The Ninth Sunday after Holy Trinity – Luke 16:1-13
Jesus says something very hard to understand today:
“The master commended the [wicked] manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous [mammon], so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” (vv. 8-9)
If you followed along in your bulletin, you’ll see that the ESV calls the manager “dishonest” The same word in the Greek is used to describe the manager and the “money.” It is usually translated as “unrighteous,” or “injustice,” or my personal favorite, “wicked.” Any of these is better, in my opinion, than dishonest. Dishonesty is certainly wicked, but the manager is not just being dishonest. The ESV also uses “money” instead of the old-time word “mammon.” Mammon includes money, but it also includes possessions. The manager is wasting not just the mater’s money but also his possessions. We’re not used to using mammon nowadays, but I think it’s better to use it and look it up if you must.
The wicked manager has been accused of wasting his master’s possessions. It’s the same way the prodigal son wasted his inheritance. The wicked manager is told to put the books in order by the master. The wicked manager understands that he cannot do physical labor which was the most common way to make money in his day. Can you imagine digging ditches or working in a factory today? The master makes money by leasing out his land to tenants. They owe the master part of their produce as payment. The wicked manager shrewdly lessens what two of the tenants owe their master. The amount the wicked manager lessons the bills, fifty measures of oil for one and twenty measures of wheat for another, are most likely equivalent in value. The wicked manager does this so that he will find a cushy manager job waiting for him when he is let go. The master does let him go and unexpectedly commends the wicked manager for his shrewdness. Then Jesus says we are worse than the wicked in how we handle mammon. Then comes the real head scratcher from Jesus:
“Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous [mammon], so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” (v. 9)
I’m not going to say that I completely understand what Jesus is saying here, and I’m in good company as other pastors have admitted the same, but here’s what I do know: wicked mammon is meant to serve the church.
Mammon and anger have a lot in common. There is such a thing as righteous anger. I think we can say there is such a thing as righteous mammon. After all, Jesus says through St. Paul,
“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10)
Here Paul directly says “love of money” instead of love of “mammon.” But I believe we can safely extend the love of money to include “mammon.” And money or mammon is not, in and of itself evil, but the love of money or mammon is evil. Compare this to anger. There is such a thing as righteous anger. If you see injustice or injustice is done to you, you should be angry. Yet Jesus says through St. James,
“The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” (James 1:20)
Your old man, what Paul calls the flesh, is entirely wicked. There is nothing good in our old man. This is why Jesus had to be crucified for you. Your old man cannot be redeemed. He must be reborn into a new man. A man who lives and moves and has their being in Christ. This is why baptism that Jesus describes in John 3 to Nicodemus is so important. Consider one of our Small Catechism references to baptism,
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3-4)
Paul isn’t just talking about eternal life. You walk in “newness of life” now. You are a new creation. You have been reborn. And your old wicked man will do anything he can to drag you back into wickedness. And he will used the idolatry of mammon or sexual immorality or grumbling like Paul talks about in our Epistle reading to do it! (1 Corinthians 10:6-13) This is why we drown the old man with contrition and repentance daily! If you’re not meditating on the Word of God daily, your not allowing the Holy Spirit to work contrition and repentance in you daily! If morning meditation and mindfulness are so important for personal success, how much more important is the Christian meditating on the word of God first thing in the morning? Let the hearer understand!
So how does mammon serve the church?
First and foremost, for a church to survive, it must have the Word of God rightly divided and the sacraments rightly administered.
It’s amazing how cheaply you can get the Word of God. Even if you get the Bible in the original languages. And it’s amazing how relatively cheaply you can get a really nice, top quality, Bible. I don’t care how many Bibles any of us have, I just want all of us to have one good, really well-read Bible. I know you can get the Bible on your smart-phone or internet browser, but you really need a physical copy. It’s also a really great idea to read your Bible out loud. Audio copies of the Bible are great… I have a few myself, but there’s something about hearing the Bible in your own voice that’s really powerful. And if you tape a small catechism in your Bible somewhere, all the better! The easiest way to memorize the Small Catechism is by mindful repetition. It’s wonderful that we have Bibles available in the pew and parish hall for Bible study, but you really need that “one” Bible that is your own! So there’s really not a lot of cost involved with supplying the church, that is, all of us, with the Word of God.
I have outreach copies of the Gospel of John in the narthex. These are meant to be used for outreach. There’s probably not a better book in the Bible to start with an unbeliever. I also have outreach copies of the Small Catechism. I love that they titled it “A Simple Explanation of Christianity.” The Small Catechism is most definitely the best summary of the entire Bible out there. But both these resources for outreach are cheap so there’s not a huge burden on the church.
The church also needs the appropriate things for the sacraments, and they are not cheap. We want to have a nice baptismal font and chalice and paten and ciborium and paraments and such things to reverently reflect the magnitude of what’s happening at the font and pulpit and alter. And we understand that simple can be just as reverent as the most expensive things you can buy. One of my favorite pictures of the Lord’s Supper is a Lutheran pastor celebrating the Lord’s Supper using a jeep’s hood as the alter. But we should try to be as reverent as our resources allow. After an initial cost, there maintenance and replacement costs, which aren’t trivial. On top of that, you have recurring costs for bread and wine which really aren’t that bad.
Second, we also need to meet somewhere and keep the lights on. These definitely aren’t trivial costs. But, at the end of the day, we could sell this building and meet in someone’s house. The early church used dining rooms that were converted into a small sanctuary on Sunday mornings. My sunroom would make a nice gathering place. I’m sure some of you have big enough rooms that could be converted to a nice sanctuary for worship. God willing, we won’t have to consider this, but I believe the time is coming when Christians in America might!
Third, you also need to pay your pastor. And you do a wonderful job of this. The worker priest, like St. Paul was, is the exception and shouldn’t be the norm. The Word of God is the sole source of my teaching and authority. If I expect you to know it, how much better should I know it? As you can probably tell, I’ve been convicted a lot lately about needing to know the Word of God better. And it’s been on my mind a lot lately. Being a pastor full time allows me to delve deeply into God’s Word and I know that will bear fruit!
The reason we care about this is that the church is meant to be the voice of God to the neighborhood it’s placed in. Grace Lutheran Church exists to be the voice of God in Rialto and the surrounding areas. It takes creativity, discretion, time, talent, and money to be involved in the community. You might call it shrewdness! And we cannot do everything and be everywhere at once. We’re like a family. When a family starts out, they cannot afford to have a fully equipped house and garage with all the latest luxuries and gadgets. So, they start where they’re at. They get a little at a time over time and before you know it, they have resources. A church is similar in that it does what it can with the resources of people and money it has and does what it can. Over time, God willing, it will be able to do more and more in the community. One of the chief ways this happens is by actually living in Christ in the community where He has put you. As all of you live out your daily lives in Christ, you serve as salt and light to the world, provided you salt doesn’t lose it’s flavor and your light isn’t placed under a basket. (Matthew 5) But God will use you as His ambassadors to bring others into the church. The church is like a sheep pen or ship. (John 10, Matthew 4:18-22) It’s always looking for the lost sheep and overboard sailors to bring back into the safety of the sheep pen or ship, respectively. (Luke 15)
And this business of the church and individual Christians needs to be done shrewdly. I met a Christian lady at the coffee store Friday when I was working on this sermon. I dressed casually, but I had my Bibles out on my table. She was so excited to see another Christian, she eventually struck up a conversation with me. She is a teacher who works with kids one on one in independent study. Working in the public education system, she has to be really careful in how she witnesses to Christ. This got me thinking. It’s really easy for pastors to tell his people to be bold in proclaiming Christ when he doesn’t work in the “real” world! Our brothers and sisters in Christ who work in the “real” world are in danger of losing their livelihood if they are too bold. This is where shrewdness comes in. You pick your moments as you are able. Don’t worry! God will give you plenty of opportunities. And if you are retired, God will also give you plenty of opportunities to confess your faith, especially with your family. And when you deal with your family members who aren’t believers, you need shrewdness. If you talk about Christ every single time you have a discussion of them, they will perceive you as a shrill harpy and quit listening. But if you work on your relationship with them, God will give you opportunities to share the Gospel. And at the end of the day that’s what the church and individual Christians are about… sharing the Word of Christ.
The beautiful thing is that Jesus shares Himself in His Word and Sacraments. People look for Jesus in their hearts and imaginations and false prophets, but He is present in His Word and Sacraments. He promises to abide with you if you abide in His Word. He places His name on you in baptism. He delivers His Word to you in the preaching. He delivers His physical presence to you in bread and wine. Jesus gives you His Holy Spirit who empowers you to love Jesus back. We rightly celebrate and take pleasure in the presence of our Lord, but we also want the same for all the people that God puts in our life. And Jesus uses the same means to reach other people as He used to reach you… His Word and Sacraments. That’s why we devote our resources and energy and time to the Word of God and His church. And Jesus promises us that His Word, both audible and visible, will not return to Him void. (Isaiah 55:11) The church is always described as a remnant in the Bible. And it looks small from time to time in history, but God is gathering a multitude for Himself from all nations and peoples.
This includes you!
God be praised for the power of His Word. Amen.