The first book I opened this week as I began preparing for the message today, started by saying…
“Luke 16:1-8 contains probably the most difficult parable in Luke”
Great …Not really the words you want to read right after a holiday. I like to ease back into things but this was…SPLASH! Straight in the deep end… right! It’s not a well-known parable, I can’t remember hearing a sermon on it, it’s not an easy parable to understand and it’s never easy when Jesus talks about finances, and on the surface, it sounds like Jesus is commending sharp financial practises. We don’t like the stark way Jesus generalises this parable…how he applies it and pushes it home…” you can’t serve two masters, you cannot serve both God and Money”. It may be a hard parable, but I believe this passage has a lot to say to us as a church and individually as we face this new year. It speaks to us about how we manage the lavish over the top grace that we have been given through Jesus Christ, through forgiveness how we use our resources and caring for those in need.
We’ve been working our way through Jesus journey to Jerusalem in Luke’s Gospel. A journey that takes up the central third of the gospel. The narrative of which focuses on Jesus teaching about what it means to follow him. It’s a journey that will lead Jesus to the cross. For us it is a journey that will lead to the cross as well; as we will be on this journey till Easter and, more importantly, because Jesus invites us to take up our cross daily and follow him. To die to ourselves and come alive in Christ.
Before we had a break for Christmas we had been looking at three of Jesus most familiar and well-loved parables. The lost sheep, the lostcoin and the lost son. They are parables that Jesus told to explain to the religious leaders of his day why he was willing to sit down and share meals with the people they viewed as sinners and outcasts. They are great pictures of God’s great grace his willingness to go and seek and save the lost, to welcome people back into fellowship with him and God. They finish with a challenge to Jesus listeners about whether they will come in and join the celebration of rejoicing that people turn back to God, and welcoming them in as well. Over Christmas of course we have remembered and celebrated the coming of Jesus Christ, that saving grace coming into the world on that mission to seek and save: That we can be forgiven, reconciled and welcomed in.
In this passage, we are looking at today, Jesus now directs his teaching to his disciples. He had answered his critics about his welcoming repentant sinners to table fellowship and while this seems like a new section of teaching Jesus is pointing out how they, his disciples which includes us should act in response to God’s great grace, and of course when Luke talks about that we see that the depth of how much we have been changed by God’s love and grace is shown very practically in how deep it reaches into our pockets, wallets and purses, bank accounts, assets and priorities. AS the book of James puts it what good is it to say “God Bless you” and send your brother and sister away in need…
Jesus tells the parable of a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. The rich man calls the manager to give an account of what he has done. It’s implied that there is some wrong doing here and that the consequence of this audit is that the manager will be fired. In the face of this crisis what is the manager to do. The manager may have been a slave or simply an employee, we need to realise that in his culture his status and prosperity even his life is based on his relationship with the rich man as a patron, he is part of his household. We don’t know what the manager had been doing, the word used here about his wasting his master’s possessions is the same used in the parable of the prodigal son for the younger son wasting his inheritance on lose and lavish living. the morning I started work one of the top stories on my laptop’s news feed was that one of singer Alana Morrissett’s managers had admitted to embezzling millions of dollars to feed his lavish lifestyle and gambling addiction.
The manager in the parable now must respond to this crisis. Like the prodigal son he sees his prospects are very dark. He will be dismissed from his master’s household, and not only will he lose his home his job he would loss his ability to make a living. Financial advisers or managers who have a reputation for misusing funds don’t find it easy to find another job. He is not physically strong enough to make a living as a labourer and he’d die of shame having to beg.
He comes up with an interesting plan. He calls in the master’s debtors one by one and negotiates a reduction in the amount of money they owe. One owed three thousand litres of olive oil… and the manager cuts this down to fifteen hundred. You may have bought a litre bottle of olive oil at the supermarket recently and so are doing some maths in your heard about how much this is. Scholars suggest that this amount of olive oil was three years’ production off an above average sized farm. The man who owed this much was a wealthy man as well and was now indebted to the manager. Likewise, another owed thirty tons of wheat and the manager negotiated it down to twenty-four. Again, it was a large amount of wheat and showed the one who owed it was also a big landowner.
Opinion varies on what was happening here. NT Wright surmises that the rich man himself was breaking Jewish law about not charging interest on loans. This was often gotten around by, by asking for produce like olive oil and wheat as interest. The manger was being shrewd by endearing himself to those whose debt he forgave by dealing with the illegal interest. The Rich man couldn’t then accuse him of any misdoing without having to acknowledge his own unjust financial dealings. Others suggest that this was the manager writing off his own margins on the amounts loaned, he is dealing with his own corrupt financial practises or he is simply writing off debt. But in each case, he has made sure he has people to whom he can look to for hospitality and friendship, people who are obliged to take him in and care for him. In Greco-roman society status and friendship were based on the idea of patronage and reciprocity, you were obliged to look after someone if you were in their debt or they did you a favour. The manager is relying on those relationships to keep him if he is indeed fired. Now maybe his actions meant the rich man will get paid back quicker, but the emphasis of Jesus parable is on finding a home to go to. The Rich man commends him for this as he sees that he is indeed a clever manager. We don’t know what the rich man does to the manager, again its left unfinished, unresolved… It allows Jesus to put his own disciples into the story.
Jesus uses this somewhat odd and negative example to invite his disciples to see how they use their resources in light of eternity and a relationship with God, do they squander it on keeping status, and perusing luxury in this world keeping themselves in the lifestyle they would like to become accustomed to, or use it in a way that reflects the Kingdom of God.
On one level the idea of forgiveness of debt in the parable has a spiritual connotation. Financial illustrations and forgiving others because we have been forgiven go together in the gospel narrative. In response to Peter’s question how often must I forgive my brother? Jesus talks of the servant who was forgiven a great amount then not returning that by forgiving a fellow servant a small amounts as a negative example of not forgiving a person. In the Lord’s prayer, we pray, ‘forgive us our debts as we forgive the debts of others’, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’
But Jesus stops it just being able to be spiritualised like that by tying his parable down to some very concrete teaching on Finances which are challenging and helpful for us.
We need to Plan a head. Financial planners are always asking people to think ahead, to look beyond the here and now. To go beyond the addictive nature of our consumer society and the pull of instant gratification. The government asks us to save for our retirement. In Jesus parable his disciples are also asked to look beyond the here and now to eternity, to make that the future planning that directs the priorities for life and their resources. In the sermon on the mount in Matthew’s gospel Jesus set those same priorities by inviting us put first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these other things will be added unto you’. It’s not a prosperity gospel it’s not the keep to getting rich, it’s a providence gospel where we rely on God’s grace and mercy. Jesus however is not saying we should not care about finances and resources, it’s not that they should be squandered but rather we need to have good financial management in our lives and churches, but with the priority of investing in the Kingdom of God.
The second thing we need to view what we have been given as God’s provision. Jesus says that what we have is not our own but rather we have been given it by God. When we think of things in light of God’s providence how we use them becomes important. Right back to Genesis we see we are given stewardship over creation, our abilities to earn money are using God given talents, if we believe that God leads and guides us where we work and what we do and what we earn are blessings from God, along with which go responsibility: ‘If you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true wealth?’ we have been intrusted with the wondrous Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of God’s salvation or new and abundant life for all in Christ, sadly down through the ages it is amazing how much the churches and Christians attitude to wealth and possessions have got in the way of making that great liberating truth known and a reality in the world.
Lastly Jesus puts it in terms that we are not fully comfortable with. The relationship between a servant and a master, it is the key relationship in the parable and here Jesus applies it to our relationship with God. You can’t serve two masters you will end up loving one and despising the other, you can’t serve both God and money. It is easy to find yourself being dictated to by finances, weather you have a lot and even more when you struggling to make ends meet. It can compete for our focus and priorities with our relationship with Jesus… as a parent one of the issues that concerns me is the escalating price of housing in Auckland. I remember the mayor of Auckland speaking at the Epsom Girls Grammar prize giving two years ago and talking about the great public transport system and how the girls sitting there today will benefit from this in the future and I remember thinking I wonder how many of these young people will afford to live in this city. Futurist and Christian Author Tom Sine says that many Christian young people today are going to have to make decisions about the future. If they want to buy the kind of House they grew up in it is going to consume great amounts of their income and time, it is going to cut down the options for them in terms of different avenues of serving God. It is going to take some good and very clever financial thinking to envision a different future for our children. We need a fresh vision of the kingdom of God that will compete with the crumbling western world’s vision that I heard articulated many times at University… get a good education so I can get a good job and can get the good life… Bingo! That is what life is about?
Like I said at the beginning… this parable is one of the most difficult in Luke. To understand it we needed to explore its cultural context more than usual. I’m not sure I’ve done a great job in unpacking this morning. It’s difficult because it reaches into our priorities in life and how they are lived out in our finances. It challenges our business practises, it challenges how as a church we view money… the in way of looking at that is it’s a call to move from a maintenance budget, about just keeping going, to a missional budget, how can what we have be best used for the furthering of God’s kingdom. As we will see next week when we look at the parable of Lazarus and the rich man that it challenges how we respond to poverty about us. But at the start of the New Year it is a call to once again choose to follow Jesus. Yes aware of his great over the top lavish grace but also aware of the call that it has on all aspects of our lives, to with all we are and all we have been given to serve him as well.
Inviting people to Respond: By the way I dew the Illustartion we've been using as the focus for this mornings service on the carpark. I used this wonderful new product called washable pavement chalk... great for parents, it measn that they can wash off their kids chalk drawings. I had intended to invite people as you left to respond to todays message by standing fora moment and then choosing to walk one way or the other... it was intended as a way of connecting with the Kinethetic learners amoungst us... But it rained.. alot over friday and saturday night... and the thing about washable chalk is that it washeds off... and it did... but lets respond to what we have heard today by standing and singing " I have decided to follow Jesus'