Stewardship sermons are hard for this pastor of congregational care! Asking folks to give is not what I want to do. I want to give to you people, I want to help you, especially in your times of need. That is my job, that is my calling from God. Yet once a year, we pastors are asked to talk to you about something that makes us all uncomfortable. Peter Gomes, who was a professor at Harvard and the pastor of the Memorial Church at Harvard (Taylor worked with him), said, "Money… among Christians, is a bit like sex. We know we need it, but we don’t like to make too much of it in public" (Gomes, p. 286).
Neither do we like to talk about the Book of Leviticus, from which one of our passages is drawn today. Leviticus? Seriously? How many times have you heard a sermon on Leviticus? After all, it is just a series of archaic laws, isn’t it? The answer is, yes and no. It is indeed hard to pull a brief passage out of Leviticus and find much help from it. This, I learned, is because of the way the book was written. It is not just a series of unrelated laws, one after the other. The book was written with a lot of parallelism, meaning that a statement is made, and then the next statement nearly repeats it, making a similar and related point. And the book was written in what is referred to as "ring form," where the conclusion of a section matches the beginning, and encloses the middle as if in a ring (Douglas, p.52). A more modern equivalent that we might understand would be "This is the house that Jack built. This is the malt that lay in the house that Jack built. This is the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built…" etc., etc.. Taken as a whole unit, the Book of Leviticus centered on God’s justice and righteousness by defining for the people of God what it meant to live in right relationship with God in the midst of a pagan people. Many of the laws seem irrelevant to our way of living, but taken together, the book reveals a system for living in relationship with all of God’s holy creation.
Our passage is in the middle of a section about sin and guilt offerings. It is hard to distinguish between the two, because the Bible ties sin and guilt together. The passage makes allowances for those who cannot afford the best offering. Such offerings are no longer necessary for us because of the offering God made on our behalf with his Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ. We offer our prayers of confession every Sunday morning, asking God’s forgiveness for those things we know we have done wrong, as well as those we might not realize. We pray for the sins of the world around us, and we pray for our personal sins. And every Sunday morning, we hear the comforting words of assurance that remind us of how great God’s love is for us.
Our NT passage is very familiar but still difficult. We know the Parable of the Talents, and we usually interpret it to mean that we all have differing gifts to offer, some perhaps with more or seemingly greater gifts than others, but that what matters most to God is that we use our gifts wisely, and do not waste them for fear of doing something wrong.
Tom Long thinks this is the wrong interpretation of this parable. He says it is a shame that the monetary unit in Matthew was a talent, because the word talent is easy for us to translate as gifts. A talent was a large amount of money, worth about 6000 denarii. One denarii was the typical daily wage. So the 5 talents, the 2 talents, even the 1 talent given to the servants were ridiculously large amounts, more than anyone could possibly own. Though no instructions were given to them in Matthew’ version of this story, the first 2 servants did well with what they were given, doubling their worth. The parable concentrates most on the 3rd servant, who did nothing with what he was given. He told the master he was afraid of him, because he was a "harsh man," guilty of taking from others what he did not plant. If we have been thinking that the master in the parable is God, and the "joy of the master" means entering into the heavenly banquet and kingdom, then it is hard to see this statement as a picture of God. But this is a parable of judgment, in the midst of 3 parables of judgment. Judgment is another subject we would rather avoid. Tom Long thinks that the 3rd man saw the master through an "evil-eye" (Long, p.41). Long points us back to the Sermon on the Mount, where, after giving us the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus said "if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!" (Matthew 6:23). We all know people (or maybe we are people) who see the world darkly, who mistrust and see mostly the bad in other folks, who are cynical and sarcastic most of the time. It is not hard to see the world through a dark lens these days, with violence and hatred dominating the news and even the political scene. And in our world, and in God’s kingdom, there is judgment, there are consequences. Yet we have choices. We can choose to live in the darkness, looking at the world through an "evil-eye," or we can choose to see God as Christ reveals God to us, as one who cares for us and wants us to care for one another and share in the joy of the master. Leviticus and the parable are both witnesses to God’s great desire for justice, a holy justice that does not rule as the world rules. God holds us accountable as a parent holds her children accountable – with the desire to see us live in right relationship with God and with one another, and with all of God’s creation.
As I thought about this, my only stewardship sermon this season, I read the chapter in Peter Gomes’ book, The Good Book , on "The Bible and Wealth." He had some helpful things to say. He reminds us that we sing hymns like "We give Thee but Thine own, whate’er the gift may be; all that we have is Thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from Thee," but that we do not really believe what we sing. We are suspicious of this time of year because we fear the church will try to guilt us into giving (like the guilt offering in Leviticus). And most of what the Bible has to say about wealth is not what we want to hear, Gomes points out (Gomes, p. 288). We remember Jesus’ stories dealing with wealth – like Zacchaeus, the tax collector who met Jesus and gave back fourfold what he had skimmed from people; and Joseph of Arimathea, who gave his own tomb (not a small thing to give) for burying Jesus; or the widow who gave her only two coins as an offering, yet, according to Jesus, gave much more than the wealthy men who gave a portion of what they owned. We also remember the rich young ruler, who asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. He followed God, he kept the commandments. But when Jesus told him he needed to give up his riches, he walked away. "How hard it will be for those with riches to enter the kingdom of God," Jesus said.
Do not dismay, though. The Bible is not against us having money, says Gomes. Much of the OT spouts the philosophy that the good will prosper, and the wicked will fail, though we know that is not necessarily true to life. So did the prophets, who railed at the people of God because they did not share their wealth with the poor, the orphans and widows, the sick and handicapped.
It is not what we have, then, but how we use it, and how we regard it, that matters most. Those that have much often want more. We have probably heard all of our lives the saying, "Money is the root of all evil." This is actually a misquote of the passage in I Timothy (6:10), which says "the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil." It is not money itself, but our love for, our worship of, our obsession with money and possessions that can cause us to do bad things, usually in order to get more or to protect what we have. Like the rich young ruler, we will do anything EXCEPT give up those things that mean so much to us.
"For to all who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away from them," Jesus concluded. This statement does not speak about the money, the talents, that the 3 servants were given. It speaks more about the attitude of the three who were given the talents. The first two, without any instructions, endeavored to increase what they were given, knowing that the money was not theirs, and that the master would reclaim it when he returned. But the third servant did nothing with what he was given, because he regarded the master as cruel, harsh, and selfish. Maybe, with an evil-eye, he saw reflected in the master what really was in him. He saw only darkness, and in darkness he would continue to live. All three had a choice about what to do with what they were given.
The parables of Jesus tell us about the nature of the kingdom of God. The beauty and joy of the kingdom begins here and now in us when we live as faithful disciples. When we live faithfully, we will find many rewards in life. Those who dwell alone in the darkness will find that the world keeps getting darker and lonelier. Jesus calls us to live in community, to share what we have, and to reap the joy of being in right and loving relationship with God and with one another.
Stewarship is defined as "the office, duties, obligations of a steward." A steward is one who takes care of something or someone entrusted to his/her care. So in even using the word stewardship, we are reminded that as stewards of our money, our time, and our talents, we, like the servants in the parable, are simply managing what God has entrusted to our care. May we be "good and trustworthy" stewards.
Glory be to God! Amen.
Douglas, Mary, Leviticus as Literature (Oxford University Press, 1999)
Gomes, Peter J., The Good Book (Avon Books, NY, 1996)
Hare, Douglas R.A., Matthew (Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 1993)
Long, Thomas G., Matthew (Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 1997)