An Unjust Stewart or a Prodigal Servant?

Text: Luke 16:1-13

Sunday Sermon

The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Priest-in-Charge

September 21, 2016

Introduction

This afternoon, many of us—I hope most of us, will find ourselves at East Naples United Methodist Church and later at St. Matthew’s House. If last year’s program is any indication, we will enjoy an incredible concert, meet some good folk from other denominations, and then offer a donation to help the work of St. Matthews House. St. Paul’s has a great investment in that place. Through the vision of John Lindell, those of you who were here then worked with him to help bring it into existence. Every year since we have made a significant financial contribution to its support. Each week we bring food stuffs and other items to feed and clothe those they care for. Occasionally, we make use of some of the services they offer. We feel good about this relationship and we have earned the right to do so.

At the same time many of us have some reservations about continuing this relationship. I have overheard concern coming from three directions. The first concern stems from its very success. The churches of Naples and other organizations now support it, the scope of its mission has expanded and it seems to be well funded financially. In view of this, should we consider giving more support to other worthy organizations that are not so well funded? The second concern expressed is that those now giving leadership to the organization are coming from a theological framework more conservative than we and the question arises should we continue to support an organization whose goals are not fully aligned with ours? The final concern relates to the people being served. Is St. Matthews House really helping them? What percentage are being rehabilitated and are enabled to go from this place to live productive lives? Or to put it another way is St. Matthew’s house fostering dependency and instead of helping those they serve? Or, are they in fact, enabling the residents to continue to live a dysfunctional existence?

All three are legitimate questions. Indeed, these are questions I have addressed to the some of the leaders myself and I have liked their answers. For me, there is no question that we should continue the relationship. I raise the questions this morning because I believe today’s Gospel reading speaks precisely to these kinds of concerns.

I.

Our Gospel is one of those passages that, on the surface, seem to make no sense. Biblical scholars have puzzled over it for centuries and have come up with all kinds of strained interpretations. Some have even suggested that the original story got mistranslated in the Greek from the Aramaic language Jesus spoke when he first told this parable to his disciples. It is easy to understand why. Let me quickly retell the story in a contemporary setting.

An investment manager, working for the Berkshire Group has been entrusted with a large portfolio. Instead of following the company’s guidelines by investing across the board, putting a third of his portfolio in bonds, a third in blue chip stocks; and a third in venture capital, he decided he was going to make the company and himself a lot of easy money by putting it all in a series of high risk, high tech start-ups. Every one of them failed and were about to go bankrupt. He knows he is soon going to have to face Warren Buffet with the bad news and that he will undoubtedly get canned. He can’t think of any other skills he has to find a different kind of job; he knows he will be blackballed from ever working on Wall Street again; and he doesn’t want to end up accepting handouts from St. Matthew’s House. So he says to himself: “I will tell every firm I’ve invested in that I will accept ten cents on the dollar. Buffet will still can me, but one of the firms might avoid bankruptcy or start over and give me a job”.

So he enacts his plan and on the day of reckoning meets with Warren Buffet. He presents him with ten percent of his original capital and tells him the whole story. To his absolute astonishment, instead of firing him, Buffet praises him for his shrewdness and says, “Son, I think you have learned your lesson, and given the kind of initiative you have shown, I am going to give you a promotion. I’m making you a vice president in the company.

Can you understand why Biblical scholars have been troubled by Jesus telling a story like that? Especially when Jesus ends the story by turning to his disciples and says. “You can see that the sons of this age are far wiser than the sons of light. Therefore, make friends with them and with their dishonest wealth, for when it is gone, they will welcome you into their eternal home.” What possibly could Jesus mean by all of this? What possible application does it have for you and me today?

II.

Every once and awhile, I remind you that the way both Jesus and many of the writers in biblical times thought, spoke and wrote was to not simply tell one story, but to put two or three together. Usually each story made sense by itself, but when the person listening reflected on all of the stories together they discovered additional meaning. By reflecting on the first story in light of the second story the listener realized that the speaker had some additional hidden wisdom he or she was trying to convey to them. Jesus spoke that way all the time. Last week’s Gospel reading is a perfect example when Jesus told the stories of the lost sheep and the coin looking at them together along with the next story, the lost son, or the Prodigal Son. You find lots of additional meaning then by simply interpreting each story in light of each other.

Looking briefly at those stories this morning, you may remember that in the case of the lost sheep and the lost coin. Jesus concluded each story by sat that when they were found there was joy in heaven. When the Prodigal son returned, however, while the Father rejoiced, there is no report that there was rejoicing in heaven. Instead, Jesus ends the story with the angry reaction of the older brother. If we look only at the story of the Prodigal son, we are left feeling a little uneasy. Were the two brothers ever reconciled? Was the older son alienated from his father? When this happens, it usually means that we haven’t gotten all of the point Jesus is trying to convey. In other words, the story of the Prodigal son, instead of becoming the grand conclusion of the lost sheep, lost coin lost son, is rather the bridge tying all those stories to the two stories that follow. What follows is today’s Gospel reading of this foolish steward, and next week’s gospel reading of the rich man and Lazarus.

III.

To show how all five stories fit together and exhaust all the meaning they shed on each other would require that I have a blackboard or an overhead projector, and have at least three hours to give an adequate lecture. Instead, I have five minutes to wrap this up.

What possible things do the story of the Prodigal Son and the Unjust Steward have in common? The first thing we notice is the younger son squanders his inheritance in foolish living and the Steward squanders his master’s possessions in foolish investments. The Greek word that Luke uses that is translated “squander” in only used in these two stories in Luke’s writings. That does not happen by accident. Luke is deliberately tying these stories together. Secondly in both cases, the men are in total denial until they hit bottom. Only when their wealth is all gone do they come to self-awareness of the reality they face. At that point, in both cases, self-interest takes over. They both figure out the best possible outcome they can hope for and take action to secure it. Though both may be repentant, neither expects forgiveness, and both know they don’t deserve it. Yet in both cases they are fully restored to their previous position.

We see parallels when comparing the father to the master as well. Both responded to the situation in a way that was unthinkable in a culture governed by honor and shame. No father would divide his inheritance before his death. Any son foolish enough to ask for his share would be declared dead to the father, and completely disinherited. All the actions of the father that follow in the story would be incomprehensible as well. The same is true of the business man. Not one man in 10,000 would praise this servant for what he did, let alone give him a promotion.

In both cases, Jesus is revealing the radical nature of God – pure love, longing for all of his creation to be restored into fellowship with him. In contrast, the Prodigal Son and the Unjust Steward recognize that they are totally undeserving and throw themselves on God’s mercy.

IV.

And so our Lord concludes the parable of the Unjust Steward which he has addressed to his disciples by saying: “The children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light. So make friends with those of unjust wealth for when it is gone they will welcome you into their eternal home.” What could Jesus possibly mean by this?

I think it begins to makes sense when we see the whole parable in light of the story of the Prodigal Son. The wayward son represents the “children of this world.” Both he and the Unjust Steward are very much of their unworthiness to stand before the Father or the Master. Indeed, both would also know they are unworthy to stand before God.

In contrast the older brother and the rich man in next week’s Gospel, the Rich Man and Lazarus, should be understood as the “Sons of Light. They stand before God completely unware of their sinfulness.

Like the “Sons of this World” both the Prodigal and the Unjust Steward are shrewd. They are trying to get the best deal they can get in a bad situation while at the same time recognizing how unworthy they are.

Jesus addresses this saying to his disciples. He is saying to them be shrewd in your dealings on earth, like the sons of this world. But like the Prodigal and the Steward, never forget that you stand before God unworthy. Your eternal destiny is found only through God’s grace.

Conclusion

So if Jesus were here today, I think he would say the questions you may have about St. Matthew’s House are questions you need to ask. They are questions the Children of this World would ask. Does St. Matthew’s House need my contributions or should I give to an equally worthy organization that has greater need? Is St. Matthew’s House theological outlook sufficiently aligned with my understanding that I should give? Is St. Matthew’s House doing an effective job in turning people’s lives around, or are there other organizations that do better. As Disciples of Jesus Christ, we need to be shrewd with our resources. I wouldn’t be recommending St. Matthews House to you if I weren’t persuaded that St. Matthew’s House is a worthy recipient on all three counts. But if you aren’t sure, then just go and enjoy a great concert!

At the same time, when you get to the reception and if you see those who are being assisted by St. Matthews House remember that when you and I stand before God – He sees us all the same, all of us are unworthy to stand before Him. Our Eternal Destiny is only through His grace. Amen.