Sermon: The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (C) – 22nd September 2013

St Aidan’s Anglican Church West Epping 8:30 am

Readings: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-10; Luke 16:1-13

Honesty is the best policy, we say. We disapprove of dishonesty and corruption, whether it is in government, commerce or in personal relationships. And we would expect Jesus to disapprove of such things.

But in the story we just heard from Jesus, he seems to commend a man for his dishonesty. How can that be? What was Jesus getting at?

Jesus’ story is about a rich man who has a manager, a financial administrator. The boss finds out that he has been cooking the books. He’s been lining his pockets with money that rightly belonged to the boss. Of course the boss fires him. “Put your accounts together and hand them in. You’re out!”

Now the manager is in a real spot. No one’s going to trust him to manage their property. He’s not cut out to be a labourer, and the thought of begging doesn’t exactly appeal to him. How can this man get out of the hole he is in?

Then he has a brilliant idea. Nowadays when someone is fired, they are accompanied to their desk, watched as they pick up their things, and escorted out of the building. But this man has a bit of time before he hands in the books. He quickly gets together with some of the boss’s biggest debtors. “You owe $10000? No you don’t. I’m going to make it $5000.”

“You owe $20000? Not any more. I’m going to take it down to $16000. And don’t forget who made it all possible.” It’s all about how to win friends and influence people. By the time the man hands in the books, he has a whole collection of people in his debt. They’ll look after him in the future as he has looked after them.

Of course there is a small problem. The boss has already been cheated. How will he react to this trick? Amazingly he praises the man. Hecommends this man who has robbed him yet again.

How come? It is not that he is pleased with what the manager has done. But he has to admit that he has really been outsmarted. It’s more along the lines of “what a cunning devil this man is!” It’s too late to undo what he has done, and even having him arrested is not going to get him money back.

It seems that Jesus himself is commending the man for what seems to be a dishonest series of actions. But why is he commending the man? Not for his dishonesty: we are not encouraged to be dishonest like this man. But there are things to be learned from him.

Here is a man in a tight spot, and what does he do? Does he stand still and do nothing, like a kangaroo dazzled by a car’s headlights, almost waiting to be hit? No, this man acts. He is decisive. He is determined. The writing is on the wall, but he is going to find a way out. He’s a bit like those heroes of the old Saturday afternoon serials at the movies: at the end of the episode disaster seems unavoidable, but at the beginning of the next episode, they’ve found a way of escape. And so, when the situation seems hopeless, this man sets himself up with friends for the future, even though he has been fired. We can’t approve of his actions, but we must admire his effective way of handling the crisis.

It’s a strange parable, isn’t it? And as we look at the teaching of Jesus which follows it, we see that it really points in two different directions. There is an immediate issue, and then there is a broader issue which flows out of the story.

The immediate issue is that Jesus wants us to see the importance of responding seriously to an urgent situation. Here is a guilty man who does whatever it takes to avoid the consequences of his guilt.

And who are the people who find themselves in that situation today? Of course we all are: we all are guilty before God. We can’t escape the reality that we all fall short of his righteous demands: but is there a way out? Of course we know there is. Not some dishonest act like the man in the parable, but a sacrificial act which has been done for us. Jesus calls us to

come to him, acknowledging our guilt and failure, and to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness.

We depend on Jesus who died and rose to bring us forgiveness and salvation and hope, and through him we are graciously given a secure place in his eternal kingdom of life and love. Jesus’ call to us is that we must not take the Gospel for granted, but that we respond in active faith and hold fast to him who is our Saviour and eternal King.

But in the following verses Jesus also calls us to get a true perspective on money and possessions. Yes, he wants us to learn positively from the man’s determination to find a way out of a disaster. But he also wants us to see what is wrong with the man’s outlook on money and possessions.

Firstly Jesus calls us to be generous. “Make friends for yourself with the wealth you have”, he says. Of course wealth and dishonesty are so often aligned. But Jesus’ point is different. Use wealth not to make yourself popular or comfortable or powerful: that’s what so many people do. Use your wealth so that you will be welcomed into God’s kingdom by those who have been blessed by your generous actions. Jesus is telling us to use our wealth God’s way. He calls us not only to be honest, but generous. It’s not that being generous gets us brownie points so that we earn for ourselves a place in heaven: rather that our generosity brings blessing to others, and pleasure to God.

Treasure in heaven ultimately is of far more value than earthly treasure. Jesus wants us to share in his kingdom with people who have been blessed through our generosity: our help in a difficult time, our contribution to the outreach and ministry of the church, our gifts to assist people in need. Money is not filthy in itself. It can be used for evil, or for good. Let us be generous in doing good with it.

Secondly Jesus calls us to be faithful. Ultimately the things we possess do not belong to us independently: they all come from God.

The scriptures encourage us to see ourselves as stewards of what we have: we are responsible to God for what we do with our lives, our time, our possessions, our money. The man in the parable was generous, but with someone else’s money! How trustworthy are we in the way we use all that God has provided for us? Not that we need to be uptight about every cent, or to agonize about every little financial outlay. But we need to see ourselves as responsible in the way we use our money.

In the early days of our marriage, when I had been working for only one year, and Sarah was still a student, we used to try to account for every cent we spent. We kept a little accounting book, and everything we spent got written down. At the end of the week, if our sums didn’t add up, we got pretty uptight.

We’re much more relaxed now: sometimes we wonder whether we are too relaxed. But we try to ensure that we give away a clear proportion of our income to the work of God’s church and for people in need. That’s part of the way that we – like so many Christians – seek to acknowledge that ultimately everything we have we owe to God, and we are ultimately answerable to him. May we all seek to be faithful so that we serve God in the way we use our money and possessions. Be faithful.

And then Jesus calls us to be devoted. He asks us who really comes first in our lives: God or possessions? God or things? He emphasizes that we cannot serve both God and money.

And in our society today we need that reminder. One of the sad things about the recent election campaign is that the major parties pandered to our selfishness. People were encouraged to think basically about their hip pocket. The value or otherwise of the carbon tax was not discussed: simply that we don’t like paying taxes. Saving taxpayers’ money was important: but making Australia a better place or helping people in need or making a positive contribution to a struggling world seemed irrelevant. And so we now have a huge reduction in desperately needed foreign aid, even though we are an extremely wealthy country, and a structural change which will ensure that the priority in giving aid is meant to focus on what works for our country, not how our aid benefits those most in need.

Jesus warns that the desire to have money and possessions, the quest for security and comfort, can enslave us, dominate us. And so he challenges us: who or what really comes first in our lives? What really matters to us?

Let us learn from this dishonest manager, but let us not follow his example. Let us be generous with what we have. Let us be faithful to God in the way we use our possessions, given to us by our Creator. And let us be devoted to our Lord, not allowing money and things to take first place. Money is a useful tool, but a dangerous master. Let’s keep our priorities right, and use our money to serve God, to serve our neighbour, and not just to serve ourselves.

Amen.

Paul Weaver