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February 20: The Parable of the Unjust Steward

Amos 8:4-7

Luke 16:1-13


So, Jesus says a lot of weird stuff, but this has gotta be near the top of the list, right? I mean, we are used to the "take up your cross" and "the first shall be last" and "those who love their lives will lose them, but those who hate their lives will find them" – those are disorienting for sure, they are radical, and if we took them seriously, it would change the world - but, after a while, you can at least begin to expect them, to be on the lookout for that whole "God's Kingdom is upside down" thing. It doesn't make them easy to obey, easy to build our lives on – but at least it's the kinda stuff we've come to expect from Jesus.

But this one, this parable, I dunno, this one feels a lot weirder. I mean, Jesus tells a story about a guy who lies, who cheats his boss, and then Jesus sets that guy up as an example, someone who has something to teach us. That's… that's unexpected, right? Maybe not what we normally think we will see from Jesus.

So, what's going on here? Well, to start, it's important to know the context. The economic system that Jesus is talking about is one that was exploitative. It was unjust. In the Ancient world – in Palestine, the land where Jesus lived, a Roman province, a land under violent occupation by a foreign power – in Palestine, and throughout the Roman world, much of the wealth was held by a small class of landowners. These landowners were generally absentee landowners – they would own large estates all around the Mediterranean, but live somewhere else. So, their estates, the farmland these landowners controlled, was lived on and worked by tenant farmers. But, it was like one of those company towns that Henry Ford or some Coal Mining magnate owned back in the early 20th century. The big boss owned everything, and so he would charge the folks who lived there rents and fees that were impossible to pay. And, so, over time, the people who lived there, who did the work while the landowner was off in Rome enjoying the high life – the people who lived there would go deeper and deeper into debt – they would end up owing the landowner more than they could ever pay off, and, essentially, living in debt-slavery – never able to get ahead, losing their freedom and their future in a game that was rigged against them.

So, that's the context of this parable. A landowner who is owed more than people could ever pay him. And that landowner, we are told, is about to fire his steward – the person responsible for managing the estate, for ensuring that debts are paid – the guy who runs the show when the landowner is out of town, which is most of the time. So the landowner, the master, is going to fire the steward, the manager, because this steward has been accused of mismanagement. Notice that it's just an accusation – we have no indication that it was true, or that it could be proven. So, the boss says, I'm on my way into town, and when I show up, you're fired. Get ready.

The steward is in a tough spot. In terms of social class, he's got more in common with the tenant farmers than he does with the landowner. But the tenant farmers – probably everyone in town – would have seen him as a collaborator, as someone who was on the side of the guy who has his boot on their necks. So, when this guy gets fired, not only will he not have a job, he won't have any friends – no one will be looking out for him. In fact, people will probably be celebrating that he finally got what was coming to him.

So, the steward decides that he's got to do something about it. He decides that his master won't miss a few bushels of wheat or a few jugs of olive oil, and so he invites the tenant farmers into his office and he says, quick, sit down, before the master shows up – let's reduce your bill. You owe the boss 100 jugs of olive oil? How about we make it 50? You owe 100 containers of grain? Let's cut that down to 80.

Now, imagine what would have happened when the master got into town. He shows up, ready to fire his steward, but something weird happens. Instead of being greeted with the usual cold shoulder or forced homage – or even outright hostility – instead of that, people are greeting him warmly, thanking him for reducing their debts, for giving them a chance to catch up. They don't know that the steward did all this without the master's permission – they just know that they got some unexpected relief, and they are thankful.

At first, I imagine the landowner would have been angry – here goes the steward, doing exactly what he was accused of doing – it's almost like the steward said, "Oh, you think I've been cheating you? You want to fire me over it? Fine. I'll give you something worth firing me over." Anyway, the master must have been mad – at least shocked. But, then, maybe he slows down, says to himself – it's kinda nice not to be hated, to have the folks who work for me actually welcoming me back. And, you know, I was never going to see that produce anyway – their debts were too big, they never could have paid them off. So, when he gets to the steward's office he says "well done. Way to wipe some debts off the books, not cost me that much in the long run, and build up some good will. It seems like you know what you're doing." It's worth noticing that we never find out if the steward actually got fired. Jesus leaves the story with the landowner praising the steward for his shrewdness.

And, then, Jesus says, "for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes."

In other words, Jesus seems to be saying, "Look at this guy, this steward. This guy used a bad situation and an unjust economic system and found a way to do something good – he brought relief to the poor, to people who were being trampled. He made a difference with the wealth that had been entrusted to him. Not only that, he used that wealth" what Jesus calls "unjust wealth" because the landowner had acquired it through an unjust system – "he used that unjust wealth to build relationships, to strengthen his community – now he has people who care for him, and maybe he's done something to begin to heal the relationship between the landowner and his tenants. A little bit of wisdom, a little bit of shrewd maneuvering, and he's really made an impact."

And, so, Jesus is saying, how much more should you, citizens of God's Kingdom, children of Light, members of my Beloved Community – if this wily manager can use unjust wealth to make that kind of difference, how much more should you, my people, make a difference with what you have. Jesus is saying: learn to be shrewd. Even ill-gotten wealth can be used to bring transformation and renewal. God can work good even in the midst of systems that are downright evil. God is in the business of bringing beauty from ashes and hope from hopelessness. So, if goodness can emerge from a den of wickedness and exploitation – as it does in this story – how much more should we, God's people, who are, at least in theory, trying to live for God every day, to build up justice and mercy and love – how much more should we, God's people, be acting shrewdly and using what we have – what we have been given – to make a difference. Take what you have, says Jesus, and use it wisely – use it for God's work!

Last week and this week we've been talking about Financial Stewardship. By now, you should have received a letter – by snail mail, by email too if you're on our email list – encouraging you to make a financial commitment to Haymarket Church for our July 2022 through June 2023 pledge year. That letter was accompanied by our 2021 Annual Report – a really exciting celebration of how we've used the money that was given to Haymarket Church wisely – how we have used it to make a difference in our community, to build up this thing called church, to invest in the lives of people here in Haymarket and beyond – teenagers, children, adults, folks who are part of our church, folks around the world, people who are struggling, folks who are looking for a place to call home and find connection – feeding the hungry and welcoming the outcast and serving others and telling the story of Jesus and putting God's love into action.

This is our last sermon in this series – the last one focused on Financial Stewardship – and next Sunday we are celebrating commitment Sunday – we are asking you to make a pledge – online at HaymarketChurch.org/pledge22– we are asking you to do that by next Sunday, if possible, heck, do it right now during the sermon, do it today if you’re ready, but we are asking you to do it by next Sunday, and next Sunday we will pray over and celebrate those commitments as part of our worship.

As I say frequently, there are two things happening when you make this kind of financial commitment to your church, when you give financially to your church. The first is, financial giving is an aspect of your personal faith – it's part of your spirituality. My wife, Kim, and I tithe – we give 10% of our income to God's work through our local church – and we do that because we believe in what this church is doing, and we are committed to it, but more than that, we do it because it's part of our faith – it's a way that we put God first in our lives. I have learned so much about what it means to live generously through the practice of giving generously. I have learned to be generous in other ways – with my time, with my energy, with my patience, with my money in other areas of my life – by learning, over the years, to make God's work in my church the starting point for my finances – for our finances. So, the first reason for us to practice financial generosity is that it helps us follow God more faithfully – by giving away something that matters to me, I have a window to better understand the God who has given away everything in order to save me. We live in a monied economy – money is how we move through the world – and, so, by committing my money to God's work, I ensure that God gets to touch all the physical parts of my life – from food to housing to recreation to bills – every one of those things is impacted by my commitment to God, because they are dependent upon my finances, and my finances have made God's work a priority.

So, that's the first reason for financial giving. And the second is, simply, that, since we live in a monied economy, because it takes money to do stuff in this world, giving to God's work through our church allows that work to move forward. It's a way of saying, "this thing, this thing we do called church, it matters to me, and I believe in it, and I want it to grow and multiply and reach new people and transform lives and make an impact, and so I'm going to help make that happen." When we join a church, when we make a commitment to serving God in and through a church, we commit to supporting it through our prayers, our presence, our service, our witness, and our gifts – which includes financial gifts, spiritual gifts, our talents and skills and our time and our energy. All of those things are part of how we live out our faith, and all of those things are part of what is necessary to make a church thrive, to impact lives and put God's love into action together, as a community.

And, so, Jesus is saying to us: you have gifts. You have resources. And, so, if you care about what God is doing, use those resources wisely. Use them to make a positive impact. Use them to make a difference. Use them to build folks up and change people's lives. Be creative, get your hands dirty, work hard, take what you have and use it to strengthen relationships, to share love, to welcome strangers, to invest in eternity.

So, this morning, as you consider how you want to support Haymarket Church in the coming year, as you think about how you want to make God's work a priority in your finances, the word we hear is this: take what you have, and use it wisely. Invest it in something that will last. If this unjust manager can use guile and wisdom to turn his resources into something good, how much more should we, God's people, be able to invest in God's work and multiply our resources into blessings. When you give to Haymarket Church, your money becomes worship services, and food for hungry folks, and clothes for at-risk children, and children learning about Jesus, and confirmation classes, and music sung in praise, and connections with community partners, and people built up in faith, and the Gospel proclaimed on Sunday mornings and throughout the week – all of that and more is what your money becomes by God’s grace, it’s what happens when you invest in Haymarket Church. So, take what you have, and use it wisely. Invest it in what God is doing. It really does make a difference.

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