Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20C)
September 22, 2019
Text: Luke 16:1-15
“What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7; ESV). St. Paul asks this piercing question of the Corinthians with regard to their gifts, material and spiritual. And the answer, of course, is patently obvious to Christians. Nothing. There is nothing we have that has not been given to us as a gift. Everything we have has been given to us by our gracious God. But obvious as this answer might be, Christians have a tendency to forget. So St. Paul stingingly reminds the Corinthians and us with his very next breath: “If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” If what you possess is a gift from God, then it was given to you wholly apart from your merit or worthiness. It is by grace. You didn’t earn it. God gave it to you. And He gave it to you for a reason, that in possessing it you might be a blessing to your neighbor.
Recognizing that every good you possess is a gift from God changes your perspective concerning what belongs to you. Whether it be money, physical possessions, skills and abilities, time, or spiritual gifts, it has all been given to you by God. And understand, God doesn’t give you these things so that you can hoard them up for yourself. This is something we prosperous Americans seem to have trouble with. First of all, we tend to think we’ve earned these gifts, effectively removing God from the equation… “Look what I’ve done! Look what I’ve accomplished!” And second, we have been deceived by the evil one to believe that the more we possess, the more money and stuff we can add to our collection, the happier and more fulfilled we’ll be. And yet isn’t it amazing that you can work your whole life in order to acquire wealth and possessions, live like kings and queens (as most of us do here in the United States, even many of our poor), and yet feel unfulfilled, unhappy even, and believe that you need even more stuff in order to fill the void? That should tell us there’s a problem. The problem is that we have the wrong god. We worship our money. We worship our stuff. We worship ourselves. And we worship this unholy trinity by hoarding it all up, keeping it all (or at least most of it) for the self, failing to help our neighbor in need and trust that God is a never-failing fountain of good who will continue to provide for all our needs that we might be a blessing to our neighbor.
Jesus isn’t commending dishonesty or cheating in the parable He tells us this morning. His point is simply this: Even the children of the world (that is to say, unbelievers) know how to use unrighteous wealth to make friends. A little generosity goes a long way. But, Jesus says, the children of light (that’s the believers, that’s you and me), we tend to forget this. If even the dishonest manager knows that his generosity will work for his benefit, surely you Christians ought to know that giving generously results in God’s abundant blessing not only upon the receiver of your generosity, but also, and perhaps even more so, upon you. As you empty yourself for the sake of the other, God fills you ever more abundantly, that you might give even more. He’s never going to stop giving to you. He will not suddenly begin to withhold His goodness from you.
Now, I’m not saying that if you give an extra $100 today, you’ll receive a check in the mail for $150 tomorrow. Some so-called Christian teachers (they’re really false teachers!) say silly things like this, and their teaching is dangerous. We call them theologians of glory. The idea is that if you just serve God enough and believe hard enough, then He’ll give you a break. He’ll pour out His blessings upon you. You’ll be rich and healthy, living the good life. No, it doesn’t work that way. But if God is your God, you can trust that He’ll give you everything you need for this body and life and for you to be a blessing to your neighbor. Notice I didn’t say He’ll give you everything you want (and we Americans have trouble distinguishing between our wants and needs). But He will give you what you need. And He will give it to you so that you can be faithful with it, which is to say, so that you can help your neighbor with it. Remember that you are just a steward of all the things God gives you, all of which really belongs to Him. He will bless you so that you can be a blessing.
Now, if wealth is your god (we’ll use the biblical name here for this idol: Mammon)… if Mammon is your god, then you won’t want to use what you’ve been given for the good of your neighbor. Because you’ll be afraid that it will run out. You’ll be afraid there is not enough for you if you share. And in fact there won’t be enough for you, because the thing about Mammon worship is, it always holds forth the promise that if you just had a little more it would be enough, but then there’s never enough because you always want just a little bit more. But if God is your God, then your whole perspective changes. Then you have enough, whatever your circumstances, because you have God. You have Christ. You have before you this God who has given Himself into death and hell for your eternal life and salvation. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). What is St. Paul saying here? That Almighty God took on flesh in the womb of the Virgin to become one with you, to take your sin upon Himself and pay for it in His death on the cross. Again, St. Paul to the Romans: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). Don’t you think for a moment that God is going to forsake you! Not now, not in your time of need! He will provide. And, by the way, do you know how He will provide for you? Probably not through some spectacular miracle like unfailing jars of oil or the multiplication of loaves and fishes. He could do that, and He has. But mostly He provides for you through your neighbor. And you’ve been on the receiving end of that charity.
Now, some of you might say, “What?! I can’t remember a time I’ve ever had to take charity from anyone!” Yes, you have. You were born naked and screaming, and everything in the world had to be done for you and provided for you by your mother and father or someone else who stepped into that role. You had to be fed, clothed, sheltered, taught, and your parents had to do all sorts of things for you that grossed them out. And do you know why they did it? Because God called them to do it in the office of parent. God did all of this for you through the hands of your parents. Their parents did it for them. They did it for you. Perhaps you’ve done it, or are doing it now, or will do it for your own children. They are the neighbor nearest to you, whom you are called to help. God cares for you through the vocation of your neighbor. And God cares for your neighbor through your vocation. Your family, the neighbors who literally live next door, your church family, those you work with or go to school with, your friends, everyone with whom God places you in relationship. You are called to serve them. To be a blessing to them. And they are called to serve you. To be a blessing for you. And in this way God provides for your needs. The model is Jesus Himself, who emptied Himself of His glory and of His very life for you. So you now empty yourself for your neighbor, in trust that God will fill you, even as He raised Jesus Christ from the dead. You can be a living sacrifice for your neighbor, or even a dead one, because you know that in the end Jesus Christ will raise you.
The reality is that God has given you everything you have. Sure you’ve had to work. That’s one of the ways God provides. Sometimes He provides you with a cross, such as lack of work or lack of money, or an illness, or some other suffering, so that you’ll realize you’re entirely dependent upon Him for everything. It all comes from Him. Every penny. Every breath. Every beat of your fragile heart. But He is faithful. He provides. Luther gives us pure Gospel in his explanation of the 1st Article of the Creed. It’s worth hearing again in full: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. What does this mean? I 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. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil. All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.”
Now, after all that Gospel, all these things that God freely gives us (and by the way, what isn’t included in that list?), we are reminded of our Christian duty: “For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.” And that means loving and serving my neighbor. Because God doesn’t need my good works, but my neighbor does. My neighbor needs my prayers. He needs my hands to help, my food to be full, my clothing to be covered, my money to purchase the things that are necessary for this body and life, as well as my support for the preaching of the Gospel so that he may hear of Christ. And I can help him freely and joyfully because Mammon is not my God. My God is the God who made heaven and earth and from whom every good and perfect gift flows. He is the God who gave His Son Jesus to die for the forgiveness of all of my sins, including my stinginess and selfishness, my failure to help my neighbor and love him as myself, the God who raised my Savior Jesus from the dead, that I might have new life. And so recognizing that everything I have is a gift from God, and that God will never fail to provide for me, I can give. I can give generously. I can give sacrificially. Because God will never forsake me. My sins are covered by the blood of Christ, who loved His neighbor, loved me, to death… His own death on the cross. And because of that, my brothers and sisters in Christ will receive me when I die into the eternal dwellings. And so you. You can give your all because Christ Jesus gave His all for you. And in Him you have eternal life. This is most certainly true. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.