Getting our priorities right
Sermon preached by
The Reverend Charles Royden
23 September 2001
Luke Chapter 16
Jesus told his disciples: "There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, `What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.'
"The manager said to himself, `What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I'm not strong enough to dig, and I'm ashamed to beg-I know what I'll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.'
"So he called in each one of his master's debtors. He asked the first, `How much do you owe my master?'
"`Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,' he replied. "The manager told him, `Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.'
"Then he asked the second, `And how much do you owe?' "`A thousand bushels of wheat,' he replied. "He told him, `Take your bill and make it eight hundred.'
"The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.
"I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
"Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?
"And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own?
"No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money."
This week I went to Nottingham and decided I would go to the woods to take Lucy for a walk around in the woods. (Lucy is my Rottweiller.) 'Can you direct me to the forest, please?' I asked at the petrol station in the middle of Nottingham. 'Which forest?' came the reply.
It's a bit like asking a Liverpudlian for directions to the football ground. There is only one football team in Liverpool, in spite of what Evertonians will tell you.
As I wandered around THE Forest I thought about the dishonest manager in the parable and what I was going to preach. It really is a very difficult parable to make sense of. Then I thought that Robin Hood was a bit like the dishonest manager. Of course we all have a sneaking admiration for those who steal from the rich and redistribute the wealth to the poor. Perhaps we have a sneaking suspicion for the rogue manager in this parable, after all taking from the wealthy owner and cutting the debts of the poor tenants is like 'levelling the score' a bit like Robin Hood stealing from the Sheriff of Nottingham.
The manager had been cheating his boss, the owner, but surely cheating an absentee landlord is not really stealing. I was watching the Simpsons the other night and an episode in which Homer has his television connected up secretly to cable television. He reads a booklet entitled 'Why stealing cable TV isn't theft'. Fraudulently receiving satellite was something quite a lot of people did in my previous parish. It wasn't a crime because, following the thinking of Homer Simpson, it was a big faceless organisation, nobody got hurt.
I want to tell you a story but I have to be very careful in sermons from now on what names I mention! I preached a sermon not long ago and mentioned an actress and made some comments about her, only to find that she later Emailed me and thanked me for what I had said. Good job I had been complimentary!
Well, somebody (name withheld) told me recently of how they engaged in a round of bidding for a contract with a company in another country (name also withheld). They were told that they had won the contract and flew out to the country to sign the contracts. On arrival they were shown into a room with representatives from all the other companies that had also bid for the contract. They were then told what the lowest bid had been, but advised that the decision had been taken to give everybody a second chance!
People can be very ingenious and dishonest when it comes to financial dealings!
Is Jesus really praising dishonest, unfair business? The parable for today appears at first sight to be about praising someone for being ingenious and cheating, for conducting dishonest business practice.
Since some think it is impossible that Jesus would encourage his followers to cheat, fanciful explanations of this parable are imagined to try and make it mean something which is not in the text. However Jesus is not extolling the virtues of dishonest business practice. The parable like many parables has just one central message and it is that which we are supposed to take from it. If we think that every bit of a parable has a meaning we end up in all sorts of problems; they are not allegories. If only we could learn more from the way Jesus taught, simple stories, simple messages illustrating profound truths.
Jesus often uses stories about bad behaviour or bad people to illustrate what God is like and what we should be like
- Think of the judge who would only give a poor widow her due after she bothered him over and over again,
- Or the example of the person who would not budge from his bed to help welcome a stranger until his door was beaten on repeatedly,
- Or the example of the man who found a treasure in someone's field and went out and bought it so that he could get the profit.
These parables have a central message which the whole story is to convey. So what is the parable about?
1. Firstly a master hears that his manager has been misappropriating funds. He doesn't like being robbed, so he resolves to dismiss the employee. This kind of thing goes on all the time in business today. We hear of Directors of companies who employ their wives and even cleaners, on vast salaries for doing nothing, take expensive holidays and charge it to the company, grant themselves ridiculous share options they do not deserve and then want golden handshakes for leaving the companies they have screwed up. Nothing new under the sun.
2. The manager then faces a crisis. Being a manager is the only thing that he knows how to do, but the fact that he now has a reputation for being dishonest means that he will not be able to secure employment anywhere else as a steward. That is perhaps not so obvious from the economy today because we find so many exposed executives continuing to serve on the boards of other companies. (names definitely withheld). Anyway he tries to get himself out of trouble by falsely adjusting the amount owed by his master's debtors. People would assume that the steward was acting on the master's orders. Some have supposed that these gestures would actually make the master look generous and charitable in the eyes of society, that is not what the parable says. We are told he did it for no other reason than to ingratiate himself to these people so that after he was sacked they would welcome him.
3. The master hears what the steward has done and praises him for his actions. He does not praise him as some have supposed because he had made the master look generous. The only reason I can see the master praising him is this-Both the unrighteous manager and his master valued the same thing-shrewdness. You don't commend a man for something you disdain. Both the unrighteous steward and his master were members of the group which Jesus characterised as "the sons of this age." The expression, "it takes one to know one" fits here. The master could recognise and appreciate "shrewdness" because he valued it and he practised it, and as such he was "one" with his steward. That was most probably the behaviour which made the master wealthy in the first place.
And so the central message of the parable today is about self-preservation.
If we care for nothing else surely we should care for our own lives.
The crafty steward uses his cleverness to make sure that he would be
alright, he was looking after number 1. Jesus encourages that
single-mindedness and cleverness. Jesus is commending the forethought of the
manager in looking after himself - in doing good to those who in turn may be
expected to do good to him.
The issue in today's parable for us is not about honesty or dishonesty - rather the issue is this
Just how shrewd, clever, and committed are we Christians when it comes to our faith?
Are we as anxious to ensure our future with God as the dishonest manager was to ensure his future in this world? Indeed, the issue at the very root of the parable of dishonest manager is this
Are we, as Christians really committed to Jesus and his way?
This is so hard. Are we, who sit together here today, really committed, really full of faith? Really committed to God and God's purpose for our lives and the life of the world?
We are having a confirmation service on October 28, I think these are occasions nowadays when people are faced with a real challenge, 'How serious am I about my own faith.' If we were Baptists we would have a baptism service at which we publicly proclaimed our faith. In the Church of England and the Methodist Church we baptise infants and we are recognised as members of the church in our Christian families. But we do have the opportunity when we are old enough to do so to declare our own beliefs. Not to be held by a Minister but to stand up on our own two feet and be counted. I am sometimes asked what classes we operate for those who want to be confirmed. We do not have classes. People used to come to confirmation classes like they attended driving school lessons and when they were confirmed it was like they had passed their driving test and they didn't come anymore. When we confirm children or adults I look for a present faith, people who are real members of the church, unashamed to be known as a Christian and especially for children in what is a godless age that takes a lot of guts.
But what about those of us who are church members, perhaps who have once been confirmed, how can we judge our level of commitment?
The challenge that Jesus uses at the end of this parable about commitment and single-mindedness is a challenge as to whether we value God or mammon/money. Where do our priorities lie?
Perhaps you haven't thought of it before-but did you realise that over one third of Jesus' parables and sayings concern the relationship between faithfulness and money? Jesus talks so much about money because, when push comes to shove, loyalties are revealed by what people do with their money and how they feel about it.
- The rich young ruler - who left Jesus because he was rich?
- Levi - who left everything and followed Jesus?
- The Sermon on the Mount - and the lilies of the field which do not spin or toil?
- The camel and the eye of the needle?
- The Widow who gave everything she had to the Temple Treasury?
These are all stories about loyalty and about what is important to people and what they seek - God or Mammon. And to drive his point home at the end of this parable Jesus uses what is perhaps one of his most famous sayings concerning faithfulness and money-
"No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon."
If we are seeking to serve only the desire for more and more money then we will be very focused. In serving one master our efforts will not be divided, not confused, not lost in the gap that always exists between two masters.
As Christians we will do things badly if we attempt to serve two masters - to serve both God and mammon - God and wealth.
- Where do we put our efforts?
- What do we do with our time, energy, and our money?
- Who or what are we really serving?
We reap what we sow; and if we sow sparingly, then the harvest is a sparse one.
Maybe this morning this parable will cause us to question whether or not we are really serving God. Not just doing a bit as a hobby but actually serving God with the all the shrewdness and effort and resources that you put into other things in your life.
I read this week about the CEO of a company in New York interviewed on television. Almost all of his employees were killed in the collapse of the tower because their offices were above the floors where the plane struck. He had not come in that morning because his daughter was starting nursery school. He was crying and speaking with awe of the insistence of those few who remained that they go back to work on Monday. And then he said something too seldom heard in American business in recent days. He said, "From now on in our company, people will be more important than high profits, because people are what matter most. People, and not things."
That is a kind of spiritual transformation which we should all experience. Perhaps the events of this week will encourage people in the light of this experience of evil to re-value our reality, value freedom over comfort, unity over selfishness, and people over things. Perhaps that unspeakable evil might turn us as a nation towards God, to purge ourselves of our vacuous selfishness and materialism which promises so much and delivers so little. Perhaps, I pray, that terrible evil disaster may prompt us all to check out our priorities and decided afresh what really matters in life.
Let us pray.....
Here, O Lord, is my poor heart, an empty vessel ready to be filled with your grace.
Here, O Lord, is my sinful soul, waiting to be refreshed by your love.
Here, O Lord, is my mouth created for your praise and ready to proclaim the glory of your name,
Help me to get my priorities right.