Ninth Sunday after Trinity (Luke 16:1-13)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Ninth Sunday after Trinity + August 18, 2019

Text: Luke 16:1-13

 “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.”

They say, “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” This was the manager’s tactic: that through tipping the scales in favor of his master’s servants, he would have a fallback plan.  He used worldly goods to secure a worldly benefit.  We see this all the time—laying on the charm could get you a promotion faster than others, or having a carefully timed conversation that you can claim as a business expense.  The manager is called shrewd because he knows how to play his cards to meet his own priorities.

But as Jesus preaches about the Kingdom of God, He is talking not only about worldly things, but also eternal things—things that do not pass away or are stolen or destroyed.  In fact, the eternal inheritance He won for us didn’t hinge on money because we “were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18-19)—something of far more value than any treasure or luxury found on earth.

What’s this that Jesus says next?

“And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”

Living as people on earth requires the use of unrighteous wealth—money and possessions.  Living as the Church on earth requires the use of these because the Church is made up of people—people who live in houses, eat food, pay taxes, and meet together in buildings.  This fact should not surprise us as Christians, because it’s a fact of our daily life that every one of us deals with.

Yet, if Jesus says the sons of this world can use their money to obtain the worldly things they want, what stops the sons of light from using the very same unrighteous wealth to make friends and welcome them into the eternal dwellings?

Perhaps we as the people of God, don’t know what we want or need.  What is the mission of the Church after all?  What is the mission of this congregation?  Isn’t it to proclaim, study, and grow in God’s Word; to gather together for worship; to rejoice in Baptism, Absolution, and Lord’s Supper; and collectively to reflect the light of Christ and serve our neighbors?  We’re not here to be a landmark on Grant Street or a storehouse of people’s fond childhood memories.  If we are, that’s well and good, but that’s not at the heart of why this congregation exists.

Knowing this about who God has called us to be and what we’re to do in this specific place and time, that’s what the sons of light do—they aim their possessions at God’s ministry. God’s people of old knew this, too. The Lord says in Psalm 50, “Every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills…the world and its fullness are mine.” (vv. 10, 12b) And yet, God commanded the people to make offerings of those cattle because through them, He delivered forgiveness to His worshippers.  In this and other examples, the Lord teaches us what our offerings are for.  Of course, God personally doesn’t need our money (except while He dwelt on earth), but in God’s hands, temporal earthly stuff serves as a vessel for eternal riches.

So what are those vessels?  Let’s focus on the key ones:

The Lord’s Supper

26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28, p. 832)

The bread and wine of Holy Communion, which are the Body and Blood of Christ—are ordinary things which are bought from the store or made in-house.  But through these earthly elements, eternal treasure is bestowed.  This is illustrated by the practice of the Offering in the ancient church, where those in the congregation would bring the bread and wine up to the altar.  Justin Martyr (died AD 165), describes it this way:

Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren [presiding clergy] bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands…And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine…over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.”[1]

Baptizing and Teaching

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20, p. 835)

With divine authority and the promise for His continued presence, the Lord sends out His Church to baptize and teach—water and Word.  We don’t think that much of clean water where we live, but God puts great blessings in it.  Teaching materials, too, are of this earth.  And any teacher knows how important it is to have materials and supplies to teach effectively—reference books, workbooks, curriculums, paper, whiteboards, and whatnot.  A projector can be used for your private Mario Kart party, or it can be used to edify in Bible study.  Using those material things, the lessons bestowed in Sunday school, adult Bible study, and catechism classes are everlasting.

Supporting the pastor

“For it is written in the Law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.’ Is it for oxen that God is concerned? 10 Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. 11 If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?… 13 Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? 14 In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” (1 Cor. 9:9-11, 13-14, p. 957)

It is the Church’s responsibility to provide for the man who devotes His life to laboring to keep watch over your souls, interceding for you, praying with you, administering the Sacraments, teaching and equipping you to follow Christ.  This is something the Church has done even since the time of Moses.  The offerings brought into the temple weren’t just for the building; they were to support the Priests and Levites, the temple workers, who had no inheritance among the tribes (Deut. 18:1-8).  It was the practice during our Lord’s earthly ministry as faithful women and sons of peace provided for Him and the Twelve (Luke 8:1-3, Luke 10:2-8). The Apostles lived and traveled by love offerings made by congregations (Phil. 4:17-19, 2 Cor. 11:7-9).  Through the centuries, the saints have continued to do this with practices like in-kind gifts, parsonages, or the use of a glebe (a portion of land given to the pastor or the proceeds from the crop given to support the priest).[2]

This is really nothing new, even though it’s taken different forms over the years.  So, today’s pastors receive a salary, book stipends, mileage reimbursement, health insurance, and retirement.  Yes, he receives a paycheck like anyone else, and the bank doesn’t know the difference.  Yes, he has need of health insurance just like anyone else does these days, and the doctor’s office doesn’t know the difference.  His retirement pension works the same as any other career worker, for when he no longer has the vigor for full-time service.

But this duty to the pastor is given in gratitude because through the pastor’s labors, you are receiving the Kingdom’s eternal treasures.  By providing a living for the pastor, you free him to be available to serve you when you are in need, to devote his days to prayer and meditation, study, and visits, as it says in Acts 6: “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute…But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:2-4)

Support for the wider church

I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness 14 your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. 15 As it is written, ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack’…You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God…Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Cor. 8:13-15, 9:11, 15, p. 968)

While it was a monetary gift, what St. Paul is describing something far more important and lasting.  Yes, the saints support each other in their temporal times of need.  But God is behind that action, filling the people with increased faith and thanksgiving to God who provides far more abundantly than we imagined possible.  This is what is happening when we send a portion of our offerings to support to seminary students, ministries like Bethesda, and district and Synod.

These are things which are essential to being the Church on earth: gathering together around the Word, receiving the Sacraments, providing a living for the pastor, and being generous toward the wider body of saints.  They should be erected like four walls in which the Kingdom of God is found and the children of God carry out their calling to be light and life in a dying world.  Anything above and beyond that may be tradition or what was possible in the past, but it is non-essential to being Church.  Remember, the faithful worshipped in people’s homes without dedicated buildings for almost 300 years until the Edict of Milan (AD 313) established tolerance.

10“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. 11If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? 13 No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

What makes a congregation pleasing in God’s eyes?  Some would say their apparent successes—upticks in attendance, the budget being in the black, the building measuring up to aesthetic standards.  But that’s actually not true.  God judges His servants by our faithfulness.  That is, to do what our Master has commanded, and trusting Him to bless it. 

Faith takes God at His Word, and His Word teaches His people what to do.  Faith doesn’t say it’s impossible, for all things are possible with God.  Faith doesn’t hold tight-fisted onto anything in this life, but is ready to lose it all.  The Church is not to save money, but to use money to save souls.

And what will be the lasting legacy of it, even if it should end?  That Christ’s disciples have baptized and taught, have received forgiveness in the Body and Blood of Christ, that the Word of God has been gladly heard and learned, that a little slice of the Body of Christ was able to gather in a temple made with hands as we “look forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.”[3]  That is no failure, and that is no shame upon us, so long as we have trusted in Him.

But if God does will for His Church to gather together, for the ministry to continue in this place, He will provide the necessary means.  All He asks of us is to seek and serve Him.  Let us not fear, love, or trust in unrighteous wealth, but in God who calls us.  May He help us so to do.  Amen.


[1] The First Apology, Chapter 65 – Administration of the Sacraments

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glebe

[3] Hebrews 11:10

Ninth Sunday after Trinity (Luke 16:1-13)

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.[1]

 

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. 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.

[1] ἱλαρός, Henry George Liddell. Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon. revised and augmented throughout by. Sir Henry Stuart Jones. (Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1940)