Sunday, November 02, 2008

“Spread the Wealth Around”

Stewardship Sermon: “Spread the Wealth Around” (Luke 16:1-13)
By Michael J. Christensen

If one were to cast a vote on Tuesday based on just one social issue, what would that issue be? The candidate's position on abortion rights? Homosexuality? War? Immigration, Economics?

Interestingly, for Christians, Jesus did not take a pro or con position on abortion, homosexuality, war or immigration. Never addressed these important issues. But he had plenty to say about taxes and riches and the right use of money. Economic justice looms large in the Gospels.

What is the second most frequent topic addressed in the entire Bible? No, not sexuality. Not killing. But Money! Second only to the topic of the Kingdom of God. Hundreds of scripture verses about money!

So if we want to major on the issues the Bible majors on, and on what Jesus cared most about, it's 1) the Kingdom of God and 2) Use of Money.

Our political candidates aren't talking too much about God's Kindgom of love, peace and justice for all, but they are talking a lot about money and wealth. So, let's talk about money and wealth, since we all tend to vote our pocket book.

There once was a rich man who worked very hard for his money. His wife wanted to spend or give away some of his wealth. As the rich man grew older, and made out a will, he told his wife that he wanted to take all his money with him to the grave; that his wealth was not to be shared with family or church or spread around to charities. “Please honor me with this final request.” And so he died.

The wife dutifully fulfilled her husband’s wish to be buried with his money, against the counsel of friends, family and even her minister. After the funeral, at the grave site, after the casket was lowered into the ground…there was a hushed silence. Finally, the minister asked the wife: “How could you bury him with all that money?”

“It was easy,” she said. “I wrote him a check.”

Behold the shrewdness of the wife. Let us learn from her wisdom how to spread the wealth around.

Jesus tells a similar story of shrewd stewardship in the Gospel of Luke—the Parable of the Rich Man and his Steward (Luke 16:1-13): http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=LUKE+16:1-13

A paraphrase of the parable goes like this: ‘There once was a rich man who had a bad steward who managed his business. When the rich man discovered that the steward had squandered his wealth, he confronts him and announces that he cannot keep his job. “What to do?” the manager thinks to himself. “I’m not strong enough to dig. I’m too proud to beg.”

“I know," he says to himself, “ I will make friends with those who owe my boss money by discounting their debt. Then they will be grateful, will think more highly of me, will owe me favors, and will welcome me into their homes in hospitality so I won’t starve.” So, he asked each one, how much do you owe, and one by one he discounts the debt (we don’t really know why the man with 100 jars of olive oil got a 50% discount and the man with 100 containers of wheat only got 20%, but there it is.) When the Master finds out about this shrewd provision, he was upset but impressed. He commended his steward for how he used Mammon to make friends.’ (Re-read the text in light of the gospel of free market capitalism).

A steward is a trustee and manager of another’s property and resources. Mammon, in the Bible, is the god of wealth who is still alive and well in the world today. Jesus often told parables based on simple stories from everyday life to make a shocking and surprising point. Let us pay attention here and learn a lesson from the shrewdness of a worldly steward. “For the children of this age (whose values are rooted in materialism) are shrewder in dealing with other people’s money than are the children of light (whose values are rooted in the spiritual age to come). “So, be wise as serpents, yet harmless as doves.” Though you cannot serve both God and Mammon, you can serve God and use Mammon (or dishonest wealth) for good and holy purposes.

Which of the four Gospels says the most about money? Correct. The Gospel of Luke has the most to say about economics. It is addressed to the Gentile outcasts and economically poor. Jesus tells many parables about Kingdom economics in the Gospel of Luke. We hear about the Rich Young Ruler, the Good Samaritan, the Widow’s Mite, the Lost Coin, the Farmer who built bigger barns to horde his wealth, the Banquet Feast for the poor, the Rich Man and Lazarus, and the Rich Man and Bad steward.

On the one hand, Jesus is radical and uncompromising in his teaching about money and wealth. One cannot serve two masters—God and Mammon. “Either you will love the one and hate the other, or be devoted to the one, and despise the other.” As Bob Dylan as a Christian sang: “You gotta serve somebody…It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.”

On the other hand, Jesus is very practical, realistic, and even a bit accommodating about the economic realities of life in this present age, as his parable suggests. As Reinhold Niebuhr once said: “Jesus sometimes asks us to get our hands dirty in a sinful world.” Sometimes, using Mammon or ‘dishonest wealth,’ may be the lesser of two evils. Or as Billy Sunday reportedly said: “The Devil’s had the money long enough.” Time for it to be redeemed and put to good use. Those who insist on uncompromising economic purity in this world would have to live as St. Francis did, in utter simplicity and dependency on God alone for daily bread. For most of us, managing money will be a necessary distraction.

THREE BIBLICAL OPTIONS:

The author of Luke/Acts identifies and illustrates at least three different ways or models of how to serve God with your money: from radical discipleship to more conventional economics: 1) Give it all away, 2) Give half of it away, or 3) Manage it responsibly as a wise (and shrewd) steward of God’s resources.

1. Give it all away: “Come, leave all, and follow me,” Jesus asked his first disciples (Luke 5:11). “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (12:33).

To the Rich Young Ruler, who was careful to keep the whole law, Jesus said: “Sell all that you have…” (18:18). He asks the same of some Christians today. “Sell your possessions and give to the poor,” Sell your goods to feed the poor, take an oath of poverty, live simply and radically in anticipation of the coming Kingdom of God. St. Francis and the Little Brothers of Jesus, Brother Roger and the Taize Community in France, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta—each heard and obeyed this call.

Radical stewardship practiced today usually involves joining a religious community with a common purse or community of goods, with no private property held, as in monastic orders and small communities of faith. For example, Sojourners Community in Washington D.C. has been an example to many of how to live simply, joyfully and responsibly in the world below the national poverty line. The Simple Way in Philadelphia is a radical postmodern community of “urban monks” committed to simplicity of lifestyle and solidarity with the poor. (Visit them virtually at www.TheSimpleWay.org

2. Give half of it away: When Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, was confronted by Jesus, he responded in economical terms by ceasing to exploit others and promising to repay any that that he had overcharged--fourfold (with interest). From then on, he promised to give away half of his wealth to the poor (Luke 19:2-8).

The widening gap between rich and poor is a contradiction of kingdom values and an abomination to God. To reverse this natural process of the rich getting richer and the poor poorer, God delights in exalting the poor and humble and casting down the rich and proud. This is because God has a special interest n the economically poor and socially disinherited. God’s social system of economic justice constitutes what has been called an “upside-down kingdom” where the greatest are least, and the least of these are the greatest.

The Biblical mandate for equity is not to be understood as a demand that everyone have exactly the same amount of money, land, possessions, or resources. Rather, equitable distribution means that no one has abundance at the expense of those who have less than what they need. God desires equity, St Paul wrote, that the scripture might be fulfilled: “the one that gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little…” (II Cor. 8:15, quoting Exodus. 16:8).

There are many modern examples radical generosity: John Wesley’s motto was “earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can” and told his Methodist followers that he should be considered a hypocrite if he died with more than a once of gold and silver in his pockets. C.S. Lewis gave all his book royalties to charity and lived on his modest income as a University professor. Gandhi said, “There are enough resources in the world for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.” Mother Teresa said: “Give until it hurts…” Reverend E. V. Hill in Los Angeles boldly preached: “God gives it to ya to get it through ya; if God can’t get it through ya, He’ll stop giving it to ya!”

Mercy means giving alms. Tithing means bringing a tenth of your income into God’s storehouse. Giving generously means, to some degree, redistributing the wealth through equitable means, knowing that “the Lord loves a cheerful giver…” (II Cor. 9:7)

3. Manage wisely is the third economic option in Luke/Acts. Faithful and responsible, practical and effective, and yes, the creative and shrewd use of wealth and resources that belong ultimately to God is acceptable model of biblical stewardship. This model is what the parable of the Rich Man and Shrewd Steward is about. But there are other, more honorable, ways to be a good trustee of God’s resources.

A group of wealthy women who followed Jesus (including Mary Magdalene), managed their own money and supported Jesus and the disciples “out of their means” (Luke 8:1-3). This is an example wise and generous management. Paul taking a collection from all the Gentile churches for the Jewish believers in Jerusalem is another example (I Cor. 16).

Here are three principles of biblical stewardship?
• Divine ownership: “The Earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Ps 24:1) God is the giver of all that we call our own—all the cattle on a thousand hills, all the gold and silver, all the land, natural resources, personal gifts and talents. It all belongs to God. It can be freely shared.
• Human stewardship: knowing that God is the land owner and Master, and we are the stewards or managers of what has been entrusted to our care. Good stewardship requires spiritual detachment, contentment and generosity, as well as wisdom and skill to spread the wealth around.
• Divine/human partnership: the responsible use of God’s resources requires us to lean how to practice wise, shrewd and compassionate management for the good of all, in direct response to God’s will and activity in the world. There are proper limits and procedures to spreading God’s wealth around.

CHOOSE YOUR MODEL AND BE FAITHFUL

St. Paul admonishes Christians to choose how best to practice generosity and stewardship, whether we sell all, give half, or manage well what has been entrusted to our care: “ Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (II Cor. 9:7)

Common to all three models is the eschatological vision and values of the coming era--Kingdom of peace, righteousness and just economics.

Money is not evil, but the love of money is the root of all evil (I Tim 6:10). If money is the first priority on your life, its idolatry or the worship of Mammon. We are accountable for how we use God’s silver, gold, cattle, land, resources. Wealth is never neutral.

Models are available, not simply for our choosing but in response to what God is asking each one of us. No one size of stewardship fits all. What is God asking of you in this season of your life? What model do you want our leaders to follow? Which model will you follow?
• Dispossess yourself and follow Christ radically?
• Give generously while working for debt-reduction and redistribution of God’s wealth for the sake of global justice?
• Practice compassionate and creative stewardship? Learning lessons from bad stewards and well as form good and faithful managers. Remembering that God is the owner and we are not….

Biblical Stewardship may be your preferred model…given your present life circumstances, spiritual capacity and personal charism. But what is not an option is serving Mammon by
• neglecting the poor
• disregarding immigrants
• exploiting others
• conspicuous consumption of goods
• greed
• hoarding
• bribery
• theft
• corruption
and storing up treasures on earth

So, here is a simple test question to assess where your heart is: If a special election were held today, for whom would you vote? God or Mammon? We cannot vote for two masters. Will we vote our pocket book or vote our faith in the One who owns and loans it all?