April 22, 2012

Being a Steward

Good morning.  It’s good to be back with you again.  Believe it or not, but I really enjoy spending time with you guys like this…and not just because I’m the only one with a microphone!  The thought of exploring God’s word together and discovering what it has to say about our lives is a really exciting prospect to me.  And, I miss our family when we’re not here.  Well, this morning we are going to start a new series that will take us through the next few weeks minus a quick break for Mother’s Day.  You won’t want to miss Mother’s Day, by the way.  I’ve got a special message in the works.  The series we are beginning this morning, though, is one that I’ve toyed with for some time and finally feel like this is the right time to address the subject.  We are going to spend the next few weeks talking about our stuff, or rather, God’s stuff.  It’s easy to catch ourselves in that trap, isn’t it?  What trap, you ask?  The trap of thinking that the stuff we have is our stuff.  It’s so easy, isn’t it?  I mean, we handed the clerk the money for it, or signed by the “X,” or swiped the plastic, or entered the right stream of numbers into the right box on Amazon’s checkout page.  Furthermore, we worked hard for the funds backing up whatever payment method other than cash we used to be available for the purchase.  And I know the Christian thing to say here is that God gave us the ability to work and what not, but most of us don’t really think like that if we’re honest.  For most of us, we go through life blithely assuming that what is ours is ours.

Now, the witness of Scripture gives a very different picture.  The Bible presents God as the Creator and us as the creatures.  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and everything in them.  Yes, we do make stuff—and have indeed made fantastic stuff—but God made the stuff we use to make our stuff.  Since God made it all then, He’s the real owner of it all.  “It all,” by the way, includes our money.  What is money anyway?  If you’ll indulge me for just a minute, I’m going to pull back the curtain a bit on my nerdiness.  I’ve been reading a great book recently by an economist named Thomas Sowell.  It’s actually his economics textbook.  It’s incredibly well-written, fascinating, and I’ve enjoyed every page of it.  My family this past week uniformly thought I was a little nuts and even took up a vote to disown me.  It was close, but I’m still here.  They gave Josiah and extra vote.  Anyway, one of the many lessons that have struck me is the fact that money doesn’t have any real value.  All it does is represent what counts in this world as real wealth: stuff.  The little green pieces of paper in your wallets are only valuable insomuch as you think they are valuable.  When you don’t have a lot of confidence in the stuff it stands for, its value goes down.  Since money only represents stuff, then, we can talk about it in the same way as our stuff.  All this is to prove my point that God owns our money.

In light of all this, there is a question standing before us.  If all the stuff we typically think of as ours is really God’s, what are we doing with God’s stuff?  For six of the next seven weeks, we’re going to attempt to answer this together in a manner that’s both honest and right.  The reason for this is that while many of us do some good stuff (and by that I mean God-honoring stuff) with the stuff God has given us, there’s always some room for improvement.  For some folks improvement means doing more good stuff with it.  For some it means fixing wrong thinking about it.  For some it means breaking from unhealthy patterns with it. Still for others it might mean doing something God-honoring instead of self-honoring with it in the first place.  Whatever improvement looks like for you, I’m going to attempt to give you some wisdom from the word that will help where you need it.  First things first, though: In order to affect any changes in how we use the stuff God has given us, we have to think about it correctly.  In other words, we have to really buy into this idea that it’s God’s stuff.  We’re not the owners; we’re just the stewards, or the managers.  And being good stewards means knowing who owns the stuff.

In order to get into this idea, I want to look with you at one of Jesus’ more confusing parables.  Now, perhaps some of you are thinking that’s kind of a long list, but as far as I’m concerned this one sits near the top.  This passage kind of bridges the gap between our look at the hard sayings of Jesus and talking about God’s stuff.  You can find this parable in your Bibles in the Gospel of Luke.  Grab your Bibles and open them with me to Luke 16.  I’ll start by simply reading the passage and then we’ll talk about it from there.  And I’m actually going to read this from the Message this morning because I think the translation there really captures Jesus’ point.  Follow along with me if you can, but listen closely regardless as I read starting at the beginning of the chapter.

“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘There was once a rich man who had a manager.  He got reports that the manager had been taking advantage of his position by running up huge personal expenses.  So he called him in and said, “What’s this I hear about you?  You’re fired.  And I want a complete audit of your books.”  The manager said to himself, “What am I going to do?  I’ve lost my job as manager.  I’m not strong enough for a laboring job, and I’m too proud to beg. . . . Ah, I’ve got a plan.  Here’s what I’ll do . . . then when I’m turned out into the street, people will take me into their houses.”  Then he went at it.  One after another, he called in the people who were in debt to his master.  He said to the first, “How much do you owe my master?”  He replied, “A hundred jars of olive oil.”  The manager said, “Here, take your bill, sit down here—quick now—write fifty.”  To the next he said, “And you, what do you owe?”  He answered, “A hundred sacks of wheat.”  He said, “Take your bill, write in eighty.”  Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager!  And why?  Because he knew how to look after himself.’”

So that’s the story.  This is one of those stories that would have caught Jesus’ original audience off guard.  Indeed, it can easily catch us off guard too.  Jesus is going along talking about this manager—a steward in older translations—who was crooked.  He took his master’s money and spent it on himself.  So, the owner rightly fired him.  Well, there wasn’t any kind of unemployment insurance or social security back then so to lose your job for reasons of dishonesty was a pretty bad deal.  This manager knows he’s toast.  Furthermore, he probably had a family depending on him for their survival.  As a result, he concocts a plan.  He starts bringing in his boss’s debtors and slashing their debt in half.  They presumably don’t know he’s been fired for cheating his boss out of the money and so they are pretty excited at the prospect of having their debt reduced.  They’re all thinking this is a pretty good guy.  He’s just saved them a lot of money.  And in a culture where a favor done was a favor earned, this guy was creating a nice soft pillow to land on…at the further expense of his boss.  Remember: this manager was in this situation because of his mishandling of the owner’s money.  So what’s he do?  He mashes down on the accelerator.

I recently heard a story about a guy who was driving his mom home from the doctor and when he pulled into her neighborhood asked if she wanted to practice driving to see if her healing injuries were going to affect her too much.  So she got behind the wheel of the car—her car—and made a tour of the neighborhood.  It wasn’t pretty.  Finally the guy said, “Okay mom, let’s head home.”  Well, right turns were proving to be her particular weakness, along with an affinity for the gas pedal.  Unfortunately, going home from where they were meant making three more right turns, including one into the driveway.  As she started to turn into the driveway, she was turning too wide and angling towards his car which was also sitting in there.  He hollered for her to stop because she was going to hit his car.  This, of course, only made her nervous which she handled by stomping on the accelerator harder.  You can see where this is going?  This is essentially what the manager does in the parable.  He’s about to go off a cliff and instead of turning the wheel and hitting the brake he zooms right on off into space…or at least he seems to.

This is when Jesus drops the bomb on us: not only did the owner not have the bum thrown in jail like he should have; he praised  him for his ingenuity!  I don’t know about you, but the first few times I read this I was completely confused as to exactly what point Jesus was trying to make by this.  I mean, is Jesus encouraging dishonesty here?  That doesn’t seem very much like Jesus.  In fact, it was only recently as I was reading through a book on how to handle God’s stuff that the truth here finally reached out and smacked me in the face.  And we can see this truth when we focus on what Jesus said coming out of the parable.  Listen to this starting in the second half of v. 8: “Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens.  They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits.  I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”

So then, what does Jesus mean by all of that?  Look closely at what He does say and what He doesn’t say.  He doesn’t tell us to be dishonest here.  Instead, I think He’s trying to tell us to take a minute and look around us.  There might be a thing or two we can learn from the people around us.  For folks who have no connection to God and therefore no active connection to the only source of goodness in the world, their only real driving force is survival. Their goal each day is to get up and successfully face the world that day.  This is repeated every day until they die.  Now, this is a basic animal instinct, but humans—created in the image of God as we are—take it a step further.  Most of us don’t go for merely the basics of survival.  In fact if we did, more people would probably turn to God because the basics of survival is a standard of living far, far below what all of us are accustomed to living.  No, most of us strive to have a comfortable survival.  Comfort here, is defined by our culture.  And the more comfortable we can make it the better.  We are envious of those who have managed through hard work or sheer luck to obtain a more comfortable level of survival than we have.  (In other words, they have more money than us and we’re jealous.)  There are some worldly folks who are so driven by the idea of a more comfortable level of survival that they will do anything in order to increase their comfort level.  Some pursue this goal through dumb means like playing the lottery which is functionally a tax on people who can’t do math.  But others have learned more…sophisticated ways of achieving their desired ends; shrewd ways of scrimping and saving and even living very frugally now so that later (in this life, of course) they can enjoy it.

I think one of the places in which this can be seen the most clearly in our society is in Washington, D. C.  One of the aspects of D. C. culture which has become the focus of a great deal of ire from we little people over the past decade or so is the level of financial earmarks that politicians make for various projects in their home districts.  Although they don’t amount to all that great of a percentage of the total non-budget currently in action, the total of all earmarks amounts to several billions of dollars each year.  Let’s think about this with our parable in mind for just a second.  If you were a politician who knew you were not going to get reelected and you really didn’t have any other marketable skills—say you got into politics when you were young and haven’t really done all that much since—what would you do in order to make sure you had somewhere to go when you were retired?  I’ll tell you what most of them actually do.  They direct large amounts of money to various pet projects around the country—colleges, museums, foundations, corporations, and the like—such that these places are now willing to provide employment for them.  For example, former Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd got into politics when he was 30.  Prior to this he volunteered with the Peace Corps and went to law school—there’s not much time for a “real job” in all of that.  He served in congress until 2010—thirty-six years in total.  I suspect he hasn’t done much practicing law since he graduated from law school.  And yet, out of the Senate he was hired as the Chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America.  Based on exactly what experience with motion pictures beyond watching them I’m not sure, but I’ll wager he’s a pretty effective voice in Washington for their interests.

Now, to you and me, something like this might seem disgusting.  I’ll leave you to work out whether it is or not on your own.  But as far as the world works, this was a genius move.  He collects his congressional pension (which while nowhere near the level a recent email forward you may have seen suggests is still pretty generous), has a premium health care plan for the rest of his life, and is making a million and a half dollars a year until he decides to do something else.  Talk about being able to survive at a level of comfort most folks can’t really even imagine.  That’s called using your wits to get by.  It is this very thing the dishonest manager in Jesus’ parable is praised for doing.

But again, is this our model?  Lie, cheat, and steal our way to an easy life?  Of course not.  Look again at the text in v. 9: “I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right.”  We’ve been talking about interpretation for a while now so let’s start talking some truth.  If you have accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior you are no longer primarily a member of any kingdom in this world.  Your citizenship has been moved to the kingdom of heaven.  In the kingdom of heaven what is right is the law.  Righteousness is the rule. Just like folks in this world use every tool at their disposal to survive in as comfortable a manner as is possible, just like a whole bunch of members of congress have used their position to create a nice soft pillow to land on when they leave, we should work just as diligently and creatively and shrewdly as we can to make sure that when the kingdom finally arrives in force, we will walk into a nice fat kingdom pension.  We should live our lives in such a way that we are not counting on merely sliding into the kingdom on good behavior (which isn’t going to work anyway), but instead that we are looking to make as big a splash as we can.  We should use all the resources we’ve been given by God to make our entrance into the kingdom as grand as is possible.  Because here’s the thing: what we have available to us now in terms of wealth doesn’t even begin to compare with what will be available to us then.

So how do we do this?  Well, that’s what we’re going to talk about for the next few weeks.  This morning we’re trying to understand the mindset necessary to do it.  And we can get at this mindset by looking at the next part of the text here with what Jesus has already said firmly in mind.  Keep following along with me starting at v. 10: “Jesus went on to make these comments: If you’re honest in small things, you’ll be honest in big things; if you’re a crook in small things, you’ll be a crook in big things.  If you’re not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store?”  We have this then: if we’re doing what we’re supposed to with the piddly bit of wealth God has given us here and now, the likelihood is that we’re going to do the same with the treasures waiting for us in heaven (and they’ll be waiting for us because we will have stored them up).  If we’re not doing what we’re supposed to with the stuff we have now, that pattern is probably going to continue.  Why?  Because what we do with the small stuff establishes our character and when we face big stuff, we act out of our character.  That’s why how someone handles adversity tells you so much about them.  Have you ever heard someone try and claim they were acting out of character when they went crazy during some moment of crisis?  That’s almost certainly a lie.  The fires of adversity reveal who we really are—yikes!  In any event, if we have established a character of righteousness and faithfulness in the small stuff, then God will gladly reward us with big stuff be that here and now or in the kingdom (and for the folks who are really righteous the timing doesn’t make any difference).  But, if, like the dishonest manager in the parable, we’re not trustworthy in the small day-to-day operations of living as a kingdom citizen in this world, why on earth would God give us more stuff or responsibility than He already has?  Taking up the attitude: “Don’t worry about the little stuff because it’s little stuff.  I’ll get it when it really counts,” doesn’t cut it because it’s a lie.  As one author puts it: “The issue is not what I would do with a million dollars if I had it, but what I am doing with the hundred thousand, ten thousand, or ten dollars I do have.”[1]

Here’s the truth: no one can serve two masters.  Verse 13: “No worker can serve two bosses: He’ll either hate the first and love the second or adore the first and despise the second.  You can’t serve both God and the Bank.”  When I worked at OfficeMax in seminary, I had two bosses.  I worked in the copy center which was kind of its own entity.  My immediate boss, Charles, hired me, set my salary, and trained me.  I loved him.  He was a great boss.  But, there was also the store manager.  Mark had certain expectations for all the employees in the store, some of which Charles didn’t share.  Mark was a good guy, but he wasn’t a great boss.  Now come with me back to the word and I’ll wrap all this up.  We can’t serve two masters.  Either God is the boss or He’s not.  If He is, then He is the boss of everything.  There’s not a single thing in this world which did not come from Him and which does not belong to Him.  Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.”  I know you’ve heard that before, you’ve said it before, but in light of everything I’ve been saying, let it soak in for a minute. God’s the boss.  We’re the managers.  We’re the stewards.  Being a good steward means knowing the owner.

If I were to give my money to a financial planner to invest and increase my holdings, I want to be able to go to him any day of the week, even catching him by surprise, and have him tell me exactly where every dime I’ve given him is and how it is working for me.  God expects no less from us.  All the stuff you have: it’s His stuff.  Say that with me: It’s His stuff.  It’s His stuff.  It’s His stuff.  We’re just the stewards.  Being a good steward means knowing the owner.  And just like you or me, the owner of the stuff we so frequently call “ours,” has a vested interest in seeing it used the way He wants.  That’s what a steward does: he takes somebody else’s wealth and manages it in a way pleasing to the owner.  If he does it well he’s a good steward, and if he doesn’t he isn’t.  Good stewards get bonuses; bad stewards get fired.  Being a good steward means knowing the owner.

One last dot to connect and then we’re out of here.  Think for a minute about the implications of all this.  If we are not being absolutely faithful with the stuff God has given us; if we are not using every single penny as He wants; if we even once take up the idea that anything we have it ours; we are the manager of this parable.  God is the master.  We’re managing His stuff.  If we don’t do it well, we’re going to get fired.  We’re going to be called to account.  Now, this firing might take place in a lot of different ways, but our faulty attitude reveals which master we’re really serving.  And we can only serve one.  The accounting process at the end will lay all things bare.  And we won’t escape that.  In the end, every single person who ever lived will give an account of what they did with the stuff of God’s with which they were entrusted in this life and will be judged on those merits.  When we, with Christ’s help, without whom we couldn’t do it, can show that we have been faithful with a little of God’s stuff, we’ll be rewarded with a lot of it.  We’ll be rewarded because we managed God’s money well.  We’ll be rewarded because we knew God.  And being a good steward means knowing the owner.

So now you know.  You know that God is the owner of all your stuff.  I don’t care if you’ve never sensed that a day in your life.  That doesn’t make it any less true.  He’s the owner.  You’re not.  You’re the steward.  End of story.  Furthermore, you know that you probably haven’t been as absolutely faithful with the owner’s stuff as you could be.  You’ve bought into the delusion that it’s really yours to enjoy and handled it accordingly.  God doesn’t give stuff to us simply for us to enjoy it (although He’s not necessarily opposed to our doing so).  He gives it to us so that we’ll do with it as He wants.  Finally, you know that there will be an accounting.  God is going to demand a full audit of your books.  And you aren’t going to pass it on your own.  So what are you going to do in the meantime to make sure you have as soft a landing in the kingdom as you can?  Are you certain of your connection to Christ who will enable you to think rightly about God’s stuff?  Take care of that if you’re not.  Are you fully joined with a body of believers and diligently using every gift God has given you to His glory regardless of how young or old you are or how much you’ve already done?  Take care of that.  Are you being as creative as you possibly can be with the stuff He has given you in order to expand the kingdom and store up treasure there?  Investments in the kingdom—even at the expense of comfort in this life—are much safer than any investments we make here.  Jesus made as much clear in Matthew 6.  We’ll talk about some ways to do that in the next few weeks.  Finally, how well do you really know the Owner?  You can’t be a good steward unless you do.  And the better you know Him, the better a steward you’ll be.  Being a good steward means knowing the owner.

[1]Randy Alcorn, Managing God’s Money: A Biblical Guide (Carol Stream, Ill: Tyndale, 2011), 4.