My part time job in high school was working in a grocery store as a checker, or cashier. No bar codes then; every price was entered by hand. There was a great chance for error. I was a steward, responsible to both the customer, and the grocery store. We handled a lot of cash, and I remember the dressing-down I got a few times when my cash drawer was short at the end of my shift.
Since then, now and then I notice a store cashier has made a mistake in my favor, or given me too much change, and I know his cash drawer will be short as a result. He’ll get in trouble, as I did. So I point out the error. People suffer when we are not honest.
That’s kind of what today’s parable is about: a steward, or property manager, has to give an account of his management, his stewardship, to the owner. We’re told he had “squandered” his master’s goods. He was at best sloppy, and at worst, a thief.
So he makes a plan – not to amend his ways, but to cover his derriere. Remember Andrew Carnegie: How to Win Friends and Influence People? This property manager must have taken the course! He was a pro…but not in a good way. He decided to swindle his master even as he curried favor with the master’s debtors, writing off their debts so they’d be kind to him in the future. Not a very admirable guy.
But strangely, Jesus finds one thing to admire: the steward’s cleverness, shrewdness, resourcefulness. He told his disciples they would need to be every bit as shrewd and resourceful, if they wanted to make any progress for the Kingdom of God in this world. Preaching God’s Word is countercultural; it requires care and street smarts to be effective.
Our sermon series is on “Practicing Love,” and today we’re looking at how to practice love with our money. Both Jesus’ parable, and our reading from Amos, lead the way here. Throughout the Bible, wealth and money are part of our relationship with God, part of our spiritual and religious life. There's no separation between what we earn and own, and how we practice love in the world.
There are several levels of interpretation here in this story.
- The literal – doesn’t take us very far: how can Jesus commend a dishonest man? That’s certainly not the meaning here.
- The underlying point – shrewd, smart, effective actions are required to reach a goal. We can’t be lazy or naïve and expect to make progress.
- The deepest truth – God wants God’s stewards to be faithful and careful, whether we are given a little or a great amount of wealth. Wealth is a seductive force in our lives; it’s easy to end up worshipping our possessions instead of our God.
We are stewards in the same way as this manager: what we have is not really our own, it is God’s – it is what God gives us to do good in the world. And in some way, God will make an accounting of us in the end. This is a call to all of us to take care of what we have been given, and to use it as God intends. Your leaders here at St. Dunstan’s work very hard not to squander what God gives us through you – your pledges and offerings…. We are thankful for your gifts, because they allow God’s work to be done here.
Here at St. Dunstan’s, we are also frugal – a good word, in my book. “Economical in use or expenditure…not wasteful.” Frugality is not about denying ourselves all pleasures or even extravagances. It is a thoughtful approach to what acquisitions will bring us true joy over time, rather than a short burst of pleasure that fades quickly. This usually means buying less, but buying carefully, buying quality that will last.
The prophet Amos cries out against people who build their own fortunes as they exploit poor people, who “trample on the needy…” He rails against the selfish and greedy behaviors in his own day. The old words may be confusing. But Amos is denouncing the rich who are rushing through the sabbath so they can get back to selling their goods, who are shortchanging the measures they sell (“make the ephah small”) and overcharging their helpless customers (“and the shekel great”); making slaves of poor people because they owe small amounts (“buying the poor for silver…[or] a pair of sandals”). Yes, this kind of debt slavery really did exist. Not the kind of management that the Lord God wants! Amos is one of the greatest prophets against greed and exploitation of poor and weak people. He hated it when people kept up religious practices, but exploited the poor around them. You may recognize Amos’s most famous words: “I hate, I despise your feasts… [and] your solemn assemblies! But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5)
When it comes to our relationship to money, there are two areas for Christians to watch out for. One is practical: how we handle the money that we steward in this life? Are we careful, honest, not wasteful, frugal even? Do we exploit other people’s weakness or ignorance in financial dealings?
This leads to the spiritual side of things. Do we love money and what it can give us, more than we love our neighbors, or more than we love our God? Do we see our wealth as gift from God, to be used for God’s will? Do we use our money to practice love, or do we gather and hoard our money, building ever bigger barns to house our wealth?
If you survey all of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, I believe you will find that Jesus hated two things most of all: greed, and hypocrisy. (I think he got this from his spiritual grandfather, Amos!) Greed, and hypocrisy – these are the two greatest spiritual diseases that afflict us. Why? Greed, because it offend against God’s generous creation, which is meant to be share by all creatures. Hypocrisy, because it prevents us from spiritual honesty – seeing ourselves as we really are – as God sees us – which must be the first step towards becoming what God calls us to be: generous, honest, humble people, who seek to practice love every way we can.
Breaking free of our love of money allows us to worry less, and share more. Becoming spiritually honest about ourselves allows God to work in us, to bring more grace, more serenity, and more integrity to our lives. God doesn’t seek to guilt us, or punish us, but to transform us into new people. Are we ready to let God work his miracles in us?