The First Commandment and Stewardship

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Sermon for Trinity 9

1 Corinthians 10:6-13  +  Luke 16:1-9

We begin a new series of catechesis today. You see the first week’s assigned readings and memory work on the back of the service folder. It’s designed to help and support our four young catechism students, but you know very well that they aren’t the only ones who need to read the Holy Scriptures and review the Small Catechism and learn God’s Word by heart. We begin our catechetical review with the First Commandment, and it happens to fit perfectly with today’s Gospel.

The First Commandment says very simply, You shall have no other gods. And Luther’s explanation is short and sweet: We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.

Now, what does it mean to have a god? Luther in his Large Catechism offers this helpful description: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress. So, to have a God is nothing other than trusting and believing Him with the heart…Whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god.

Do you think the unjust steward in today’s Gospel had his heart set on his master and on his master’s business? No! He was an “unjust steward,” after all. We see in the end just how wise and how shrewd that steward could be when he put his mind to it. The problem was, he had spent his career as a steward, as a manager of his master’s wealth, not putting his mind to it, carelessly squandering his master’s wealth, like it was no big deal. He wasn’t stealing from his master’s wealth. He wasn’t bowing down to the god of money. He simply wasn’t devoted enough to his master to do his job as a steward well, with care and with calculation.

This is what we would call a sin of “omission.” He wasn’t doing anything terribly wrong. It’s what he wasn’t doing right that really got him in trouble, and again, his lack of care and calculation with his master’s wealth flowed from a lack of care and devotion toward his master in the first place.

Still, it hardly seems to compare to the sin of the Israelites in the wilderness mentioned by St. Paul in today’s Epistle, does it? Moses had given them the Ten Commandments, then went up Mt. Sinai to get the rest of the Law from God. And when he came down 40 days later, what did he find? The people had taken their wealth—their gold, especially—and melted it down and formed it into a golden calf, which they were dancing around and worshiping. They made another god for themselves out of their gold. How angry was God at their idolatry? Three thousand people were put to death that day, and many others were afflicted with plague.

But, you see, there are many ways to break the First Commandment when it comes to money and wealth. Open idolatry, like the Israelites practiced at Sinai, but also stealing, greed, discontentment, worry and false trust are sins a person can commit with regard to wealth (or a lack of wealth). But so are mismanagement, carelessness and wastefulness, which, like the other sins, stem from a lack of devotion to God, a lack of true fear of God and love for God. And all of it is punishable with death and condemnation. With so many ways to sin with regard to wealth, it’s no wonder Jesus calls it the “mammon (or wealth) of unrighteousness,” because wealth can breed so many unrighteous thoughts and words and deeds.

But the unjust steward was finally brought to his senses with the threat of unemployment looming. Still self-centered as always, still acting out of a desire for self-preservation rather than love, but at least wise enough to know the urgency of his situation, he sat down and thought and planned and calculated how he might put his master’s wealth to use in the little time he had left.

What was his plan? He would use his access to his master’s debtors to his advantage. He would show kindness to them, he would purchase their favor, basically bribing them to help him out when he became unemployed later on. It’s brilliant, really. If his master fires him, now those debtors will hate the master and love the servant. If his master changes his mind and doesn’t fire the steward, then they both look good in the eyes of the debtors.

In the end, his plan worked. Instead of being fired, the steward was praised by his master. He had finally shown some impressive shrewdness at managing wealth, which worked out to everyone’s benefit in the end.

How does Jesus apply this parable to His hearers? For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light. And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home.

The sons of this world are unbelievers. The unjust steward represents them. They don’t know God, or the fear of God or the love of God. But when they are motivated by fear and a desire for self-preservation, they can be very shrewd in their use of the wealth God has placed in their hands. They know how to use money to gain friends for themselves—temporary friends, friends for this world only, but friends, nonetheless.

But the sons of light, believers in Christ and members of His kingdom, aren’t so shrewd when it comes to their use of wealth, even though we have far better motivations and far better reasons not to waste or mishandle what we’ve been given. We know that God is the owner of all things, and that we are merely managers and stewards of His possessions. We know that He is good, that He is worthy of our best effort.

But what happens? The world clamors for our attention. God becomes one priority out of many. Sure, He’s there. But so is school. So is work. So is the house, the yard, the family, the friend. Our attention is pulled in a dozen different directions. Our time is eaten up. Our money is divvied out, and…where did it all go? Whom have we helped? And how much more help could we have given to our neighbor in need, if we had stopped to think and plan and calculate?

God deserves better. He demands better. He commands all men to fear Him and love Him above all things and to worship Him alone. He refuses to be one priority among many. The First Commandment accuses us all of wastefulness and mismanagement of God’s wealth, including the wealth of the time God has given us.

But God Himself, the very one against whom we have sinned, is the perfect steward of His own possessions. God Himself, the owner of all things, planned for our salvation in eternity. He sat down and calculated, what will I do for these people who will rebel against Me and waste the things I entrust to them? I’ll send My Son to die for their sins. They can’t be saved by keeping My Law. I’ll save them instead through faith in My Son, and I’ll count their faith for righteousness, because faith will link them to Jesus and His perfect righteousness. And then God arranged all of human history to get it done, in order to get the Gospel preached, in order to have you baptized and hearing His Gospel. That’s God’s own stewardship, planning and calculating salvation through faith in Christ Jesus!

With today’s Gospel, Jesus reveals our sin to us in order to drive us again to repentance and faith in His Gospel, because by now we should see that we deserve only His wrath and punishment. Instead, Jesus calls us to take refuge in Him, to believe in Him who loved us and gave Himself for us, not on the condition that we become better managers, but because we can never do enough to earn God’s favor.

Trusting in Christ alone for forgiveness, we now have Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel for a guide, for a reminder to rededicate ourselves to the work God has given us to do in His kingdom. We have a good and gracious Father who has entrusted varying amounts of wealth to each of us. Remember that as you go forth this week, and think about how to use everything that has been placed into your hands—including your wealth, including your time, including your plans—for His business: for the good of His Church and for the good of your neighbor in general. As reborn children of God, you don’t work to purchase the favor of your neighbor in order to help your own sorry self, like the unjust steward in the parable. No, God opens His own eternal home to you in His words of forgiveness, for the sake of Christ. But as you work for your neighbor’s wellbeing, both temporal and eternal, for his body and his soul, out of love for God and thankfulness for the salvation given to you by Christ Jesus, God will praise the shrewdness shown by His children, not for our own sake, but for the sake of Christ, in whom we believed. And you can be sure that the Christians who have benefited from your stewardship will welcome you with open arms into the mansions of eternal life. Amen.

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