Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR
Ninth Sunday after Trinity + July 29, 2018
Text: Luke 16:1-13
Our Lord says, “The one who is faithful over little is also faithful over much.” The concept of firstfruits is found throughout the Bible, but it’s not something we often hear much about. If we are to be faithful over what we have, it’s timely to think about what our Lord asks of us.
The features of firstfruit offerings is spelled out in the Law of Moses, especially in Number 18 with the laws of firstborn, firstfruits, and tithes. The firstborn of all who open the womb, man or beast, are holy to the Lord and redeemed by sacrifice (10th plague) (Numbers 18:13-17). The firstfruits are to be the “best of the wine and of the grain” (Num. 18:12) and animal offerings were to be “without blemish” (Leviticus 3:1). The tithe, the first tenth off the top of all income was to be given to the Lord via the Levites (Num. 18:21). They, in turn offered a tenth of all they received by sacrifice to the Lord—“from each its best part is to be dedicated” (Num. 18:29). All of these offerings were sacrificial, meaning your hand gave them up and commended them to the Lord.
These things were commanded under Moses, and all who failed to keep them were under a curse. But, our forerunners in the faith taught us the same about firstfruits sacrificial offerings by their example. Abel offered the best of his flock to the Lord (Gen. 4:4). Abraham and Jacob freely gave a tenth of their goods to the Lord without ever being commanded (Gen. 14;20, 28:22). Hannah devoted her firstborn son, Samuel, to the Lord out of joyful response to answered prayer (1 Samuel 1:27-28).
So it is the example handed down to us by our forefathers in the New Testament. We worship on Sunday, not only because it is the day of the Resurrection, but also because in it we give the first of our week to the Lord. He blesses you in that time, giving you treasures that neither sleep nor work nor family time could offer—peace with God in the forgiveness of sins, renewal of body and soul in Holy Communion, fellowship with angels and archangels and all the saints in the Body of Christ.
When doing midweek devotions it’s best to do them first thing in the morning, because that’s the firstfruit of your time—before kids, doctor appointments, and work demand your time. If you wait until the middle or end of the day, you likely won’t have anything time left to dedicate to the Lord.
The same is true of our offerings. St. Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians 16:2: “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper.” We give of the firstfruits of our paycheck, or pension, or social security deposit, or whatever irregular income we might receive. We do this because if we don’t, experience shows that there will be nothing left by the time bills, family, shopping, and recreation have had their way with it.
The point of firstfruits is to teach us that everything we do is spiritual in nature. For those who bear the Holy Name of God given in baptism, our whole lives are a confession of the One who created and still preserves us. So, our use of time, food, or money is an expression of our faith, however strong or weak it is.
One place this confession comes out in particular is with regard to sacrifices of money. There’s a reason that Jesus so often uses financial metaphors to teach about faith and the Kingdom of God. He knows that mammon, the stuff of this life, is a particular weakness among men. The parable before us is just one more example.
Consider the fact that, as Christians, we have an obligation from the Lord to support the Church, specifically the support of the pastor, missions outside our walls, educational material, the bread and wine of Holy Communion, and so forth. God blesses this money that is sacrificially offered. This is what Jesus’ saying means: “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” The money you put in the offering plate, God blesses, and puts it to work bearing fruit that last even to eternity. He makes its use more noble than anything you could have spent it on.
But when it comes to questions of how much is needed and how much to give, our sinful flesh rears its ugly head. How much is needed? We take our cues primarily from the “sons of this world, who are more shrewd than the sons of light.” Certainly we use our God-given, sanctified reason to carry out the practical details of how the Gospel ministry is executed. But if we draw too deeply on our reason, business acumen takes the lead to calculate how much we think each thing ought to cost, and how to get the biggest “bang for the buck”. Save money. Live better. as one retailer has indoctrinated us.
Once we’ve done all that formulating, how do we find out if we’ll have enough to cover expenses? Well, how much “income” can we expect? In the business world, you have earnings forecasts. That’s when we start answering the question in terms of how much each person “ought to” give. The accountant, doing his job, will divide the total by how many givers there are and arrive at a “goal” for each family.
The problem with this is that the New Testament does not dictate how much each person should give. As we heard before, St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 16:2: “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper” and in 2 Corinthian 9:7: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Giving is personal and private, it’s according to how God prospers you, and giving is to be cheerful or merry.
Saints of old like Abraham and Jacob gave a tithe, a tenth. Maybe you give 1%, 2%, 5%, maybe 15 or 20. But the danger with assigning a number is self-righteousness, like the proud Pharisee who prayed, “I give tithes of all that I get.” (Luke 18:12) Self-righteousness with money is a two-edged sword. For us, if we’re able to meet our vowed amount, we can think our duty to God stops there—I’ve given God his share, now the rest is mine, mine, all mine. It can also become a means by which we judge our brother or sister, either by saying everyone should give a certain amount or by being indignant that you do so much for the church while others are freeloaders.
But if this is how you’ve come to think of your offerings, Repent. If you’re proud of how much you give, repent! If you’re ashamed that you don’t give anything, repent. If you think the church is “just after your money,” perhaps that says more about your own spiritual condition.
In the Catechism, we confess that we believe that God
“has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life…For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.” (Small Catechism, Creed, 1st Article)
If we want to talk about sacrificial offerings to the Lord, none of us can equally repay God for all His benefits. The poor widow gave all that she had to live on, and Jesus commended her offering, but it still wasn’t everything. Only God Himself can truly satisfy our due. Consider the freewill offerings mentioned earlier—Abel offered the blood of His best livestock, Abraham offered his whole son Isaac, and Hannah offered her whole son Samuel to the Lord. These are arrows in the Bible which point us forward to the sacrificial offering which God Himself made, a bloodguilt offering wholly devoted to the Lord. “The Son of man came to give His life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:28)
Why do you think Jesus commended the dishonest manager in His parable? It wasn’t for his dishonesty, but his shrewdness based on the mercy of His master. The unrighteous servant had faith in his master’s mercy, a mercy that forgave those who were indebted to Him. In the same way, Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven those who are indebted to us.” (Matt. 6:12) Jesus made the sacrifice which all of us owe to God, but none of us could pay, and on account of Him, this is what happens:
We confess our debts to God: “I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities by which I have ever offended You, and justly deserve Your temporal and eternal punishment, but I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them…” We are drowning in debt to God—sins known and unknown—but the wages are the same: death. But then in the absolution: “As a called and ordained servant of the Word, I announce the grace of God unto you. In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins…” There the pastor acts as the dishonest manager. How much do you owe God? Look to the cross, and do not write fifty or eighty; write zero. Your debt has been paid by the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of God’s beloved Son, Jesus Christ. On account of that, God the Master is gracious and merciful to you, a poor sinful being. Go in peace, you are free.
As to how much of your time, skills, or money to give to God, you are not under compulsion. Consider what the Lord has done for you, and pray for guidance and an increase of faith. I’ll let St. Paul say the rest; “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. 9 As it is written,
“He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor;
his righteousness endures forever.”
10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.” (2 Corinthians 9:8-11) Amen.
 ἱλαρός, Henry George Liddell. Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon. revised and augmented throughout by. Sir Henry Stuart Jones. (Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1940)