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Monday, September 20, 2010

Sermon from September 19, 2010

“The Challenge of Discipleship”
Luke 16:1-13

Twenty-five years ago a group of scholars got together seeking to reconstruct the historical Jesus. It was called the Jesus Seminar. The scholars used a color-coded bead system to determine whether or not Jesus said a particular statement. This group decided that Jesus only said 18% of what was attributed to him in the gospels. As you can image they received widespread criticism for their work. Twenty-five to twenty years ago if you were to mention “Jesus Seminar” in Christian circles you would have been guaranteed to stir up all kinds of emotions. Now as they group marks its 25th anniversary in October, if you mention “Jesus Seminar” people will say, “What?” or they will state, “I remember hearing about it but I know remember anything about it.”

So why do I mention the 25th anniversary of the Jesus Seminar today? Well because one of the sayings of Jesus that made the final cut to be included in the 18%, determined by the Jesus Seminar scholars to actually have been spoken by Jesus, is our gospel reading for today: The parable of the shrewd or dishonest steward. Isn’t that something, one of the most difficult or troubling of Jesus’ parables got the nod from the Jesus Seminar folks, who also rejected 82% of what is attributed to Jesus in the gospel.

Truly today’s gospel reading (Luke 16:1-13) with the parable of the shrewd steward is troubling and difficult to interpret. At first reading it may catch you off guard. This guy gets in trouble for “squandering his [master’s] property” and looses his job. So the Steward he goes and does some creative accounting, or he “cooks the books,” he goes to different people and engages in dishonest activity. He reduces what they actually owe to his former master. They are eager to have some debt forgiven and they are appreciative of him. However, just when you think the steward is really going to get busted by his former master. The rich man praises his shrewd business dealings, and you can’t quite figure it out.

We know about shrewd business dealings, the news media is full of stories about ponzi schemes, embezzlers, and bank CEO’s padding their pockets with bailout money. We are watching trials and hearing about these shrewd practices which serve the good of one individual at the expense of others and we want to see justice. Put them behind bars. Take away their mansions, cars, and Swiss bank accounts we want to see the money returned to the ones who were wronged. Even Christian people have embezzled from congregations and mismanaged church finances, and I don’t know about you, but I want justice. This parable catches me flat footed, expecting the steward to be put away for life. But then his actions are praised. What’s going on? Has Jesus lost it?

This parable is told in a section of Luke’s gospel called the travel narrative. Jesus is doing a lot of traveling and teaching to different audiences in different places. He speaks to large crowds, small groups, individuals, disciples, the twelve, Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees. He speaks in response to specific questions, “Will only a few be saved” (Luke 13:23) or when the kingdom of God was coming (Luke 17:20) or “What must I do to inherit eternal life” (Luke 18:18)? He speaks because he knows they are thinking (Luke 11:17), because the Pharisees are hostile toward him (Luke 12:1), because he watches them take seats of honor (Luke 14:7), because the need to pray and not loose hear (Luke 18:1), and because they trusted themselves and regarded others with contempt (Luke 18:9).

Also throughout the travel narrative the warning that one’s wealth must be handled wisely is a recurring theme:
“At dinner Jesus denounced the greed of the Pharisees and challenged them to give alms (11:39-41). The rich fool forfeited his soul (12:13-21). The prudent steward was praised (12:42-48), and warnings are given all through chap. 12 regarding how to prepare for the final accounting. The outcasts are called to the great banquet (14:15-24), and the cost of discipleship is high; No one cnl be Jesus’ disciple who will not give up all possessions (14:33).” (The New Interpreters Bible Volume IX: Luke & John, p. 306)

Today we have the parable of the shrewd or dishonest steward which is directly and unexpectedly linked to the parable of the prodigal son, where both of the characters “squandered his property” (see Luke 15:13 & 16:1). Again we have a teaching about wisely handling one’s wealth.

The key to understanding this parable and its location next to and link to the prodigal son, is to see Jesus’ audience and reasons for speaking. The prodigal son is told in the presence of the Pharisees and scribes because they were grumbling and saying “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). So Jesus tells the parable the lost and rejoicing at their return.

Then immediately after that, Jesus turns to his disciples and tells this the parable of the dishonest steward. The audience is the disciples, as we have learned earlier the cost of following Jesus is high and more is required of a disciple of Jesus than an admirer.

Let me illustrate this difference: I have a friend who runs in marathons. I admirer him but I am not going to go and follow him on his daily ten mile run Monday through Friday and a 17 mile run on Saturday. I will only do that if I am going to be his disciple or follower. To be a follower I have to do a ten mile run Monday through Friday and a 17 mile run on Saturday.

So there is a different standard for a follower. Jesus invites all, but once we are disciples we are called to follow a different standard.

I see four things in this passages we can learn (adapted from Barclay’s New Testament Commentary: Luke):

First of all we can learn that the children of this age are shrewder in dealing with the world than the children of light. If Christians were as eager and ingenious in their attempt to attain goodness, as those of the world is in attaining money and comfort, what a witness that would be. If only people would give as much attention to the things which concern their souls as they do to the things which concern their business, the world would be a better place. Our Christianity will begin to be real and effective only when we spend as much time and effort on it as we do on our worldly activities.

Secondly, we learn that material possessions should be used to cement the friendships. This is where the real and permanent value of life lies. The Rabbis had a saying, "The rich help the poor in this world, but the poor help the rich in the world to come." It was a Jewish belief that charity given to poor people would stand to one's credit in the world to come. One's true wealth would consist not in what is kept, but in what is given away. Possessions are not in themselves a sin, but they are a great responsibility, and those who use them to help others has gone far to discharge that responsibility.

Thirdly we learn that one's way of fulfilling a small task is the best proof of one’s fitness or unfitness to be entrusted with a bigger task. We may not be called to great things, like bringing about peace in the Middle East but we may have the chance to give someone a glass of cold water, visit a person in the nursing home, read a story to a child, or pick up trash in the neighborhood.

Finally we learn that one cannot serve two masters. The way we use what we have reveals who we serve. When we look at our checkbook ledger or credit card statement, what does our use of money say about us?

Dear Friends in Christ, we are to be faithful whether we deal in little things or vast resources. We are called to be shrewd stewards of what God has given us to help others. Because when we worship God rather than our wealth we will find that we truly have friends in high places.

Interim Pastor Hollie Holt-Woehl

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