Sermon By Rev Joel Crouse
You cannot serve God and wealth. That last line in our gospel this morning lands with a bit of a thud right now. Most of us probably aren’t feeling particular wealthy – or at least not relative to how we felt when inflation was low, interest rates were rock bottom, and the stock market was soaring. All around us, we are watching life get more expensive just when life is finally – finally! – getting back to sort of normal. If coming to church meant being poor, that would be a hard tithe indeed. But as with most of the wisdom of Jesus, and the lesson of the gospel, that’s an oversimplification of what Jesus is really saying. In fact, if we pay attention to the complexity of this particular gospel message, it might be the one we most need to hear right now. Jesus packs a lot into his talk to the disciples. First, he introduces us to that parable of the manager who is in trouble. He is being called to answer to a rumour that he has been mismanaging his employer’s property. Worried about losing his job, he goes back to the people in debt and offers them a deal. For the one who owes 100 jugs of oil, he cuts the deal to 50. The farmer who owes 100 bales of wheat now only has to pay 80. And the weird thing is that his boss, when he finds out, slaps the manager on the back and congratulates him for being “shrewd.” Of course, the parable is an obvious one, on the surface: if the boss is God, and the manager has made some mistakes, he solves them, not by taking it out on others, but by showing mercy to those in his power. He doesn’t drag them into his mess, but instead eases their burden. You might say the shrewdness is realizing that when he’s out of a job, he will need friends: he’d better bolster their friendships now. So no, it wasn’t pure altruism. But what altruism is pure? A person realized that when all was said and done, he would need community, and he gathered that community, but using the power he had to make life easier for those in it. That he gained something from it – friendship – doesn’t diminish the act - so long as the manager didn’t make the mistake of pride and hold it over his friends. Most of the time, doing a kindness for someone else usually pays off in kind one way or another. But why was the manager’s boss congratulatory? He was now getting less. I suppose the lesson there is that God is happy with something from us, happier than with nothing at all; and doesn’t want our debts to weigh us down and consume us. But this gospel is really about the manager, so let’s stick with him. And let’s remember that Jesus is talking to the disciples in this case: people who have already decided to follow the gospel and walk with him. It is a very specific audience, and his message to them isn’t about introducing the gospel, but about focusing on the finer points. And this point mainly is, cheat with earthly wealth, and you cheat the gospel. Jesus was trying to make the disciples understand that there is not one set of gospel rules over here and another set of earthly rules over there. There is only one set of rules. If we are shrewd with our personal possessions and money; we must also be equally shrewd with God’s treasure on earth. The gospel calls us not only on Sunday, but on every other day of the week as well. If we are disciples, we are disciples with every decision we make. “Whoever is faithful in very little is faithful in much,” Jesus tells the disciples. The gospel isn’t a faucet we turn off and on. Let’s go back to the manager. He could have reacted all kinds of ways to the threat of losing his job; he could have lied about it. He could have pointed the finger at someone else. He could have grabbed what he could and made a run for it. All those choices might have left him a little richer, at least for a while, but they would also have left him alone. Instead, he showed mercy, and built a community. Jesus goes on to present the problem with that famous line, about serving two masters. A person comes to hate the one and love the other; or to be devoted to one and neglect the other. So we must choose: God and wealth are not in opposition, on their own. It is our slavish devotion to wealth that leads us away from God. This is a time for caution: when we are stressed and anxious, worried about our own futures, we tend to turn inward, to protect what we have at all costs. But Jesus, of course, would advise the opposite: look outward to the need around, and to the people you love; don’t get trapped within yourself. Be shrewd, for yourself, yes, but also for others. Because, of course, hidden in that gospel is the real secret to wealth. When we are shrewd and wise with those around us, we gain important currency for ourselves. We become people of integrity. When we practice the gospel – not only by not cheating at all costs, but also by risking what we have for others, by giving others a break, we grow in wealth, through community and self-worth. When we can live easily with our own actions and look back on our lives as having given more than taken, we are rich indeed. It is true: you cannot serve God and wealth. But to serve God is to be wealthy. Amen.