Following the way of Christ means placing all of our money in His hands and using it the way He desires.
Lord, grant me freedom as I learn to manage Your money in Your way.
This is a Sunday I’ve had circled on the calendar for months. It started with looking at the Scriptures in the lectionary for August and September and realizing that so many of the passages were focused on generosity. Then, I began seeing various practices of generosity popping up in the scriptures, like blessing, hospitality, humility, simplicity. But all of it was moving in a direction, all pointing to this particular day. It’s time to talk about money. And not just money in general, but giving money. I warned you last week, and you showed up despite my warning. My hope is that today we can have an honest look at what Jesus says about money, and how we are supposed to approach giving in the kingdom of God.
Now, I suspect you are probably a bit uncomfortable hearing a pastor talk about money. We all are. For thousands of years, pastors and church leaders have used scriptures about money to abuse and coerce people into creating personal gain and power. It happened in the church’s earliest iterations, and it happens today. That kind of manipulative teaching is deeply wrong, and I hate it just as much as you do.
But that’s not the only reason talking about money in church is uncomfortable. Even if we take out all of the spiritual and power dynamic implications, money is profoundly emotional. No matter who you are, talking about money brings up core emotions of fear, shame, or anger. Many of our core stories, the events that shaped our lives and our way of seeing the world, involved the use of money. We are deeply shaped by the way our parents view money, or our family or friends viewed money. This is true whether we came from poverty or were embarrassed at our lack of money, or we had an affluent lifestyle and all of the side effects that come along with it.
Money is a loaded topic. But it’s a topic that we cannot ignore if we are going to honestly participate in God’s kingdom. Again, like we said last week, a kingdom of God that says nothing about money is like a gym that says nothing about nutrition. It might look or sound helpful, but in reality it is worthless in seeing anything genuinely change. So let’s buckle up today and dive into this passage, and let Jesus challenge us all with a fresh perspective.
On the surface, this scripture is a bit confusing. In fact, it has often been misunderstood and misinterpreted in Christian history to advocate for using dishonest ways to make money, and then giving it away to compensate for our sinful actions. It can, in some senses, seem like that’s what Jesus is teaching. But in reality his teaching is far more challenging, and far more important to understand and put into action. There are three important things to notice in this parable about the dishonest manager:
First, Jesus is not just using this as an allegory to talk about the divide between Israel and the non-Jewish people. His last parable was the story of the prodigal son, a very direct challenge to the Jewish people (the rich older brother in the story) to be prepared for the Gentile people who are about to get welcomed into God’s kingdom with a warm embrace. In some ways, this passage can be seen that way as well, with the master being God and the steward representing Israel. If this is the case, then it doesn’t really apply to us very much and we can breathe a little easier. But there seems to be an important shift here, and one that won’t let us off the hook that easy. Just look at the bookends of this story. First, Luke notes that “Then Jesus said to the disciples,…” He’s changing his audience, from the Pharisee religious leaders to the people closest to him. He’s not going after the Jewish authority here, he’s leaning into his followers and making a point directly to them. And at the very end of the passage, in his summary one-liner, he clearly states that “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Jesus is obviously intending this passage to be about how we manage wealth, and for us to blow it up to some metaphorical understanding is to miss the importance of his teaching. We’re not off the hook here, unfortunately!
Second, Jesus addresses this master as someone who is dishonest, and the money they have made is “dishonest wealth.” What does this mean? It seems like he had some outstanding loans, and his employee cut the loans down to make friends for himself. That doesn’t seem praiseworthy, it seems like an employee who deserves to be fired! But according to God’s law, the Jewish people were not allowed to charge any interest in their lending. The best explanation for what is happening here is that the manager is simply reducing each loan to cut out the dishonest interest, he’s fixing the bad deals of a loan shark. And this is why his master thinks’s he’s shrewd, because the master can’t punish him for fixing the deals without exposing his own bad behavior. The manager wasn’t foolish or reckless, instead he found a loophole to correct the injustice and set things back the way they are supposed to be.
Third, Jesus talks about money here and how we must choose rather to serve God or to serve wealth, but there is no mention of tithing. In fact, tithing, the spiritual practice of giving 10% of our income to the tabernacle, temple or church is not a practice that Jesus teaches at all. He speaks quite a bit about money, but only talks about tithing in one instance, recorded in Luke and Matthew. And the only time he does teach about tithing, it is to reprimand the Pharisees for not doing justice to others in addition to the tithing rule that they are so careful to follow. Tithing, for Jesus, does not seem to be his central teaching on money.
Now this is where things get a bit sticky. As I approached this passage, I imagined that we would spend a good bit of time talking about tithing. Giving 10% of our income is what I always heard taught as the Biblical standard for giving. And we do find this teaching throughout the Old Testament. In fact, in the old covenant the Jewish people were required to pay a tithe to three different needs: to pay the levites so they can do their work, to provide for the tabernacle or temple feasts, and to set aside money for the poor in the community. This totaled up to well over 20% of the crops a Jewish person would harvest, and it worked much like a community tax.
But when we get to Jesus, the teaching about money shifts a bit. Jesus does not seem concerned with a strict adherence to the tithing laws of the old covenant, but he does seem deeply concerned with the way his followers use their wealth and possessions. We have talked about this multiple times already this fall, but Jesus discusses the use of money more than almost any other topic in his teaching. And just like Jesus does with many of his other teachings, he takes the Old Testament law and ups the ante. He says, you’re so focused on the letter of the law you’re missing the heart of the law. In my kingdom, it’s not just about giving a certain percentage of your money, it’s about living with a proper perspective of all the money you have, and acting accordingly. Jesus doesn’t sit back on the rules of tithing, but instead strikes to the core and dials up the challenge to everyone who wants to follow him.
And then, when we get to the New Testament, the place where the church is trying to figure out what to do with this teaching and how to live out the kingdom of God in the world, tithing seems to be removed from the discussion altogether. Paul challenges the church in Corinth to support the poor in Jerusalem by setting aside a portion of their money “in keeping with your income.” He doesn’t specify an amount, but in another letter he challenges the Corinthians to give like the Macedonians who “voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints.” Paul is painting the picture of giving that isn’t tied to a legalistic percentage, but instead goes beyond a written law to something that is deeply challenging for everyone, no matter how much or little wealth they have.
So when we pick up the baton from the New Testament, and continue the story of the Church living out the kingdom of God in the here and now, what do we do? Do we put ourselves back in the shoes of the Israelites and use a 10% tithe as our legalistic standard. No, that is not the message of Jesus, and it’s not the teaching of Paul and the New Testament scriptures.
But we also can’t turn a blind eye to money as a whole and just go on living like the kingdom of God has nothing to do with our income. That is totally against what Jesus and Paul teach, and it does nothing to help us grow in Christ and practice his way of life. So what then, do we do? What’s the right percentage, is it 1%, 5%, 15%? And is the same for everyone or do we each get to to choose?
This is where we need to reframe the question. Rather than getting caught up in what percentage is right, a question that legalism would demand of us, we need to step back and realize that we’re asking the wrong question entirely. We are asking, “How much of my money do I need to give to God?” Do you see the problem with that question? It is a subtle problem, but one with huge implications. Instead of asking “How much of my money do I need to give?” We should be asking “How much of God’s money should I give?” We learned this last week, as we talked about simplicity. Materialism is the lie that whispers in our ear that everything we have is something we earned and we must protect. But when we look at the message of Jesus, what we see is that nothing that we have is truly ours, it is all a gift from God. All of our wealth, all of our resources, all of our possessions, they have all been entrusted to us by a generous God. And every ounce of those resources has been entrusted to us for a purpose.
When we view money this way, as a generous gift from God, then the question is answered very simply. “How much of God’s money should I give to his kingdom?” Every single dollar. 100% If it is God’s money, then it deserves to be spent where He wants it to be spent, not where I want it to be spent. He is the one who should direct, not just 2, 5, 10, or 15 percent of my income, but all of it. This is the spiritual practice of stewardship. And if we engage in this practice and think that way about our money, then something powerful begins to change in us.
At this point, a voice rises up in many of us and says, “Okay, I see what happened there. That’s a convenient pastor-trick. I get it. But this is real life. I have to pay bills today. I have to feed my kids today. How do I give 100% of my money to God’s kingdom? And while we’re at it, doesn’t that just suit your purposes conveniently?” Well, it can seem very out of touch with reality, and it may sound very self-serving coming from someone who makes a living from the generosity of others. But it is actually a teaching that is deeply practical, and one that can radically move us into the freedom that Jesus offers in His kingdom. To find the how, the practical nuts and bolts of how this works, I suggest that we look back.
In my preparation for this sermon, I came across a sermon by John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church who lived around the time of the American Revolution. The sermon was delivered somewhere around 250 years ago, and he preached on this exact passage of scripture. And honestly, if it weren’t for his old-English language, I would have simply read his words today. They are better than mine could ever be. The sermon is called “The Use of Money,” and if you’re interested you can find it online. But in this 250 year old sermon, Wesley offers three simple steps to the practice of stewardship that are incredibly powerful and helpful for us today.
The first step of stewardship might surprise you. It is simply to “Gain all you can.” That doesn’t sound very Godly, does it? Gaining all you can seems greedy, dangerous, like something that Jesus would preach against. And Wesley is specifically speaking against laziness and sloth, challenging people to put wholehearted effort into their work. Without any limitations, this picture of gaining all you can will quickly turn into that kind of destructive greed. But Wesley gives an important caveat: Gain all you can, but not at the expense of anyone’s humanity. Gain all you can, but not in a way that causes your physical or mental health to suffer. If you gain more by destroying your body or your mind, through over-work, or chronic anxiety, you are degrading the most precious resource God has given you; your own life. This should give us some serious pause. Is my pursuit of money or security causing harm to myself? If so, I need to make some changes. And it’s not just about harming ourselves, it’s about harming others as well. Is my pursuit of money or security causing harm to my family or my friendships? If so, it’s time to make some changes. And even more important, is my way of gaining money causing harm to others, whether through dishonesty, unfairly undercutting my neighbor, using inhumane practices towards laborers, or destroying the creation itself? If so, it’s time to make some changes.
Second, Wesley calls all of us to “Save all you can.” This makes sense, and sounds like something Dave Ramsey or Clark Howard would readily endorse. But in reality, Wesley’s teaching is not about putting away money in a bank account or maxing out our 401k. How do we save more money than we are currently saving? By spending less. Wesley’s depiction of what “saving all you can” really looks like is taking a hard look at how we spend our money, especially our discretionary income. Everyone needs the basic necessities of life, food, water, shelter, clothing. He is not saying that we should live as ascetics in abject poverty. But he is saying that we need to take a second look at whether the things we purchase are actually things we need, or if they instead feed the desires of our sinful nature. So many things that we think are “needs” are actually just wants, and just like we talked about last week they entangle us in a prison of materialism. “Saving all we can” means refusing to believe the lie that possessions and lavish experiences are our hope for joy and fulfillment in this world. In the mind of John Wesley, those unnecessary possessions are not “good” things, they are dangerous traps that threaten our very life. By re-evaluating our spending and trying to spend as little as possible, we are not doing something noble or counter-cultural, we are doing something life-saving, we are providing ourselves the breathing room needed for true life in God’s kingdom.
And Wesley even directly addresses what we should do in storing up money for our children when we are gone. And look at how these words, written 250 years ago, speak directly to us today “How amazing the infatuation of those parents who think they can never leave their children enough! What! Cannot you leave them enough of arrows, firebrands, and death. Not enough of foolish and hurtful desires. Not enough of pride, lust, ambition, vanity. Not enough of everlasting burnings. Poor wretch! Thou fearest where no fear is.” This may seem harsh or out of place in 21st century America, but is it, really? Or is it a dire wake up call to all of us, that the lie of providing for our children by lavishing resources on them is actually in most cases a terrible disservice to them, trapping them in a lifestyle laser-focused on the things in life which don’t matter at all.
Gain all you can. Save all you can. Two important and challenging directives, but we cannot stop there. To stop here is to miss the most critical piece of the entire picture of managing money in God’s kingdom. If we stop here, our hearts will still become trapped in the prison of wealth as we try to manage the money that is still sitting in our hands. If we have gained more and saved more, then we have more left over. What do we do with that surplus?
“Give all you can.” We are to give it away. To whom? “Do good to them that are the household of faith,” Wesley says. And if there is some left over, “as you have opportunity, do good unto all men. In doing so, you give up all you can; nay, in a sound sense, all you have. For all that is laid out in this manner is really given to God.” This is the key, this is what makes it possible for us to put 100% of our resources in the hands of God. If we gain all we can and save all we can, we have ensured that we are living on exactly what God destined for us, nothing more. We can enjoy the freedom of simplicity. And then, we can take anything that is left over and surrender it back to God, through his church and directly into the hands of others. This is what it means to use money in the way of Jesus.
Notice, what Wesley is prescribing is not a tithe, it’s not a set percentage or a benchmark that we all hold ourselves to. It is entirely personal, every person will end up with a different percentage of income that we give. The question for Wesley is not, “What is the minimum threshold I should give?” but instead, “How much can I possibly give?” And no matter the answer to that question, no matter our particular percentage, if we view all of our money as God’s money, given to us to steward in this way, we are giving all of it back to him. All of it is put in his hands, to dispose of however he would see fit.
Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can. The words are simple, but in reality it’s a very hard thing to do. In fact, Wesley gave a very simple gut check for us to use if we get confused about what to do. I’ve updated his language a bit, but his challenge was a prayer that we can pray any time we are about to make a transaction: “Lord, you see that I am about to spend this money on that food, clothing, furniture, etc. I am spending this money as a steward of the resources you have entrusted to me, and I want to use this money the way You would desire. Let this purchase be a holy sacrifice, acceptable through Jesus Christ!” If you get confused, and don’t know if you are spending money according to God’s kingdom, just pray that simple prayer. If you can pray it with your whole heart, then spend the money and spend it joyfully. If for some reason you can’t pray it with an undivided heart, then you know what to do.
That may still be hard for us all to grasp and truly imagine, but what if we all really lived this way? How much in our world could chance, if we all took this call seriously? If we all gained as much as possible, through honest, healthy and ethical means, if we all lived on as little as possible to enjoy life in God’s kingdom, and we all gave every penny we could, what would be possible? How many problems in our world could change? How many people could be spared from disaster and despair? The picture that Jesus is calling us to, the picture that Wesley paints in his description of this passage, is a beautiful picture of the kingdom of God the way God intended it. All of us, viewing every dollar as a gift, and using it accordingly.
Now, it would be one thing to end here and send everyone away thinking about this challenge. Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can. That’s nice. That’s challenging. That’s all well and good, but what is going to actually cause us to change our behavior? With something as emotionally charged as money, something that causes us so much anxiety and fear, how do we possibly step out of these long held patterns and start seeing money the way God sees it?
Simply thinking about it or talking about it will not do. We need a plan. Each of us needs a plan. We don’t necessarily all need the plan of the Old Testament, the tithing plan, but we each need a plan. So I want to challenge us today to begin crafting a stewardship plan. In fact, the daily practices that you can pick up today will help us all craft a stewardship plan. In three simple questions, we can begin to challenge our perspective of money and find ways to walk towards the freedom Jesus promises.
How is my pursuit of wealth harming myself, those I love, or anyone else?
Where might I change habit of wasting/protecting my money to saving/stewarding God’s money?
How can I make space to give more to God and to others?
These three questions are so important. And we need to walk through all three. Because none of us will ever be at a place in life where giving is convenient. We will always say “well I’m young and trying to pay off student loans,” or “I’m trying to start a family,” or “my kids are at an age where they need a lot of money,” or “I’m headed toward retirement and need to save all I can for that,” or “I’m retired and on a fixed income.” No matter what stage of life we’re in, there is always a reason that it’s not the right time to focus on these questions.
But the truth is, it’s always the right time to focus on these questions. These questions are life-giving and truth-revealing. They lead us to the end goal that Jesus speaks about in today’s passage. If we can stop serving money and begin submitting all of our money to God’s way, then we are headed out of slavery. We are headed toward freedom. True freedom, that no one can take away. Freedom that isn’t dependent upon another job, promotion, client or lottery ticket. Freedom that releases us from the slavery that is all around us, the slavery that destroys our lives and our joy. What could your life look like if you were really free from slavery to money? Would it be a life worth living? The freedom Jesus offers is a freedom that is available to all of us, we just have to be willing to ask these questions and start practicing stewardship until our heart bends in the direction of his kingdom. Today, our challenge is to begin viewing the money in our possession as his money, and to begin placing all of it in His hands.
“Lord, grant me freedom as I learn to manage Your money in Your way.”