Sunday, September 18, 2016

"Faithful with Little, Faithful with Much" - Sermon from 9/18/2016


Community UMC, Quincy

September 18, 2016

“Faithful with Little, Faithful with Much”

Luke 16: 1-13

Pastor Andrew Davis

 

While I'm not very comfortable the title or implications of this movie per se, I remember when the movie “Dumb and Dumber” with Jim Carey and Jeff Daniels came out in 1994. Being the typical thirteen-year old who found Jim Carey’s sick antics rather funny at the time, I was quite drawn to this movie.  Now if you haven’t seen it, or it’s been awhile, “Dumb and Dumber” is about two men in their late 30’s, maybe early 40’s named Lloyd (played by Jim Carey), and Harry (played by Jeff Daniels) who engage in wild and silly antics and can’t seem to hold a job either.  Before being fired as a limo driver, Lloyd’s passenger, Mary Swanson (played by Lauren Holly) catches Lloyd’s interest as he drives her to the airport, but leaves behind a briefcase which Lloyd then makes his mission to return to her even though it’s part of a complicated ransom for her husband who is being held hostage.  However after a few misadventures, Lloyd and Harry accidentally break open the briefcase in one scene to find that there is an extravagant amount of cash in it.  Predictably, the two recklessly spend all of the cash on extravagant luxuries until the plot thickens and the captors find the cash replaced with IOU slips.  A classic case of dishonest wealth at play, much less squandering that wealth or showing a lack of faithfulness with much or with little. 

        As we get into our Gospel lesson this morning, we come across a manager, who like Lloyd and Harry, recklessly spend belongings that aren't his.  Now morning’s passage from Luke, and a very difficult passage to say the least, comes right on the heels of a very well-known passage, “The Prodigal Son” in which a son wants his inheritance NOW, gets it, recklessly spends it, hits rock bottom, returns home, and is shown grace and forgiveness by his father, but not his brother (Lk. 15: 11-32).  In some ways, the “Parable of the Dishonest Manager” (or Shrewd Manager in some translations) is a follow-up and continuation of “The Prodigal Son.” See, the dishonest manager is placed in charge of the estate of this rich man until the rich man/estate' owner gets word that this manager has been “wasting away his employer’s money” and the manager is basically called out on it by his boss (Lk. 16: 1, NLT).  But instead of coming clean, knowing his fate at the hands of his boss, the dishonest manager decides to go to each person who owes his boss and reduce their debts which were comprised of olive oil and wheat, not cash in this case. 

However, in an ironic twist, the rich man is actually impressed with how the manager goes about this, even though it is out of dishonesty and with not necessarily the best of intentions, whereas in Lloyd and Harry’s case, they just don’t make good decisions.  It’s ironic enough that the estate owner praises the dishonest manager, but what’s even more shocking is that Jesus essentially tells the disciples to do the same when he says in verse 9 to “make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (Lk. 16: 9, NRSV).  Very perplexing that Jesus would even say this, but we have no choice but to take this statement for what it is.  However, in  The Message's translation of verses 8 and 9, Jesus tells the disciples the following:

Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior (Lk. 16: 8-9, MSG). 

 

        That sounds a little bit better, as Jesus is saying to do what is right, but do it wisely.  In trying unpack a parable like this, Jesus is actually looking at real-life examples from the time he was ministering in the Greco-Roman world and this dishonest manager fits the bill of a real-life example.[i] However, when we hear riches, in Aramaic it is translated as mammon, as Jesus in this case is referring to unrighteous mammon which shows how Jesus “does not have a very high view of money.  Or, better said, he does not have a very high view of the effect money has on most fallen human beings.”[ii]

      That's where the heart of this parable is this morning, as it's more about the effect that wealth and money can have on us, and how faithful we are with little, or with much. It's almost like stewardship 101 as we approach the season of stewardship. The effect that money has on people is very timely to today's context, especially in a secular culture that places such a high value on the almighty dollar.  And I believe that we can see it everywhere in our current culture that “there is an alluring quality to money that prompts humans, especially greedy ones, to act in unrighteous ways” much in the same way that Lloyd and Harry act in the movie when they discover the cash in the briefcase.[iii] So when it comes to Jesus telling the disciples to be like the manager, New Testament scholar Craig Evans explains that “Jesus is not recommending compromise and he is certainly not recommending dishonesty, but he is urging his followers not to overlook opportunities and resources that will sustain his people and advance…the mission.”[iv] Instead, Jesus is talking about how we can be faithful with much just as we can be faithful with little, particularly in the long-run of things, but it takes responsibility on our part. 

        How many of us when given a sum of money find it tempting just to spend it freely, not really giving a care?  It’s easy to do, especially when we are bombarded with the message of buy this, buy that, just buy or you need this, you need that!!  Even more so when the holidays roll around, which feels like they're already starting.  Two years ago, I took a half-semester stewardship class with Dr. Ann Michel of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary and one of our books for the class was Ben Witherington III’s Jesus and Money.  In Jesus and Money, Ben Witherington III explains in three main points that “most of us are living beyond, and in some cases well beyond, our means,” that “we have been conditioned to think, even by some preachers in the church, that we are entitled to success, entitled to wealth, and entitled to a lifestyle of the rich and famous” and that “we have learned to spend freely without thinking about our obligations to those less fortunate than ourselves,” something we see in Lloyd and Harry and the dishonest manager who show poor stewardship.[v]

Unlike the dishonest manager, responsible stewardship is something to strive for as Jesus points out when he says “whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much” (Lk. 16: 10, NRSV).  It’s basically putting our money where our mouth is, in that we need to be honest, responsible, and faithful with what we have, whether it is much, or little. As we will hear many times throughout the Bible, everything belongs to God and in some ways the ideas in our Gospel lesson this morning may “reflect Jesus’s general view that all material creation belongs to God, so even what we might count as our own is in fact given to us by God.  We are merely stewards of what properly belongs to God.”[vi]

More importantly, we are called to be responsible in using what we have, whether it is a little or a lot.  My colleague Taylor Burton-Edwards explains that

Disciples of Jesus are called to be just as brilliant in the ways we use money and our possessions and handle debts as this dishonest manager. It’s not just about morality. It’s about finding ways to use money to reduce debt in every form and increase joy and love. It means developing great savvy with both finances and cultural norms. Do this, Jesus says, and you’ll be welcomed into the eternal homes of all you release from debt into joy.

 

In other words, don’t serve mammon. Serve God and master mammon, putting it to use to reduce debts and increase joy and love.[vii]

 

So perhaps the good news in all of this is that when we are called to be responsible stewards, we are increasing our joy even with a little or a lot.  I admit, I’m not wealthy by any means and I have student loan debt, but I don’t need great wealth to be happy.  I have God and I am happy to serve God and not money or wealth.  It’s like in the movie when Lloyd and Harry spend all the money, it eventually catches up to them and because they spent the ransom money that wasn't theirs, they lost all the items they purchased, but were still happy in the end because they still had each other and their goofy antics.  So perhaps when it comes to money, wealth, and riches, Jesus is trying to show us that we still have a responsibility whether we have much or little, yet we need to be faithful and honest with what we do have and not act like the dishonest manager, even with the stuff that we possess.  We need to do what is right.  We can definitely still have great joy, especially when we serve God because money does not necessarily buy happiness.  And perhaps, Jesus may even be pointing us to something greater…we have great wealth through our faith because we will have it in our “eternal home” (Lk. 16: 9).

As we really get into this Fall season, I hope that we can reflect this week and in the coming weeks on what’s really important in our own lives and in the life of our congregation as we think about how we are stewards of what we are entrusted with, and how we are faithful with little or much.  What are values you place on wealth, both monetary, but also on your wealth of faith?  And what are ways that we can be faithful with little, or faithful with much, or how are we already faithful with little or much?  And how can we too “be smart” like the manager, but do what is right?

 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen! 



[i] “Study Notes” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Pres, 2003), 1885.    
[ii] Ben Witherington III, Jesus and Money (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010), 63.
[iii] Ibid., 69
[iv] Qtd. In Wittherington III, 69. 
[v] Ibid., 8. 
[vi] Ibid., 69. 
[vii] Taylor Burton-Edwards, http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/eighteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-year-c-2016

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