Shrewd Stewardship

MATTHEW 6:19-24


LUKE 16: 1-13





Don’t lie to me. You know it is really bad when you lie to a pastor.  Be honest. I know you have done it. So have I. We have all imagined what it would be like to win the lottery. What we would buy for ourselves. How we would help others. And how that much money would solve all of our problems. But as a CNN article reported, winning the lottery isn’t all it is cracked up to be. As the article reports, a mother of three, who was living in a small apartment, won the lottery. She didn’t do anything extravagant. Bought a house, got a new wardrobe from the Salvation Army, cut down to one job. But things quickly took a turn for the worse. As the article reports, “Then came the phone calls: promises, marriage proposals, accusations, threats. People who used to volunteer to help her do things wanted money for their trouble. Family members, she says, tried to run her life, and control her money. To quote the woman who did not want to be identified, “Sometimes I wish I could change my name and go somewhere and hide.”” And this isn’t the worst thing to happen to a lottery winner. Abraham Shakespear of Florida was murdered after winning $31 million. A friend has been charged in his murder.

As the old sayings goes, money can’t buy love and money can’t make you happy. And the experience of these lottery winners seems to affirm the words of 1 Timothy 6:10, “The love of money is the roots of all kinds of evil.”  And yet, as Michael Norton argues in his TED talk, Can Money Buy Happiness, the old adage that money can’t buy happiness isn’t exactly true. In fact, money can buy happiness; it’s just a matter of what you spend it on.

Norton and his business school researchers did an experiment in Vancouver, Canada. They went to the University of British Columbia and gave random students $5-$20. One set of people got the instructions to spend the money on themselves by 5pm that day. The other set of people were told to spend the money on others by the end of the day. They were asked to rate their happiness before and after they had spent the money. The students who were told to spend the money on themselves spent it on regular things. These being college students, that happened to be Starbucks a lot of the time. Those who were given money to spend on others did more interesting things. To quote Norton, “People who we told to spend on other people did different, interesting things. So, for example, one woman bought a stuffed animal for her niece. Many people gave money to homeless people, they gave money to street performers.” At the end of the day, the people who spent money on themselves noticed no measurable difference in their happiness level while those who spent money on others noticed a measurable increase in their happiness level. To prove that this didn’t happen just because Canadians are too nice, Norton did this experiment in Uganda, a much poorer nation, with the same results. To quote Norton, “We’ve seen it in so many domains and across so many contexts, it really does seem like, on average, spending on yourself doesn’t do much, and spending on others does something for you just because it disrupts your business as usual. Buying the same things, every single day for the rest of your life, it makes you think differently about money, and it makes you think, maybe I could do something for somebody else.”

I always find it amusing when social science researchers spend all this time and money to prove what Jesus already told us 2,000 years ago. But it does illustrate what Jesus is trying to teach us today. Jesus is trying to cause us to think differently about our treasures. He’s questioning where our focus is, the allegiance of our hearts, what we are dreaming of. In a sense, he is coming up against the American Dream itself.  In election years, the American Dream is often talked about by both sides as being under threat. But what is the American Dream?  Adam Hamilton, author of Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity, says this about the American Dream, “To be sure, there have been some lofty dreams in our nation’s history. Our founders had a dream about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. There was the dream of freedom and new beginnings so beautifully expressed in the inscription on the inside of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’ There also was the dream of equality and opportunity conveyed in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. These are all lofty dreams, but they generally are not what people mean when they talk about the ‘American Dream’. For most people the American Dream has to do with a subconscious desire for achieving success and satisfying the desire for material possessions. It is the opportunity to pursue more than what we have, to gain more than what we have, and to meet success. And we tend to measure our success by the stuff we possess” (Hamilton, 14). But as we learned in 2008, with the financial collapse, the American Dream can quickly become a nightmare. Jesus’ words spoken thousands of years ago still ring true:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is there your heart will be also.”

My friends, we don’t have to win the lottery to be wealthy in the Kingdom. Some of us may be shrewder with our money than others, but it is only when we invest in God’s Kingdom that we will get eternal rewards.  Today, I want you to understand three things. 1 The power of money. 2. What it means to lay up treasures in heaven. 3. How we can use money to lay up treasures in heaven.

To understand Jesus’ teachings on laying up treasures in heaven, I think it helpful to start at the end of this teaching where Jesus declares, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.” This saying is also found in Luke 16, at the end of the parable of the shrewd manager, which is our second Gospel text for today. Many more modern translations say that one cannot serve both God and money. But the original text says that one cannot serve God and mammon. What does this word mammon mean? The Pillar New Testament Commentary on the Gospel of Luke says mammon is derived from the Hebrew word aman where we get our modern word amen which means, “to place trust in.” So the word for money in Hebrew is literally that which we put our trust in. Money in the Hebrew mind was a rival god to Yahweh. Indeed, at the time of Jesus, Israel was ruled by Rome, and the currency had the Roman Emperor on it. The emperor considered himself to be a god. And Jews were constantly reminded of this whenever they bought something. Today, we talk about stewardship with the three T’s: time, treasure, and talents. To quote Mark Vincent, author of A Christian View of Money, “Unlike Time and Talent, Treasure has a godlike strength because we think it can make us happy. Treasure can dominate and twist the human spirit if not held in check by a more powerful master” (Vincent, 28).  The word for “serve” in this passage can be more accurately translated as “be a slave.” Indeed, the Bible often uses the image of slavery to describe God’s right to rule over His creation. And it is true, a slave in the ancient world could not be ruled by two masters. The Bible views human choice in terms of worship and service. We are never truly independent. We were built to serve a master. And if we do not serve God, we will serve something else. And since money has so many characteristics of God, that something else tends to be money.

To resist the power of treasure, Jesus tells us to lay up treasures in heaven.  He compares this to treasures on earth which moth and rust could destroy. Back in Jesus’ time, banks were in short supply. So wealth was often stored in fine garments and metals, both of which could easily be destroyed. John Stott, author of Christian Counter Culture, argues that laying up treasures in heaven “is to do anything on earth whose effects last for an eternity” (Stott, 156). This is not the medieval Catholic doctrine of a treasury of merit, which the Reformers fought against, but is as Stott argues the development of a Christ-like character. It is the development of such things as faith, hope, and love. To quote Stott, laying up treasures in heaven is the active endeavor “to introduce others to Christ so that they too may inherit eternal life; and the use of our money for Christian causes, which is the only investment whose dividends are everlasting” (Stott, pg 156).

Indeed, Luke illustrates for us in a rather peculiar and imaginative way how we are to use our treasure for eternal purposes. The parable of the dishonest manager is one of the strangest parables in the Bible, because at first look, Jesus seems to be endorsing dishonesty and fraud. To quote the Pillar New Testament Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, “The scene, to put it in modern terms, is that of a recently terminated middle manager who double deals with company debtors on the main floor of the corporate headquarters while his CEO sits in the boardroom upstairs. When the CEO learns what has happened, he says in admiring disbelief, ‘I’ve got to hand it to you. You’ve turned a pink slip into a promotion!’” (Edwards, pg 455). But if we look closely, we see that the master is not commending the steward because of his dishonesty but because of his shrewdness.  The Pillar New Testament Commentary describes the importance of shrewdness in the Bible, “Throughout the Wisdom literature this same adjective is upheld as the ideal of the wise and prudent person. ‘Shrewdness,’ no less than ‘praise,’ is a commendation in v. 8. What is praiseworthy about the steward’s shrewdness? Unlike the ‘sons of light’, who may retreat into pious passivity in the face of opposition, the shrewd manager forms a plan and acts on it. When all hope seems lost, he does what he can, even if the little he can do may not seem to amount to much. His positive action spares him from resignation and cynicism. In contrast the parable of the Rich Man who amassed wealth without any thought of the future, the master praises the steward, scoundrel though he is, for his ingenuity in figuring out a way of providing for his future by using his soon to be lost financial power. He is indeed a ‘son of this world,’ but he is more prudent in the planning for the only future he is concerned about than the typical religious person is in planning for his eternal future with God” (Edwards, pg 455).

Often I think we in the church, especially small churches, define stewardship as spending as little money as possible to keep the church open as long as possible. The concern is a balanced budget. But that is not the Bible’s definition of stewardship. The Bible says to us, “Make friends for yourselves by the means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” Our faithfulness to God is determined not by how much money we spend or don’t spend but by how many people we introduce to the love of God in Christ Jesus.  The idea being that when we die, even if we are broke, all our friends that we brought to the Lord will throw us one heaven of a party! In other words, use what you got while you got it for the Lord, because it will fail you. Note, Luke does not say that wealth may fail you, he says that it will fail you. There is no doubt about that. Because even if you have a fat 401K when you die, you can’t take it with you. As Jesus would say, what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul? Of course, the answer is nothing. These treasures on earth don’t really matter. They will fail us. But God will not fail us.

These passages challenge us as a small church with limited resources. What does it mean for us not to lay up treasures on earth but treasures in heaven? If we give generously to the church and to the community, will God bless us? What does that blessing look like? Those are the questions we are asking in our Becoming a Blessed Church class. Indeed, just because we follow the Bible’s teachings on stewardship doesn’t mean we will remain open and be financially secure forever. Often when people say they are blessed, they mean things are going well, in their family and in their finances. Yet sometimes, the blessing of God could come in some very strange ways.

We must remember that every church has a lifespan. The churches that Paul preached to at Corinth simply are not around anymore. That’s not to say that they were bad purposes. They could have simply accomplished the purposes for which the Lord called that particular church into being. N Graham. Standish in his book Becoming a Blessed Church gives an example of one such Presbyterian Church. Standish tells the story of a Presbytery committee member who served on a committee that had been given the task of helping a church shut its doors. To quote Standish, “The decision had been made to sell the building. Two bids came in, one from an Episcopal parish, the other from a fundamentalist Southern Baptist congregation. The Southern Baptist bid was $30,000 higher than the Episcopal, creating a dilemma. The members of the committee wanted the extra $30,000, but they didn’t want a fundamentalist congregation to occupy the church building. A fight erupted within the committee. Finally, the committee leader asked the members to be quiet and to go out and pray for an hour to see what God wanted them to do rather than argue about what each wanted. When they resumed talking, someone offered an alternate suggestion, one heard in prayer. Why not sell the building to the Southern Baptists and give the extra $30,000 to the Episcopal Parish? That way, new life would be given to two churches out of the death of one Presbyterian church. The committee spent time praying about it, and all agreed. But they had one problem. How would they get the presbytery to go along with their suggestion? Wouldn’t their suggestion be seen as poor stewardship, since the building was presbytery property, and the presbytery could use the $30,000? Indeed, at the next presbytery meeting a bitterly divisive argument erupted among the 120 pastors and elders. Finally, an 85 year old woman slowly walked up the aisle and stepped to the microphone. Stamping her cane on the floor for emphasis, she said, ‘Can’t this presbytery ever do the right thing? They heard this answer in prayer!’ In that moment, everyone knew that following the committee’s suggestion was what God wanted. In that moment, the presbytery became blessed, and because it did, God became ever more present to two churches of widely different theological beliefs. This kind of thing happens in a blessed church. People seek what God wants, and when they do, they discover God’s unexpected blessings.”

My friends, know that the endowment that we have, that we have been so graciously given, will not last forever. It, like all money, will fail us, because money pretends to be God, but it is not. What does the future hold? I don’t know. But I know that I am ready for some unexpected blessings. But those blessings do not come to those who store their treasures on earth. Those blessings do not come to that servant who buries his talent in the ground for fear of losing it. Those blessings only come to those who spell faith R-I-S-K. Those blessings only come to those who are as wise as serpents and gentle as doves. Those blessings come only by practicing shrewd stewardship.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen

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