Sunday, September 19, 2010

Our Lives as God's Stewards

Luke 16:1-13
Our Lives as God’s Stewards

Today's Gospel passage from Luke is indeed complex. So complex that scholars have debated its meaning for years upon years, and continue to do so today. While several main themes have been identified, no real conclusions that pinpoint a single interpretation have been reached.
Is Jesus complimenting the dishonest steward in his self-serving scheme to reduce the debtors' burden in order to save his own skin when we read, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly?”
Is Jesus as saying, it’s important to be shrewd and make the most of a situation – take advantage of mistakes - make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, so to speak, when we hear, “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?”
Or, do we pay attention to only the end of the passage and focus on Jesus' concluding words, “If you cannot be a good steward, a faithful steward, a just steward, you have failed to serve the Kingdom of God.”
There are so many nuances in this passage. There are also shifts in who is speaking and who is saying what.
It is not terribly clear at what point we cross over from the master commending the steward for his shrewd, but basically dishonest and unfaithful behavior to Jesus’ comments that end with, “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 wealth.”
Just where in this passage do we transition from, “it’s cool to take advantage of a situation and end up on top,” to “I will love my neighbor as myself and the Lord with all my heart, and with all my strength – I will have no other God before me?'
Well, as I said just a moment ago, there are no easy answers here. Luke leaves our collective heads spinning and wondering what it all means.
We do know, however, that in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has a great deal to say about the dangers associated with worldly goods and money. They compete with God for our affection. Throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that wrong attitudes about money can bring about spiritual ruin.
In all of these parables, Jesus concludes by showing us how to use our worldly gifts in Christ-like ways. Time and again we hear Jesus tell us that God gives us gifts not only to provide for our needs, but also as a way of testing us to see if we are willing to live by kingdom values.
With this in mind, I would like to suggest that for today we take what I am calling a “tri-focal” approach. Let's look at this passage from three points of view. Three points of view that progressively bring us to Jesus' concluding statement, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
By using our tri-focals, the passage might lose its blurriness – its obscurity. By using our three lenses, we might see a theme emerge that is very relevant to our lives as Christians and as Episcopalians today: The theme of our lives as God's stewards.
First of all, the dishonest manager understands his failings and the consequences of these failings. In his brief dialogue with himself, he says, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.”
The manager is clear; he has made mistakes – he has mismanaged his master’s money. His future is ruined unless he can come up with some clever scheme to protect his income and his lifestyle.
We might simply look at this as going into survival mode. Perhaps we can't be re-employed at that high level executive position with all its perks, but the job of the boss’s secretary is still available and pays enough to cover our living costs. Something is better than nothing.
Secondly, the steward develops a clever scheme. He decides to call in the debtors, and renegotiate their deals and payment plans. The debtors will owe less; the steward will earn less – but, he will also gain in popularity with them, and keep some of his money coming in. He will continue to have people on whom he can rely for favors and assistance.
Through these two lenses it seems clear that the steward has decided that if something is not working, reassess the situation and get it going in the right direction.
This might be a good philosophy, in general. For instance, if our outreach program to attract new members isn't working, let's re-assess and get it going in the right direction.
Through the third lens, Jesus enters into the narrative and we hear him say,
“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?”
With these words – through this third lens - Jesus brings this complex parable into focus. If you are not able to recognize your preoccupation with self and worldly things, and put them in a perspective that focuses on others and their needs, you are not a faithful steward of God’s Kingdom.
Our tri-focal approach takes us from acknowledging our human failures, to considering a new path for our lives, to identifying a more Christ-like way of life for ourselves - A way of life that helps, protects, and serves both self and others.
This new way of life is eloquently described by Johannes Eckhart, a German theologian, philosopher and mystic who was born in the late 1200’s, who said,
“We must learn always to find and procure the advantage of God. For God does not give gifts, nor did he ever give one, so that we might keep it and take satisfaction in it; but all were given - all he ever gave on earth or in heaven - that he might give this one more: himself. Therefore I say that we must learn to look through every gift and every event to God and never be content with the thing itself. There is no stopping place in this life - no, nor was there ever one, no matter how far away a person had gone. This above all, then, be ready at all times for the gifts of God and always for new ones.”
“Be ready for the gifts of God and always the new ones.”
God gives us gifts every day of our lives –some of them are big; some small. Some of them are wonderful to receive; some frightening; some very challenging. However, they are all gifts and they all require care – care that involves a commitment and giving of self in every way and at every level.
To sum up…
We all need to be the dishonest manager rethinking his, or her, approach to our way of living.
We all need to be Mary, listening at Christ’s feet, hearing his message, committing ourselves to our journey with him to Jerusalem and beyond.
We all need to be the Good Samaritan, loving our neighbors as ourselves, especially when no one else will offer that love to them.
We all need to accept God’s will for us to join in His passion in loving and bringing peace and justice to all; each in our own way; each through our own gifts.
Our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, said in one of her recent homilies”
"God has given us a mission to care for our neighbors and all of creation. To do so, we must put aside our narrow self-interest to heal the hurting, fill the hungry, set the captives free, and bind up the wounds of creation. I invite you to join in that mission..."
We are God’s stewards – all of us – each and every hour of each and every day.