— Rev. Phil Hobson

September 22, 2013

1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

At first glance, read thinly, our readings say we should pray for our leaders and be shrewd with our money. Pretty much business as usual. But when the Bible suggests the status quo, we better go back and read it again.

In First Timothy, the church is commended to pray for all people, especially those in power: even the Herods and the Pilates and the Caesars, the foreigners occupying the land, and the ones who crucified Jesus. This seems strange, to pray for them.

… that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way.

If this is saying that the church should not make waves, that the followers of Jesus are to go along to get along, then it seems to contradict the Gospel.

But what if we pray for them for the sake of peace? I mean the liberals praying for Speaker Boehner and the conservatives praying for President Obama. Not snarky partisan prayers. Praying for their health. Praying for wisdom. Praying for the common good to be done.

That gets uncomfortable, which probably means we are getting closer to the Gospel.

This is not about securing a peaceful life. But peace is a worthy prayer. It is easier to care for the widows and the orphans if we are not at war making more of them. It is easier to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the least of these in our midst if we are not creating refugees by the hundreds of thousands or cutting food assistance to those in need.

What seems on the surface to be a nice “go along to get along” passage is actually a call to the difficult, messy, but necessary, work of peacemaking.

If politics is messy, let’s talk about money.

This steward calls in the ones who owe his master debts and tells them to change their books.

Instead of 100 measures of oil, make it 50!
Instead of 100 measures of wheat, make it 80!

Maybe he figures that cutting the debt gets him in good with his master’s debtors, maybe they will take him in if he is put out.

Perhaps what he cut from the debts were in fact his own off-the-record take, not the actual amount owed to his employer. Such a shrewd move might garner praise.

Or maybe he is cutting the interest off a loan. The measurements given in the story are Hebrew, not Roman, and it is against the Torah for an Israelite to lend money to another Israelite at interest, even if you do it in wheat and oil. His master cannot call him out for cutting the interest, because it was against the Torah; again the debtors will be grateful.

Either way, the steward is pretty shrewd.

What is perplexing is not that his master praises him, but that ours does as well. Jesus seems to be commending shady dealings.

…for the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations. [Luke 16:8-9]

Is Jesus telling us that his followers should be as shady as Lehman Brothers and as shrewd as Goldman Sachs? This does not seem right. It certainly does not sound like good news preached to the poor. The next verses seem to be the key:

He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. [Luke 16:10]

Being honest about spare change is good practice for being honest with a household budget. Being dishonest about the credit card bill with my spouse leads to being dishonest about all sorts of other things. The little things matter!

If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?

Hebrew poetry is known not for rhyming or meter as English poetry is, Hebrew poetry is about couplets: two things put together to emphasize or contrast or connect them.

…what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?
[Psalm 8:4]

Read like Hebrew poetry, which Jesus and Luke would have grown up with, we see this parable splitting into two categories: the very least and the great.

The least of things: money, specifically unfaithful mammon, meaning both wealth that is gained deceitfully and also not shared with the poor; and that which belongs to another, for it is ultimately not something we can take with us.

The greatest of things: eternal habitations (literally tents that do not wear out) and true riches (not money) and what is your own, namely inheritance of the kingdom that Jesus proclaims. This is a parable about what is truly important, the neighborhood of compassion, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked.

In light of the Gospel we see an important distinction in Timothy: we pray for our leaders, we do not pray to them. In the Roman Empire, this got people killed, not sacrificing to the statue of Caesar.

In our own time, this will get us in trouble, reminding those in power that their purpose is not to make war but to make real peace. It is not to destroy but to build. It is not to hoard but to feed. Policy is important, but policy is not the goal. Politics is one way we get this done, but politics is not the goal.

Money is useful and being shrewd has its place. But money is not the goal.

No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

So with faith and hope and love, let us serve God, love our neighbor, and live.

Thanks be to God.