the Pharisees, who, according to Luke, were lovers of money. A certain rich man had a money manager who was sitting on his assets, wasting his possessions, and generally not doing his job. And so the rich man calls him in, demands the books, and fires him on the spot. On his way back to the office to retrieve the books, the manager does a bit of his own accounting and realizes he’s got a bit of a problem. When the word gets out that he’s been fired, no one will hire him as a manager, he’s too out of shape from sitting at a desk to dig, and he’s too proud to beg.

So he devises a clever little plan. Before anyone hears about his being fired, the manager goes to some of the rich man’s tenants, possibly deadbeat tenants who weren’t paying their rent any way, and begins to discount their bills. One owes a hundred measures of oil. He says, “Quick, take your bill and write fifty.” Another owes a hundred measures of wheat, and he says, “Write eighty.”

Two possibilities exist. Either the manager is giving up his cut or he’s discounting his former master’s contracts. In either case, he’s making friends on borrowed time because as soon as the word gets out that he’s been fired all bets are off. And the master (or the Lord, you can’t tell) commends (yes, commends!) this faithless manager for his shrewdness. Jesus notes that the sons of this world are a heck of a lot shrewder in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light, ie believers or citizens of the kingdom.

What makes the manager shrewd is that he rightly assessed the urgency of the situation and he acted on it, cashing in on his master’s name and reputation while there was still time, so that when he was unemployed he wouldn’t wind up sleeping in the streets since now he had some new friends.

Just so, Jesus says, use your “unrighteous mammon” to gain eternal friends so that when it fails, and it will ultimately and eventually fail, you will have lots of eternal friends who will welcome you into eternal dwellings. Now this is not to say that you get into heaven by giving away your money, though your money, as idolatrous mammon, can certainly keep you out. It means that you are masters of your money and servants of the Lord, “for you cannot serve two masters; you cannot serve both God and mammon.” One has to give.

This gets to the principal reason behind the idea of offering. We try to make it practical by looking at budgets, expenses, needs, assets and liabilities, but that’s not really the point. That’s the temporal side of things, which is important, but only in a temporal sort of way. The chief purpose of offering is to loosen our grip on our money lest it become mammon, an idol, in our hands. In other words, the way to prevent wealth from becoming an idol is to give it away, show it who’s the boss, order it around. Tell it to help that poor man, or feed that hungry man. It means that we use wealth that we have not in view of this life but in view of the eternal life that is ours in Jesus.

Wealth fails, just as our health will fail and our life will fail, Inevitably, inexorably. The current economic events tell us this. Money, investments, pension funds are not the place to put your faith, hope, and trust. It will fail and it will drag you down with it. Only the Word of the Lord endures forever. The treasure that endures is the treasure of heaven, not of this world. And so we handle the wealth of this world as citizens of heaven who deal in eternal currency whose value is determined by the Son of God who loved us and shed His blood to save us.

You can tell much about the faith condition of a person by how he handles his wealth. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” Jesus said on another occasion. If you want to see where your heart is, follow the money. You may be surprised at the outcome as you see all the idols to whom you sacrifice. Look at the register of your checkbook or the listing of your charge card. It will tell you where your heart is and what your servant has been up to lately.

Faithfulness in little means faithfulness in much. Faithfulness in things temporal reflects faithfulness in things eternal. If you haven’t been a faithful steward of something as fleeting as money, why should God entrust you with eternal treasures? And the answer is that He shouldn’t. The reality is that our hearts are divided, and we indeed try to serve two masters hoping they don’t recognize one another. We put in our God-time like the Israelites of Amos’ day, and then it’s back to business as usual.

Jesus nailed the Pharisees that day in their love of money. “You justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts.” He knows what’s going on with us. He knows ours fears, loves, and trusts. And what we exalt and hold so high, He considers abominable, putting us in roughly the same position as that manager in the parable who was asked to turn in the books. Imagine a heavenly audit of the books of your life, a close examination at how you handled your money and what you did with it. Whom do you serve – God or Mammon? Do you use your wealth or are you used by it? Does money serve you or do you serve it?

Jesus was tempted by Mammon. The devil dangled all the riches and glories of this world in front of Jesus for one moment of faithlessness, one bit of worship. “All these are yours if you bow down and worship me.” Jesus resisted. “You will worship the Lord your God, and HIm alone will you serve,” He said. Jesus was faithful. He served His Father alone with a single-minded service. He did it in our humanity, as one of us, on our behalf.

Where we love wealth, Jesus loved God. Where we pursue comfort, He went to the cross. Where we look for profit and gain, Jesus took loss. Where we gladly bow down to the devil for little more than a sampling of this world’s riches, Jesus renounced this world’s riches and worshipped God. Where we are faithless in little, He is faithful in much. Where we exalt power and wealth and fame, He exalts righteousness and faithfulness and love.

What is exalted among men is despised by God. And it is conversely true as well, what is exalted by God is despised by men. Jesus, crucified, risen, and reigning at the Father’s right hand, highly exalted in the sight of God yet despised and ridiculed in the sight of men. That a sinner is justified before God not by who he is or by what he does but solely by trust in who Jesus is and what He has done. This is despised by men and esteemed by God.

In the end, and there is a coming end, when the wealth of this world fails, when the global economy collapses under the weight of its own greed, when the idol of Mammon is finally exposed as the worthless fraud that it is, when you have lost everything including your own life, there at that end is only Jesus who will not fail you, welcoming you into an eternal dwelling that He won for you by trading out His life for your life.

You are baptized into Him. His life is yours. His faithfulness is yours. HIs kingdom is yours. You literally have nothing to lose, even if you die as a beggar like Lazarus (which, by the way, is the parable that follows this one). Having nothing to lose, being dead to this world and dead to self, turns out to be the freest position there is. Look at that parable once again. Notice that only when the manager had lost his job and had nothing to lose did he actually do his job. Had he been that aggressive with his master’s money all along, he wouldn’t have been fired in the first place.

It’s like the parable of the man in the ditch and the good Samaritan. Only one who is free from the Law can actually do the Law. Only as you are free from your wealth and hold it freely in a dead hand of faith, can you actually master it as you serve God.

You are that free, dear baptized child of God. In Christ, you have the riches of heaven laid up in trust for you. In Christ, you have an eternal dwelling that awaits you. In Christ, you hold citizenship in a country that will never fall. In Christ, you are a servant of God and master of your Money. This calls for shrewdness, the shrewdness of faith that cashes in on the good name of Jesus and lives as though you have nothing to lose.

In the name of Jesus,
Amen

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