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Luke #58 God's Faithful Stewards

God’s Faithful Stewards

Reading: Luke 16:1-13

Introduction: Joe Beam tells the story of the Coca Cola decision back in the early 1980’s to change the formula of their best selling soft drink for the first time in their history. I remember the circumstances well because at the time I was enrolled at Emory University, otherwise known as “Coca Cola U” because of the hundreds of millions of dollars give to the school from the Coke people. At the time, Coke was by far the largest soft drink company, but the leaders of the company were concerned that their market share was not doing as well as they would like. So they brought in a marketing consultant to help them figure out a way of increasing their market share. The first thing the consultant did was draw a box on his white board and ask the executives of Coca Cola to choose the single word that was the essence of Coca Cola. After considerable discussion, the company execs chose the word “taste.” They were advised that if that was the word, they were in trouble because Pepsi repeatedly beat them in the blind taste tests around the country. If they wanted to increase their share they would have to change the taste of Coke. With great fanfare and the advertising services of Bill Cosby and other Hollywood personalities, we were all prepared for the launching of New Coke. The day came when the old Coke was gone from the shelves and New Coke was offered around the country.

The New Coke tasted like Pepsi, much sweeter than the old Coke, and those of us who liked the old Coke were not pleased, to say the least. A disc jockey in Seattle started a nation-wide boycott against New Coke and rather than the market share increasing it plummeted. Frightened executives called their consultant back in and said, “You’ve ruined us!” He said, “You’re the ones who picked the word. If that’s the wrong word it’s not my fault. Maybe you should try a different word.” So they did. This time the word was “tradition.” Within just a few months, Coca Cola Classic was back on the shelves. Now, almost 15 years later, New Coke is a distant memory, but you do see a great deal of advertising that obviously plays upon the traditions and history of Coca Cola.

This morning I want us to ask ourselves the question the consultant asked the Coke executives: What is the one word that describes your identity, your existence in this world? What is central? Our story from Luke this morning has always been quite confusing because the leading character in the story seems anything but a virtuous person, a person to be commended by his Lord. We know this story as the “parable of the dishonest or unjust steward.” What we fail to understand is that, for the character of this story, there is something more than honesty at stake, and something more than money and possessions at stake. The key word in the box for this man is honor. Honor, as defined for his culture, was the value of this man in the eyes of himself and in the eyes of his peers. It is important also to understand that personal identity was always understood in the context of community—there was no such thing really as “self-understanding” or “personal” identity. In such a setting, I know who I am only in relation to other people. Thus in this story, the identity of the steward is completely tied to his relationship with his peers—but in the story the peers are the debtors, the people whose bills are reduced.

We are not told any details of the steward’s actions prior to the report brought to his master. It was not uncommon for rich landowners to leave caretakers or stewards in charge of their land holdings and possessions, particularly if these landowners were diversified. It is no different today in that regard. But when the report comes to the owner that his steward has squandered the property, the owner fires him. The steward is faced with a dilemma. How can he save face in the community? He has lost face already with the owner, but the owner is never there. He must somehow hold onto his station in life where he is. At first his options are bleak. He is not strong enough to work at a laborer’s job—he’s a behind-the-desk type. Begging is out of the question because he loses face; he’s ashamed to beg. So he hits upon a plan based on the codes of honor in his culture. Reciprocity among cultural equals demands that if he shows these debtors kindness and reduces their bills—which he has the power still to do—then they in turn will be indebted to him when he is out of the stewardship and they will reciprocate by taking care of him. So there is the changing of the bills: 100 hundred jugs of olive oil is reduced to 50; 100 containers of wheat is reduced to 80.

The master then commends the steward because he has used possessions to secure his future. He acted shrewdly, understanding that the master’s possessions were a tool to be used to secure that future. We struggle to understand how a master could be cheated and still commend the steward, but that is because we place a different value on wealth in our culture. Then, in this circumstance, even from the owner’s perspective, saving face was more important than losing income. The honorable use of wealth was to use it in service to others, to help everyone maintain honor rather than being shamed to the point of identity loss in the community. First and foremost wealth is not about ownership but about taking care of human needs.

Jesus tells this story to suggest once more that the value of possessions and wealth among the disciples is in their use of it to insure not just their honor and position on earth, but in heaven. Back in chapter 12 he described that use, saying, “Sell your possession and give to the poor. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be as well.” Here the story approaches the use of “unrighteous mammon,” a term which is not intended to say that wealth or possessions are automatically bad. But they are not automatically good either. The lesson to be learned from the sons of this world is that money is a tool, a means, not an end in itself.

Possessions in this story are to be seen as belonging to someone else and left to the care and keeping of the steward, the caretaker. Faithful use of those possessions should insure eternal habitations, not just earthly honor and identity. Jesus goes on to suggest that faithful use of wealth is seen in little things long before the big things are entrusted to one. We know that the proverb is true, not just about money but all virtues in life. One who is untrustworthy with a little cannot be trusted with much. If a person is not faithful with unrighteous wealth, who will entrust true riches to such a person? If we are poor stewards of that which is not ours, who will entrust us with our true inheritance?

Suddenly Jesus confronts his listeners with the dilemma that possessions and wealth present. “No slave can serve two masters—he will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon” (wealth, possessions). While we all somehow know that is true, we live in a time and a culture that makes us want believe otherwise. We say repeatedly in our prayers here in this building that we are stewards of God’s good gifts. All that we have is from God. And yet we are confronted immediately outside the doors of this building with our Monday through Saturday vocabulary of ownership, and property, and possessions that are intended first and foremost for our own pleasure—not in heaven but in this life. We are confronted by materialism that never is satisfied, which always needs more and hoards what it has. We are confronted by the need for power and we understand that money is power in our culture. I have found people over the years that have a lot of money but they are not materialistic. I have seen far more people who are not rich but certainly are materialistic.

I began this morning by asking the question, what is the one word you would put in the box that ultimately describes your identity—what drives your existence? How many of us are prepared to authentically say God is the center of life, or Jesus is the center of life? How many more of us have to admit that our job, or leisure, or money, or clothing, or the instant experience of pleasure, or knowledge or the quest for scholastic awards drives our existence? I said that honor in the first century was the word in the box for the steward. Remember that honor was identity in community. We try to claim identity without community today. But how many of us even got dressed this morning without wondering what other people would think of us? So much conspicuous consumption goes on in this materialistic world of ours. We don’t just need a car to drive, but a car to be seen in. Not just clothes to wear, but appropriate clothes to be seen in—and on and on it goes.

Discipleship to Jesus demands that our language of stewardship in this building go outside with us when we leave this morning. It demands that we understand the tools God has given us are for his service, not just ourselves. Money and power are tools for his glory, not our own. Only when we are faithful in the little can we be entrusted with much. That’s not just about money, but it certainly includes our giving habits here. It also includes what we as a church do with the contributions that are given. This church has been in the process of deciding the word in the box for us as a congregation. Will we be self-serving or God-serving? How will we take the good news to the lost world? What kind of stewards will we be, collectively and individually?

Maybe you’re like the executives of Coca Cola, trying harder to succeed as a Christian but with the wrong concept of what most describes who you are. How would we each be changed this morning if all of our life truly was, as we said last Sunday night, “for the praise of God’s glory”? What keeps your day-timer hopping? What rules life’s agenda for you? Can you honestly say it is God? Will you venture out to give God the glory and give him back his possessions and entrust your life to him?

Delivered at Brentwood Hills, September 17, 1995 a.m.

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