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.”
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
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).
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. 3 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.” 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.
 The First Apology, Chapter 65 – Administration of the Sacraments
 Hebrews 11:10