Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 22, 2013
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. Amen.
A man had worked all of his life, saved all his money, and was a real miser. So he told his wife, “When I die, I want you to take all my money and put it in the casket with me so that I can take it with me in the afterlife.” He made her promise on a stack of Bibles that she would do exactly that. He died a few years later and she felt compelled to honor his wishes. When the service in the funeral home was concluded, his wife approached the casket, took a box out of her purse, and placed it next to her husband. Then the casket was closed and taken to the cemetery. Her best friend pulled her aside as they were leaving the funeral home. “Girl,” she said “you told me what you promised that old miser husband of yours, but you weren’t actually fool enough to put all that money in there, were you?” His wife replied, “Listen, I’m a Christian. I can’t go back on my word. I promised him I would put all his money in the casket and I did. I gathered it all up, put into my account, and wrote him a check. If he can cash it, he can spend it.”
Now that is one shrewd lady! Not unlike the manager in the parable Jesus tells today. In these days when financial scandals and mismanagement of public and private funds are so prevalent, doesn’t it seem odd to hear a parable that appears to extol dishonesty?
Clarence Jordan was the founder of Koinonia farm, a small but influential community in Georgia living out the teachings of Jesus amidst the poverty and racism of the rural South. He once said that the parables Jesus told were like Trojan horses—looks great on the outside, but you let it in, and then, bam, it’s got you.
Like today’s Gospel—you let it in, you poke around inside, and you want to run to the Old testament or epistle reading to see if you can preach on one of them instead. In fact, one of the preaching aid sites on the internet actually suggests that the preacher do just that today. This is not an easy parable to understand. Jesus appears to praise a corrupt manager for his dishonesty. His boss learned that the manager wasn’t managing his property well—in fact was squandering it—and he was about to fire him.
But, before his firing became public knowledge, the manager called in the rich man’s debtors one by one. One of them owed a hundred jugs of olive oil. The manager said, “Pay me for fifty, and I will mark your bill ‘Paid in Full’.” Another owed a hundred containers of wheat. The manager said, “Pay me for eighty, and I will mark your bill ‘Paid in Full’.”
The manager was not trying to steal the money. He was trying to make friends with these debtors while he still had an opportunity, hoping that they would return the favor once he had been canned. In his culture, reciprocity for doing someone a favor was obligatory—and he was banking on that.
The surprise in this parable is the rich man’s response. You would think that he would curse the manager and put him in jail. Instead, he praised him for acting shrewdly. It sounds like Jesus thought it more important to be clever than to be honest. But that’s not so. Jesus is not commending the manager’s dishonesty, but rather his initiative, for “making hay while the sun shines.”
In telling us this parable of the shrewd manager, Jesus is calling us to get “street-smart” with regard to the kingdom of God. Jesus is calling us to take our discipleship seriously—as seriously as we take our money.
Jesus is calling us to notice things about our church and our relationship to it as much as we notice what goes on with our own finances. Where is the care of our faith community, our church and how God works through its ministry, in our order of priorities in life?
And Jesus is calling us to use our brains to “make hay when the sun shines” and build up the kingdom of God, to empower God’s work through this sacred place with which God has entrusted us, this community of faith, to be as clever and creative and productive as we are in our dealings around money and our other resources in the world.
We may have heard countless stories of how people do not want to hear about money when they come to church. More often than not, I think they don’t want to hear weekly, seemingly endless announcements about lots of fundraising, but they do want to hear about how money affects their lives. Jesus knew that. He never talked about fundraising. He talked about our treasure and our heart.
There was a man who collected pearls. One day, while walking downtown, in a store window, he sees the most beautiful, magnificent, exquisite pearl he has ever seen. He knows he must have it. He enters the store and an old man comes out from behind the showroom. “I must have that pearl. How much is it?” he asks the storekeeper.
“How much do you have,” the old man asks. “Well, I’ve got $300 in my pocket.” “Good. I’ll take that. What else do you have?” “Well, I’ve got a BMW outside, low mileage, two years old, paid off.” “Good. I’ll take that as well. What else you got?”
“Well, I’ve got a portfolio with Schwab worth about $22,000.” “Good, I’ll take that too. What else you got?” This goes on and on until the guy has given away his house and even his family. Then finally the storekeeper says, “OK, here. The pearl is yours.”
The man is relieved that the ordeal is at last over and that he finally owns the pearl. He turns to leave the store, but as he is walking out, the storekeeper stops him and says, “Hey, you know what? That family of yours? I don’t need a family. I’m going to give them back. But remember, they are mine now, not yours. You must take good care of them.”
“And that house in Connecticut? I don’t need a house so I’m going to give them back to you. Although it does belong to me, I want you to take care of it. As for the stocks and bonds and that BMW, and even the $300—you can have it all back. But remember, it is mine. Take it. Use it wisely. Care for it for me.”
So the man left with everything he had when he walked into the store—plus the pearl. But there was a big difference. He walked into the store owning everything he had. He walked out owning nothing. Instead, everything he had before was now a gift.
And that is the essence of our relationship to God and God’s creation. Everything we have in life—our intellect, our talents, our family and friends, our church community, our work, our education,
our play, our very existence is a gift. How do we care for all of it? How do we express our gratitude for it? How much do we take? How much do we give?
This parable has left many people scratching their head, wondering just what Jesus is asking of us. It’s actually quite simple, I think. In the end, everything we have been given in life is God’s gift to us–all God’s pearls. Our task is to be faithful in the way we use what ultimately is God’s. Not a little part of that is what we do with money and financial resources.
It’s no secret that this was a favorite subject of Jesus and his teaching. But it makes us antsy, uncomfortable because, truth be told, we don’t like it when anyone tells us what to do with our money.
Well, apologies from Jesus, but he is not giving up. We’ll continue to hear what he has to say on the subject. It’s a hard truth: We cannot serve God and wealth. Perhaps if there is a litmus test it is this: What does it mean to trust God with my life? How does my living and my giving reflect that trust? When we are asked to invest in God’s work through this church and take our bill and sit down, what do we write?