Ninth Sunday after Trinity
In the Large Catechism, Martin Luther asks an odd question? “What does it mean to have a god?” This question is surprisingly difficult to answer. If someone asked you, what would you say? What does it mean to have a god? Perhaps you could answer, “A god is something you worship.” Well, ok, but what does it mean to worship? One question leads to another, and we haven’t really explained anything. Luther’s answer is profoundly simple: Whatever you trust in is your god. Whatever you look to for every good thing, wherever you go for refuge in time of need, that is your god. In the First Commandment, the Lord God tells us, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3). This is the first and greatest commandment (Mt 22:38). But perhaps you might say, “Well, that’s easy enough. Obviously, I’ve never bowed down on the ground before a statue. I never slaughtered a goat on a pagan altar. Therefore, I have kept the First Commandment perfectly.” But not so fast. Idolatry doesn’t begin in the knees when you bow down before an idol. It begins in the heart. Whatever you trust in is your god. John Calvin said that the human heart is an idol factory. On this point, he was right. Idolatry is as common today as it was in Old Testament times, but the idols are just better disguised now. And what do you think is the most popular god around? What do people trust? In what do they take refuge? What do they desire above all things? Sports? Well, sports can be a very popular idol. Many of our children have lost their faith because of sports. But it’s not the biggest idol. Of all the many idols in which people put their confidence, which one is number one?
Money. Money is a powerful god! He promises his followers happiness, security, and pleasure. But in return for what he gives, he requires much from you. He demands your time, your trust, your energy, and perhaps your marriage and children. Jesus gives this god a name, “Mammon.” Mammon is an Aramaic word. Aramaic was Jesus’ native language. Mammon is often translated “money,” but it means more than just paper bills and silver coins. It refers to money as something that is cherished and loved. The unfaithful steward in Jesus’ parable worshiped Mammon. He desired, loved, and trusted in Mammon. He feared losing Mammon. And on the day of his trouble, when he was called to account for misusing his master’s wealth, he went running to his god for help.
Unlike the true God, Mammon doesn’t care how you treat your neighbor. Do you want to cheat your neighbor, ruin his livelihood, or destroy his reputation? Mammon has no problem with that. In fact, you’ll probably be rewarded for doing these things. The dishonest steward had been cheating his boss for years, and now the day of trouble had come. But his master was kind. Instead of firing the steward on the spot, he gave him time to close out the books. And how did the wicked servant repay his master’s kindness? He came up with a plan to steal from him one last time. “I know what I will do,” he thought, “so that when I am removed from management, people will receive me into their houses” (Lk 16:4). So he called in his master’s debtors and significantly reduced their debts. As steward he was authorized to make business deals on his master’s behalf, and he knew that his master was honorable and would not break the new contracts. He took advantage of his master’s good nature. So, after getting fired for stealing, the wicked servant bought himself a set of new friends using his master’s money. What a crook!
And now comes the strangest part of this story: When the master found out what his manager had done, he didn’t execute him in some horrible way as we might expect. Instead, the master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness (Lk 16:8a). Now that’s a bit of a plot twist. Why would the master do that? More importantly, why would Jesus tell us this story? If the parable is an object lesson, does that mean we should act like the wicked steward? Does Jesus want you to be as sneaky and dishonest? Should you steal money from your boss and give it to your friends? Of course not! Then what’s the point? We find the answer in the final verse: “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” (Lk 16:9).
The dishonest manager made friends for himself by misusing his master’s wealth. But they weren’t really his friends. He was just using them so he could live in a nice house. And they were happy to use him to get a better deal on their loans. When you serve Mammon, you can’t really have true friends. When you don’t fear, love, and trust in the true God above all things, you can’t love your neighbors either. Apart from Christ, we are incapable of truly loving anyone. Instead, we see people as either a plus or a minus. This person will help me get what I want. This person is useful. I like him. But this other person is not useful. I don’t like her. A man claims to “love” a woman because she is pretty and makes him feel good. A toddler loves his mother because she feeds him and holds him. But when mom doesn’t give him what he wants, he will scream and yell and even hit. And Mammon doesn’t care a straw that we use each other this way. In fact, Mammon encourages it, because Mammon is using you too. Those who devote their lives to serving Mammon will be used up and discarded when they have nothing left to give.
Many people think, “Why do I need God? I have money. Money will buy me friends. Money can fix everything. Money will make my kids and grandkids love me. There’s no problem that money can’t solve.” Look at any coin or bill and you will find the words, “In God we trust.” This is very true. Everyone trusts in god. But which god, I wonder? Mammon is a popular god and many people devote their lives to serving him. But he is also a cruel god. He promises everything you think you want, but in the end you end up just as cold and dead just as everyone else, rich and poor. Mammon will take everything from you – your time, your energy, and your faith. He offers you a handful of shiny beads and demands your eternal soul in exchange. But what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? (Mk 8:36).
Now all of us live in this world, and we can’t avoid the need for money. We need it to buy food and clothing. We need money to pay taxes and buy houses. But in this parable Jesus tells us that we should use our money in service to the kingdom of God. The wicked steward was shrewd, we can grant him that. But we should use money to serve our neighbors, instead of using our neighbors to serve money. It’s not money itself that is the root of all evil. Rather, St. Paul tells us that the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Tim 6:10). The steward loved money, all right. And he was so busy scheming to live in a nice house on earth, that he never gave a thought to his eternal home. But Jesus tells you, “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails [you will be received] into the eternal dwellings.
Money will fail you – there’s no question about that. Those who worship Mammon will find that their god is of no use on the Day of Judgment, on the day when all the nations of the earth are troubled. But this is why the one true God says to you, “Do not let your heart be troubled. I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.” Hear these words not simply as a command, but as God’s promise to you. He has decided and announced to you that he will be your God. And what a God he is! Unlike the idols who take and take, our Lord gives and gives. The false gods demand everything, even the lifeblood of their followers, but our Lord pours out his own blood for us. The false gods leave their worshippers hanging high and dry with nothing, but Christ, the true God, hung naked in your place upon his cross. Mammon promises everything, but in the end would leave you with nothing but death. God promises you eternal life and every blessing – and his Word can never be broken. He is the gracious and honorable Master who keeps his promises. He will care for you and provide for your needs as a loving father cares for his child. He will be your refuge in the day of trouble. The treasures of this earth are fleeting. Money, fame, power, and beauty will not last, but the Word of our God will stand forever. In him your heart may safely trust. And when your last hour comes – and it will – you will not fear. For on that day, Christ, who has kept every promise to you in life, will keep his promise to bring you in to the eternal dwellings of heaven. Amen.
Note: Some material in this sermon was borrowed from the unparalleled work of the Reverend Rolf Preus, who taught me how to preach the Historic Lectionary, and to whom I remain deeply indebted.