Wise As Serpents

18th Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 16:1-15

In the four Gospels Jesus speaks about money more often than anything else, except the Kingdom of God.  Oh yes, He speaks most often about the Kingdom, but immediately in second place it’s money…because money is the primary rival to the Kingdom of God. He says bluntly, “You cannot serve both God and money.”

Ah…but…when Jesus speaks about money, it is NOT in the way that has become characteristic for preachers to speak about money.  When the subject of money comes up in a sermon, we preachers, more often than not, are rather keen to get more of the stuff into the church!  But when Jesus speaks about the subject, it is to get the Church out and into the many and various uses of money…to make His doves as wise as serpents!

About this time of year it is common for many congregations to conduct what is euphemistically called an annual stewardship campaign, a drive for pledges by the faithful to fund the up-coming year.  When I arrived here at St. Peter’s way back in 1991, I was pleasantly surprised that this was a congregation that did not have to battle the annual appearance of that beast!  And I, for one, was not about to introduce the serpent into Eden!

Oh yes, an annual stewardship campaign can be handy IF your primary goal is money.  But if your goal is faith…well, the best thing that can be done with the bulk of stewardship materials is to lock them up in a trunk and drop it in the ocean!

The promo materials for the annul manifestation of the beast all sound so much like Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  They typically start off with a little math exercise for the pastor.  Current annual income of the congregation divided by giving-units.  Figure in a member’s typical annual salary and you get a percentage number.  (Now in reality it is only a number, it has nothing to do with faith. But then a stewardship campaign often has little to do with faith…it’s interested only in that number!)

Now the average these days is something like 3-4% of a person’s annual income is given to the Church, some a little more, some less (which again says nothing about faith…but it is helpful for the program tempter!)  For now the game begins.

“What if,” the tempter in the materials suggests, “What if that number were 5%?”  Oooh…more money…  And once you bite, he’s got you.  “What if…” the tempter goes on, “What if that number were 10%?!”  Wow!  And with dollar signs dancing in the pastor’s head, he quickly signs up for the program, begins to sharpen his stewardship shears and sets to fleecing the flock!  Aye…but “you cannot serve both God and money!”

Jesus never…never…never speaks about money coming in to the account of His fellowship of disciples.  Never speaks about it!  Oh yes, the fellowship does have money. Judas is the treasurer.  And because of Judas’ embezzlements, the subject of money comes up near the end of Judas’ term in office.  But we never hear where that money came from in the first place!

Jesus doesn’t speak about it in any of His sermons.  He doesn’t call for more money from the people, doesn’t conduct an annual pledge drive among the disciples.  When it comes to getting money into the Church, into this fellowship of faithful disciples…Jesus never mentions the word!  But…He says a lot about the work of faith as faith enters the world of money!

Here He tells a story.  A steward, a manager has been accused of mismanagement.  “You’re fired!”  But before he packs and leaves, there is to be an accounting.  The steward must act fast.  He’s out of a job.  He has no training or inclination for begging or manual labor.  He’s stuck!  But then…an insight…a divine inspiration…a solution that is both shrewd and effective.  He changes the debtors’ accounts so that they owe less, and thus might welcome him into their employ after his day of accounting.

Jesus commends this steward…and that has long troubled folks.  Who would welcome as an employee a man who so blatantly altered the accounts?  But Jesus doesn’t commend the man’s dishonesty.  He commends the steward for being shrewd.  This steward has made his boss appear merciful to the debtors, because they reason that the change in their accounts is due to the boss’ generosity.  So they are very thankful to the steward because he is the bearer of that generosity to them…while Jesus is vague about whether all this generosity and good comes at the expense of the master or from steward himself.

Which means, yes, this parable is about Jesus…as all the parables really are.  And being about Jesus, He turns the story into a picture of what it means to be His disciple, to be the Church in the world…to be the mediator between God and human debtors.

“OK,” you say, “that makes sense when it comes to sin—Jesus’ mediation, paying the price of our guilt on our behalf, reconciling us with God by the cross.  Yes, that makes sense.  But what’s that got to do with money?”

Well…nothing!  Because it’s not about money.  It’s about Jesus, it’s about reconciliation between God and humanity.  It’s about the faith of this Christ which lives in and through all that we do in this world, with all that we have…including our money.

It is only by faith that we recognize God as the master in Jesus’ parable.  God the Creator of all, of all that we are and of all that we have.  Only faith can confess that God is the source of all things.  And it is this same faith which recognizes how humanity’s debt to God can take so many tangible forms!

The great inequities between the haves and the have-nots of this planet is a symptom of the debt humanity owes to God…a debt we have not, indeed cannot, pay.  That employment practices can witness a person being laid-off despite years of faithful work, laid off for the sole purpose of saving the company some money.  This too is a symptom of humanity’s indebtedness to God.

All the hot-button political issues—health care, war, taxes, government spending, the economy—for those who serve the god of money, these things are only about money.  But for the person of faith, the person who serves God through faith in Christ and through love toward our neighbor…for faith, these things are about God and the debt humanity has acquired but cannot pay due to our mismanagement of all that God has given us.

This is why it is truly reprehensible for a preacher of the Gospel to become the mouthpiece for mammon: “gimme, gimme, gimme.”  It is equally reprehensible if a preacher of the Gospel turns Jesus’ words into some economic scheme—whether of a capitalist bent or a socialist one.  The Gospel is not about money.  It’s about faith…faith made wise in all the uses of our money.

By faith, Christ enters with us into our employment so that our work no longer serves the god of money, but becomes a service in reconciling humanity’s debts, our human needs and woes and inequities.  We reconcile them, ease them, by means of our work and wages.

The reconciliation in Christ influences how we spend our money for our own personal needs, our family needs, our government’s needs, our world’s needs, through purchases, investments, taxes, charitable donations.  All of it (and not just the church bit)…all of it is our offering to God, our service to God, shrewdly, wisely put to work to reconcile in Christ the debts, the fractures of this world by the means of what we have received from God—whether it’s a lot or little.

This is why a sermon that seeks to get more money out of people…even for the Church…is a sermon that only serves Mammon, the god of money.  A Christian sermon, even when it speaks about money as Jesus does in His parable, is not about the money.  A Christian sermon is always about the Christ, the mediator between God and human debtors; the Jesus who at great cost to Himself enters the work of reconciliation.

And by His action we debtors have been reconciled to God, so we too welcome this divine Steward, as in the parable; we debtors welcome Him into our life, into the various managements of our life, to work in and through our earthly affairs to the glory of the God which He and we both serve, as also to the good of others.  It’s never about the money!  It’s always about Christ!