Luke 3:7-18; 16:10-13
September 22, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup
Our scripture lesson today pairs two difficult passages, one from a conversation with John the Baptist and one with Jesus. In each there is discussion about what it takes to be faithful in our stewardship. Stewardship is often a word congregations become wary of when they hear it in sermons, and pastors often balk at preaching because there is often the presupposition that when we talk about stewardship we’re just talking about money. But these two passages show us the need for faithfulness in our stewardship within money management but also far beyond it.
Each of our passages is strange in it’s own ways. In the parable preceding our passage in Luke 16 a “dishonest manager” is introduced. When he comes up short in his accounting, instead of shouldering the blame, he goes to all of his debtors and tells them to fudge the numbers a bit so it’ll all work out evenly for him. When he does this his creditor rewards his efforts.
Alyie McKenzie explains, “In ancient Palestine, there was a complex social, economic relationship among landowners, stewards, peasants, and merchants. The wealthy landowners sought to get as much profit as possible from their holdings and tenants. The steward was the middleman between the landholder and the merchants and tenants in the exchange of goods and services such as buying and selling grain, oil, and crops and collecting rents. If he was able to get an additional take for himself in these transactions, the master didn’t mind; in fact he expected it. As long as the master’s profits kept rolling in and the steward did not get too conspicuous in his consumption, the master was fine with the steward’s benefiting from each deal. As for the merchants and tenants, they were in a relatively powerless position, unable to directly confront the master. Their target, when they were disgruntled or felt put upon, was the steward, the master’s retainer. The steward’s position in this complex social network was both privileged and vulnerable. He had a relatively high standard of living, a benefit of his being able to read and write and his training by the master, but he was completely dependent on the goodwill of the master. He himself states it in verse 3. “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.” We might assume that he is whining here, selfishly unwilling to engage in honest labor. He is actually just stating the fact that he is not prepared by physical training or by the habit of hardship to compete with the peasant labor pool for the hardest, most menial of jobs: digging. His strength gone, he would be reduced to begging, and, in short order, would die because of the malnutrition and disease that came with poverty. His situation is dire. Something must be done to prevent this future. No one can do it but him.”
And so, he fudges the numbers and while the manager commends his efforts, we’re not told whether or not he gets his job back, but just that he has helped himself to have some political capital among the other dishonest people and so even if he’s left without a job, at least he has some friends he could fall back on. Whenever I read this parable I want to ask, really Jesus? You’re uplifting those making friends by dishonest wealth? Are you being sarcastic?
This parable is a bizarre example to come before the moral tale we read here, that God calls for our faithfulness, and that faithfulness in little and in managing the wealth of others allows us to be given much more as our own wealth to manage. Bizarre, yes, but is this the word of God? Well yes, yes it is.
And though the parable is hard to interpret I think there is still a message beyond that parable: God calls us to be faithful, and to be stewards of the gifts we have been given. Perhaps the challenge related through that parable is how easy it is to manipulate the system for our own profit and wealth. While such manipulation may have immediate earthly rewards it leads to the sort of deception that is condemned in our earlier passage in Luke.
In Luke 3, John the Baptist lays out specific directions of how to honor God in our stewardship. In verses 10-14 we read: “And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’”
“What should we do?” This is the question asked by crowds listening to Peter at Pentecost (Acts 2:37-38) and in that instance Peter gives a bold message, “Repent! Be baptized! Receive the Holy Spirit!” By comparison Paul’s teaching seems quite tame. While he begins strongly by calling the gathered crowd a “brood of vipers,” he then continues to give the rather basic instructions of “share, be fair, don’t bully.” Not exactly earth shattering stuff, but bold in its direct application.
“What should we do, what should we do, what should we do?” The crowds ask this three times in our passage. It is important to think about why they asked this question. They were interested in how to live faithfully, how to bear fruit as followers of God. They were probably afraid of the wrath of God, but they seemed equally afraid of separation from this new community of believers that was just beginning to form around the ministry of John the Baptist, and soon, Jesus of Nazareth, the messiah. John tells them that they are not secure in their faith by their religious lineage, their affiliation with Abraham, but rather only by their own individual repentance and seeking to be in right standing with God. This is a faith that required, well, faith.
But the action resulting from faith was not just an inward emotion of repentance, it was the lived out action of enacting God’s grace in the context of every day life. Deciding to follow God this completely requires a change in how we live our lives, and how we operate within our work, choosing at every moment grace over profit.
Helen Debevoise offers this reflection on our scripture passage for today, “Somewhere in the middle of our journey, we stopped living for Christ. We stopped believing that Jesus died and was resurrected and that life was made new. Somewhere along the way it became easy to serve all those pressing demands—of people, of schedule, of money. Somewhere along the way, the vision for God’s call became cloudy and muddled. We stopped hearing God’s voice and joined the crazy survivor takes all mentality. Somewhere along the way, the challenges seemed so much bigger than the answers. So we huddled in an effort to save what was left and forgot about living for something greater. We buried our treasures.”
Burying our treasures keeps it out of the hands not only of those who make take it from us, but also out of our own hands so that we are unable to create good with our use of it. Burying our treasure keeps us from offering it up to others. How often does our own desire for security keep us from opening our hands, our minds, and our lives to another?
John offers specific actions to explain what it mean to bear “fruits worthy of repentance.” If you have more than you need, he says you must share. To the tax collectors who could profit from asking for a little or a lot extra in their collections, he tells them to take only what they are owed. And to the soldiers John tells them not to take advantage of their position of power.
If we are living only for ourselves, this call to bearing fruit in our worldly relationships simply doesn’t make sense. If stewardship was about hoarding, those holding on to their treasures to separate themselves from those who they deemed below them would be the one’s getting things right, but that’s not what is being asked here. John is asking this crowd to look beyond their own treasure, into how their treasure can be invested in the lives of others, can be invested in God’s kingdom.
Every one of these acts explained by John have to do with taking from our neighbor what they need. Repentance is not just about the difference between faith and sin within our own being, but it is about living out our love of neighbor, extending the love and grace we have received from God.
Luke 3:9 tells us “every tree…that does not bear good fruit is thrown into the fire.” What are the fruits that you are bearing in your own life? Where are the places in your life where you are holding back?
Pastor and professor David Lose offers this insight into what John is asking of this crowd. “Most peculiar perhaps, is the “eschatological location” of the good fruits. Tax collectors are not called to sever their relationship with Rome, nor are the soldiers exhorted to lives of pacifism. Even in light of impending [end times] judgment, they are called to serve where they are; to take their stand for neighbor amid, rather than apart from, the turbulence and trouble of the present age; and to do good because, rather than in spite, of their compromised positions. By sandwiching such ordinary instruction amid [end times] warning and messianic expectation, Luke’s John hallows the mundane elements of daily life.”
You are tasked with being a good and faithful steward, not only of your resources, but of your position in this life. May you live fully into this task God has set before you. Amen.
 Helen Montgomery Debevoise, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 4 (WJK 2010) page 96.