The parable of the unrighteous manager is probably the strangest one that Jesus tells. The planting parables we have the key in the explanation to the Parable of the Sower. The Kingdom parables are a little trickier, but if you start with the main character as God they are understandable. But that doesn’t work with the unrighteous steward/manager. It’s not a kingdom parable or a sowing parable. It’s a discipleship parable.
It often gets used for monetary points, and that is present in this sermon. But it really goes beyond that. It uses money I think for two joined reasons. Money is the most changeable liquid thing we have. Money flows to our heart’s desires. Hence the biblical aphorism, “where your money is, there you heart will be also.” And it is in the aphorisms of Jesus the follow the parable that the explanation lies. It’s a parable about a fulfilling life and as such it is a parable about how one uses money, but it is more about how one uses their life. The sermon expands on that.
In some ways it is a harmless diversion. But there are other ways that the lottery, especially when it is so big and has persisted at this level, can be straight from the devil. The first part of this sermon is a old fashioned moral inventory – a preparation for confession – based on the fact of the lottery’s effect on this soul. It seemed appropriate given the text based in camels threading they way through needle’s eyes. Since it is not our typical failing it gets the shorter time, but there is the flip side of money troubles, pride in asceticism. Both of the ditches highlight how it is not possible with man. But all things are possible with God.
The text contains Jesus saying, “give to Caesar the things of Caesar, and to God the things of God”. It is possible simply take that answer as a simple dodge, but that is not what this sermon does. This sermon looks at Jesus’ saying in four ways. In the literal time frame it was a way to confront and avoid the politics of division. It encouraged the hearers to ponder both what was the state’s and what was God’s, and how they might or might not over lap. If we look through a lens of Christology one of the creedal confessions is that Christ sits as the right hand of God. He has defeated the powers and principalities and now does reign. What that rules out are the simple poles that the state’s things are always God’s things or that the state’s things are never God’s things. Caesar, like Cyrus and Pharaoh, is accountable to the God of Israel, the only God. In sorting out the things of Caesar, we can’t find ourselves at the extremes. If we look through a moral lens, Jesus encourages us to look at whose image or whose icon is on things. The coin bore the image of Caesar, but humans bear the image of God. Morally, when we see the least among us, we are to see the image of Christ, and act accordingly. Yes, that image is cracked due to sin, but it is that image that Christ repaired. It is that image that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is renewing in us. Finally, we are encouraged to take an eschatological view (a completion or end view). In how we dispose of the things entrusted to us, do we use them for temporal ends, or do we use them for eternal ends? Jesus invites us to put God in our debt. He’s good for it. If we give the things of God to him we will not lose our reward.
Worship Note: I moved our Hymn of the Day after the Sermon in the recording. LSB 851, Lord of Glory You Have Bought Us. I did this because the sermon was a little longer today. So if you just listen to that you can get to it quicker. I also moved it after because the words of that hymn I believe capture the Christological and Moral force of the message exactly. The eschatological is there as well, but not quite as direct, or not put in the same vocabulary. I use treasure in heaven as the vocab sticking with the monetary theme of the text. The hymn switches to theological virtue language: faith, hope and love.
One way of talking about our three great enemies is as the devil, the world and our sinful nature. (The alternate three are sin, death and the power of Satan. The difference is a question of time. Those second three are what own us prior to Christ and justification. The first three are what tempt us back into slavery.) What this sermon does is concentrate on the middle one – the world. It does so based upon the appeal of the Nazareth crowd, which is the argument of the world. You are one of us, right? All things in the world come from selling our freedom in Christ to that desire to be one with the world. The sequence looks at how Christ has freed us and the nature of Christ’s prophetic office. Then it looks at how we can fight the world in our lives. And it grounds the necessity of this in the eschatological reality that this world is passing away, while the word and promises of God stand forever.
This sermon explores two items wrapped by a question. The two items are: 1) the biblical view or warnings about wealth and 2) What it means that Jesus looked at the rich young man and loved him. Neither of these two things are as popular sentiment would have. This sermon attempts to instruct or correct that sentiment. What those two subjects are wrapped in is the question of the good. Not really what actions are good, because that is known defined by the law. The question is one of recognition, do we see Jesus as good? And do we recognize that God alone is good. The offer to the man to sell everything might sound like a law, but it is pure gospel. It is the offer of joining Jesus on his walk. Yes, the walk right now is toward the cross, but it is also heavenward, toward treasure in heaven. Our use of wealth is one way we are invited to participate in the kingdom now.
This text is also only half of a full section. The gospel assigned for next week continues in a similar vein but focusing less on our call and more on God’s action.
Musical notes: 1) The recording includes our choir’s first piece of the Season. 2) I’ve included the hymn after the sermon Lutheran Service Book 694 – Thee Will I Love My Strength My Tower.
That title is a reference to the aphorism of Jesus, “give back to Caesar the things of Caesar, and to God the things of God”. That phrase is more than a slippery evasion of the question the Pharisees were asking him. It is a startlingly deep teaching on limits to the temporal state and the extent of the requests of the Gospel. There are of course book length treatises that examine this. This sermon attempts to focus on three things:
1) What the things of Caesar are by bringing in Romans 13
2) What Caesar should provide, and a simple description following Peter Leithart’s taxonomy: guardians, babels and beasts, of the limits of our giving back to Caesar.
3) What giving back to God means with a focus on three ideas: a) bearing the image of God through baptism, b) the summary of the law as our spiritual worship and b) the gospel tithe.
Carrying crosses is a tricky subject. Or maybe I should write that discerning crosses is difficult. Sometimes what you think are crosses are just being a drama queen martyr. They could be avoided, but the scene is too desirable. Sometimes what we put as crosses are just common difficulties. A cross in the sense of the text is something forced on you by the world because you won’t put its priorities first. And more specifically, a cross is something you encounter because you specifically put Christ first. Jesus bore the cross, because he remained faithful to His Father. He would not give the pinch to the Sanhedrin or to Caesar.
This sermon looks at what are some very American or rich western crosses. It is tempting to dismiss them as crosses because of that adjective, rich western. But we don’t pick our crosses. Our trails are ours. I don’t say it in the sermons, but there is an old saying “those He wishes to destroy first he makes rich”. The deceptions of the world in the west are very attractive things. They are also often very good things, if in their proper order and time.
And that is the crux of crosses. They come not because the creation is bad. They come because Satan has marked his prey. They come because the ruler of this age wants you get things out of order. The faith of Jesus Christ gets things in the proper order.
The deeper theological term that this sermon circles around is kenosis. This contrast used as a summary refrain: The city of man seeks God to add to itself, The City of God seeks God to empty itself, is the kenosis statement. Every path of discipleship involves some emptying of the self. I’ve applied this here in a stewardship frame; it was budget preparation day. The first step in a robust spirituality is often a turning back to God, an emptying from ourselves, of a determined percentage of income. (The traditional response is the tithe, but the important point is putting kingdom values first.) The American church from what I’ve experienced has a problem right here. It is just not willing to turn over finances in a serious way to God. The reasons are legion and many are legitimate. But those reasons pale in comparison to the distrust that is built by not surrendering a portion to God.
But I think this applies in a much larger way to today. There is a much reported phenomenon of spiritual but not religious or the new “nones” in reply to religious beliefs. And I’ve got a big problem with most of that. And yes my current livelihood depends upon the religious aspect, so I am a partisan. But the call of Jesus is to turn our gaze away from our navels (stop being curved in on ourselves) and in this age to turn toward the cross which is the ultimate emptying of self. And Jesus’ vision in not a personal spirituality, or at least not exclusively. I can’t be like the rich young ruler looking to add spirituality to everything I’ve already got. Jesus’ vision is incarnational. The church is that incarnation. The church is the place where a true spirituality is created. The church is that 100 fold return of brothers and sisters…and persecutions. If it is not, it isn’t fulfilling its purpose.
One of theses days I’m going to write a novel with that title. It’s an allusion to Gen 31:19,32 and as with so much else from that Ur-Book, its a powerful story that we play out again and again like a musical fugue.
The Gospel text for this day is one of those repeats and an appropriate horror story as we get to Halloween. The contrasting character to Jesus is a man who knows he’s trapped by his household gods but can’t leave them. The task of discipleship is to learn to leave them behind. This man’s question is every man’s question or should be. That novel, amongst the characters, the protagonist is the one who in the eyes of the other characters has failed miserably but who is actually the only one who is free.
The big struggle this week was the question have I let the gospel predominate. I went back and forth in my pondering about that call to deep discipleship and how it might be taken. It could be a law proclamation of the second kind. All one might hear is the refrain to give up the idols and the application to do more and feel convicted. We know the responses when told to do something we really don’t want to do before we are ready to break the fugue. It could also be a law proclamation of the third kind. What must I do? Look at the commandments. That is how God intended us to live. Actually putting requirements back on people seems like a reversal of the gospel. If you are proclaiming the captives free, how then can you put the chains back on?
But Jesus didn’t seem to have any such qualms about being explicit. And that gets to a core recognition of the gospel. We can talk about the gospel in those freedom metaphors, but the call to “follow me” is every bit as much the call of the gospel. We can get deep in the Lutheran weeds and get all worried about passive righteousness. We can piously mumble true words about “I cannot by my own reason of strength follow Jesus”. But in the midst of the Christian life there are moments where it certainly feels like a choice. Like the one Jesus put to the rich man. The choice is really do we hear the gospel and walk in the way Jesus has laid out for us, or do we go our own way. So what I hoped the sermon opened up was not a list of preacher saying you must do x – which would all be great things for the preacher – but a space for the hearer to ask that question – “what must I do?” – and hear Jesus’ answer. These are your household gods and need to be left behind. Whatever they might be.
This is sermon is one of those all or nothing affairs. Its football season, so I’ll use a football analogy. Sometimes you are handing the ball to the running back on a dive play. Its going to get roughly 3 yards and move the chains. Most sermons move the chains. Teaching is moving the chains. Sometimes the dive play opens up and you get a 20 yard scamper. Sometimes in sermons you don’t just teach but can inspire as well. And then there are the go routes. You tell your fastest receiver to go. You hold the ball as long as you can without being sacked, and then you throw it as far down the field as you can hoping that speedy guy runs under it. It is all or nothing with a side possibility of a turnover.
Jesus took his chances. He was always asking ‘who do you say I am?’ It’s an all or nothing question. The specific topic is stewardship. Churches need tithes and offerings to operate. But stewardship is a secondary question. If you haven’t committed to an answer to the authority the church works under, then stewardship is just dues. So stewardship sermons ask that primary question. Who do you say the crucified one is?