September 22, 2019 – Deeper than our Stuff!

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By Rev. Victor Kim
Luke 16:1-13

The parable in our reading from Luke’s gospel this morning begins with Jesus saying that there was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.  The Greek word that is translated in our version as manager is oi-ko-no-mos and is usually translated as ‘steward.’  And the Greek word for house is oikos.  Therefore, a steward is one who takes care of, or manages, the house.  From a related Greek word, oikonomia, which means household management, we get our present day English word, economics.  Economics is the management of resources, the resources of a house, of a group of people, of a country, of a planet. And so oikonomics refers to the practice of being stewards, good managers, of what God has entrusted to us, God’s resources.  I once attended a lecture where the speaker was talking about businesses and the issue of corporate social responsibility.  He shared with us two specific examples which speak to a corporate sense stewardship and future vision.

Back in 1982 seven people died in the Chicago area after some Tylenol capsules had been laced with cyanide.  Although the Food and Drug Administration did not require a recall, the makers of Tylenol, Johnson and Johnson, issued a voluntary recall of all Tylenol products, which at the time amounted to over 100 million dollars worth of product. Tylenol’s share of the market crashed from 35% to 8%, but within a year, due to Johnson and Johnson’s prompt handling of the incident and their leadership in developing tamper proof bottles for medications, Tylenol had recovered its market share and, in fact, within a few years, Tylenol became the most popular over the counter analgesic in the United States.

A second example involves the scandal that surrounded the Ford Motor Company and the Pinto automobile.  Earlier models of the Pinto had a design flaw that could result in the gas tank being pushed forward in a rear end collision,causing the tank to be ruptured by protruding bolts, which could lead to deadly fires and explosions.  Ford conducted a cost benefit analysis that compared the cost of repairs to the gas tanks to the amount of money automobile manufacturers would have to pay for burn injuries and loss of life resulting from faulty gas tanks.  Ford concluded that it would be more beneficial to car companies to pay the victims for the resultant injuries and deaths than to invest in changing the design and placement of the gas tanks.  It would have cost $11 per vehicle to fix the problem and with 12.5 million vehicles affected from all manufacturers; it would have been a total cost of $137.5 million.  The cost of settling court cases due to death and injury, based on a projection of 2,100 accidents, 180 burn deaths and 180 serious burn injuries, assuming settlement amounts of $200,000 per death, $67,000 per serious injury and $700 per burned out car, would amount to a total of $49.53 million, in 1973 numbers.  Given this information, Ford decided against a redesign of the Pinto.

Ford’s idea of stewardship may have been based on what they thought was best for the company, but it proved to be very myopic in vision.  Ford may have saved money, but it also gained a reputation for manufacturing a car which came to be known as, “the barbeque that seats four” and Forbes Magazine named the Pinto as one of the worst cars of all time. Ford and Johnson and Johnson made different stewardship choices which not only affected their immediate situation, but significantly impacted their futures.The makers of Tylenol were willing to take a hit in order to invest in future goodwill whereas Ford chose to protect their present situation to the detriment of their future image.

So, what does this have to do with our text this morning? The parable of the Shrewd Manager from Luke is one of the hardest parables of Jesus to understand.  Over the years it has caused everything from confusion to outright hostility.  The problem is that in this parable Jesus seems to approve of the actions of a dishonest steward. 

The story goes like this: A rich man’s manager was told that he would be fired for misuse of his master’s resources.  Faced with the prospect of losing his job, knowing that he didn’t have the strength to do physical labour and being too proud to beg, the manager decided to buy himself a future.  He called those who were in debt to his master and he told them to write down a lower amount then they actually owed.  By doing this, the manager was hoping that when he was fired, others would welcome him into their homes.  He was investing in his future, although it was with his master’s money. He was a crook, he was cooking the books.  No wonder the parable is often called the parable of the shrewd manager.  Nobody really likes being labeled shrewd. It’s not an adjective that is often coveted by people today.  Wise, intelligent, yes, but shrewd is right up there with crafty, cunning, sneaky, wily.

The master in the parable, however, thinks this is great. When he found out what his manager had done, he commended him.  Instead of throwing him into jail, instead of having him tortured until he could pay back what he owed, he commended him for knowing how to take care of himself. Jesus wraps up the parable by saying,“The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.  Make friends using dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may invite you into the eternal homes.” 

We could spend hours trying to figure out why Jesus used this particular example to make his point but the question may be, do we even know what the point is? 

Maybe the point is this:Jesus makes clear, in this parable and in many other places in the gospels, that money, in and of itself, is not a bad thing.  It’s when you serve money, it’s when money becomes, not the means to an end, but the end itself, it’s when money becomes our god, that we get in trouble.  So, Jesus goes on to say, “You cannot serve both God and money.”  But clearly, in this parable, and in many other places in scripture, Jesus is saying that money can be used as a means to an end.  The stewardship of our money, of our stuff, our oikonomics, has long been a vital issue for Christians.  The vast majority of people cannot really live in this world without coming to terms with money.  It’s not about renouncing money, our stuff, but about how we are being called to use our money, how we are being called to be good stewards of our stuff.

It’s about Godly oikonomics.

If there is one point that all people agree on in the interpretation of this parable it is that the manager was commended because he planned for his future. The method might have been dishonest, but he used what was at his disposal to invest in his future.  I don’t believe that Jesus was inviting his audience, and I don’t believe he invites us today, to become dishonest in our oikonomics. But he does make the point that we, the children of light, those who are disciples of Jesus, we should be at least as astute as the manager in the parable was when it comes to dealing with each other and planning for our future. Use the money at your disposal to make friends, so that when the money is gone, your friends will invite you into the eternal homes.  There’s much here that needs commenting on.

First, the NRSV calls it dishonest wealth.  But as I have already said, money, in itself, has no character.  So a better translation would be, worldly wealth. Either way, it is a temporary resource.  And the best approach to a temporary resource is to utilize it in a way that leads to more permanent results. We are told by Jesus to use this worldly wealth to make friends for ourselves, so that when the temporary is gone, we will know something of the eternal.  How I understand this is that we need to use our worldly capital to build up heavenly capital.

We need to go deeper than our stuff and employ an oikonomics which invests in people.  By helping those who are not always able to help themselves, we use the worldly wealth to build up heavenly capital.  In knowing how we are to use wealth, we come to understand what Jesus means when he says that if you are faithful with little, you will also be faithful with much.  Our approach to our oikonomics needs to mirror the approach of Johnson and Johnson, rather than Ford.  We need to have a vision which goes beyond the issue of our present survival, to one which has our future in mind. 

Part of the oikonomics of the future is to invest in buildings and programs.  Every year we set a church budget.  We need to invest in this building and in the programs that our ministry offers.  But to go deep with God means that we need to go deeper than our stuff, deeper than our buildings or our programs. To go deep with God is to understand that ministry is always about people and we are to invest in people in a way that will lead to us being welcomed in the eternal kingdom.  It used to be in the church planting business that if you built it, they would come.  That’s why when you go to places like southern Ontario in every small town in you will inevitably find a Presbyterian church.  And often just across the street from that church will be another church, an Anglican church, a Baptist church or a United church.  People came to church because that’s what people did.  You needed a building, programs; you needed a lot of stuff.  But these days church planting is taking a different approach. In the Presbyterian Church in Canada, we don’t just build churches anymore believing that people will come, we know they won’t, we know they don’t. Our approach to new church planting is rooted in people, in relationships with people.  It doesn’t matter where the people meet, in homes, in coffee shops,

in other people’s churches, even in bars, what matters is the investment in the relationships between people, relationships that ultimately point towards Jesus and the relationship he wants with us.  People aren’t drawn to our stuff, they are drawn to the story that we share, that we embody, that we live out.  As people like Young Tae and Andrea work on developing their new ministries, they aren’t thinking about constructing a church building, but rather developing the relationships between people and with Jesus, which is by definition what a church is.

Deeper than our stuff means that we have to practice faithful oikonomics, to be good stewards of that which is entrusted to us, to use our stuff as a means to an end, not as an end in itself.  It’s so easy to get off track, to believe that our stuff, our resources, our money, our wealth is the end goal. Jesus is clear, you can’t serve two masters, you can’t serve God and wealth, one of them has to take precedence.  We can try to do a cost benefit analysis around our faith but how do you place a value on eternal things, eternal life?

There was an old Indian guru who had a star disciple.  He was so pleased with the man’s progress that he left him on his own, living in a little mud hut with his only possession a loincloth.  The man lived simply, begging for his food.  Once every week the man washed his loincloth and hung it out to dry.  Once day he came back to discover that his loincloth was torn and eaten by rats.  He begged the villagers for another loincloth but the rats ate that one too.  So he got himself a cat.

That took care of the rats, but now when he begged for his food, he had to beg for milk for his cat.  So he got a cow to feed his cat, but now he had to beg for hay to feed his cow.  So in order to feed his cow, he decided to till and plant the ground around his hut. But soon he found no time for contemplation so he hired servants to tend his farm.  Overseeing the labourers got to be a chore, so he got married to have a wife to help him with the farm.  His wife didn’t like the mud hut he lived in and demanded a real house.  So the man had to grow even more crops and hire more servants to keep his wife happy.  In time the disciple became the wealthiest man in the village.

Years later the man’s guru was traveling nearby, so he stopped to see his old student.  He was shocked at what he saw.  Where once stood a simple mud hut, there now loomed a palace surrounded by a vast estate worked by many servants. “What is the meaning of this?” he asked his disciple.  “You won’t believe this, sir,” the disciple replied.  “But there was no other way I could keep my loincloth.”

It doesn’t take much to get sucked in, to believe that our stuff is what really matters when it’s just a tool, a means to an end.  God knows we all need some stuff, and some of us are fortunate to have a lot of stuff, not so that we can wallow in our stuff, but so that we can invest the temporary things God has blessed us with in the eternal things that will never fade or perish. 

How are we using the temporary stuff of our worldly wealth?

Is it preparing us for the eternal reality God wants us to know?

Our worldly wealth won’t last.  We need to be practicing faithful oikonomics, so that when it’s gone, we will be welcomed into the eternal homes prepared for us.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

 Written by Rev. Victor Kim
Preached on 22 September 2019
at Richmond Presbyterian Church.