“Money Management with Jesus” Matthew 25:14-30 Rev. Sean Weston
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
March 31, 2019
In second or third grade I checked out a book from the school library. I finished it and forgot about it until I got a notice that the book was due back. I looked everywhere for days and couldn’t find it until one day I found it right where I had left it – in the backyard. I was relieved until I realized it was soaking wet.
With a sinking feeling in my stomach I took the book back and told the librarian what happened. She was kind. She thanked me for bringing it back and being honest, and that she knew it was just a mistake. But then the kicker came, “we won’t be able to use this book anymore, so you’ll need to pay for it. That way we can get another copy that other kids can use.”
I’m not sure how much it cost. More than I had at that point in my life. I don’t remember how but somehow I worked with my parents to pay what I owed. And I have never, ever, ever left a library book outside again.
Libraries depend on people being good stewards. Borrowing what they need, treating it well, and returning it. If enough people stopped doing that, libraries couldn’t exist. Good stewards of library books recognize that libraries are for “us” and not for “me.” The people coming after deserve access to the same resources we do. As a kid I had to pay for the book not for punishment but so that my carelessness didn’t hurt those who came after me. So I could be a good steward.
We do not actually own anything we have any more than we own library books. The Psalmist says, the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it. And turns out Jesus has a lot to say about money management. Some estimate that half of what he says in the gospel stories is about money, so you might expect half of what we in church say about Jesus to be about money except for one issue: many of us don’t want to talk about money at church. Money has really, really deep roots in our values and family histories and politics and quite sensitive matters like how much of it you have to start with. Talk about money quickly leads to conflict about money. For preachers it’s awkward to talk money with the people whose giving pays your salary. And just the other day after learning of my profession a woman complained to me that her new priest was talking about money. “He doesn’t know my life. That’s not his business. It’s my money, my business,” she said.
If I had felt up to a whole big conversation, I would have suggested to her that the choices we make with money are actually not just our business, because our money is not actually ours to begin with. It is God’s. As stewards of money, we are accountable to God for how we use it. And the way we choose to use that money – to steward it – doesn’t just affect us. It affects those around us and generations that come after us. Money can be used to cause incredible harm or do incredible good. Stuff God definitely cares about.
One time we do tend to talk about this, if reluctantly, is when today’s story from scripture comes up, the Parable of the Talents. It’s often in October. Budgets are presented and members are being asked to consider their giving for the following year. So preachers tell the story as if God is the master entrusting money to servants, coming back to reward those who invested and made a good return and punishing the one who buried the money. God, we preachers say, expects people to faithfully use all we have been given for the sake of God’s mission in the world.
But if the only time we talk about money in church is when we’re talking about the church budget, we might accidentally get the message that God only cares about the church’s money and not all the other money out there in the world – money in my life, your life, government budgets, and so on. Plus the story itself has other interpretations. Just because we’ve developed a habit of assuming that kings and masters and landowners in the parables of Jesus represent God doesn’t make it so. It is much more likely that Jesus’ audience would have heard this story, describing the landlord as a harsh man, reaping where he does not sow, and seen the landlord as just that – a landlord. That’s not how Jesus spoke of God. But it is how his listeners experienced the landlords of their lives, leaving all the work to peasant farmers and coming by from time to time to take what they wanted.
They would not have thought highly of the master or of the slaves that chose to invest his money. To invest money at that time in that part of the world meant lending money at interest rates of 30 to 50%, enforcing repayment with the threat of prison. Usury, or charging interest, was against Jewish Law. Wealthy investor-types were despised by the poor in Jesus’ day. They were powerful people stealing what belongs to others, using their money to keep everybody else in their place. That’s how five talents became ten talents. I’ll let you conclude for yourself how that compares to today’s world. But those first hearing this story would have likely identified with the third slave, the one who took the absurd amount of money he was given and hid it in the ground, burying the money rather than using the wealth to steal more from others. It seems he wanted to do what was right even though it sure didn’t help him much in the here and now. That’s good stewardship.
God expects us to use our money to build up and not to tear down. To give to causes that matter to us and to those we love; to spend on things that matter and that bring joy to the world, and to save money if we at all can – so that we are investing in the future. For example, this church is blessed by the generosity of those who came before, so that during lean times like these we have the gift of time to carefully and faithfully discern the next steps on our journey.
When we make financial decisions with others we can seek to make decisions only after understanding one another, remembering that we all have our own deeply personal experiences and feelings about money, and that hard and scary things slowly get less hard and scary when we face them in honest love.
On the flip side, our money can do great harm. When I drive I contribute to the loss of the ocean coast due to Climate Change – already this taking millions and millions of impoverished people from their land. My cell phone and my laptop are probably made by slave labor; my clothing and shoes are made in sweatshops. We might invest and get a good return on our money, but then realize that our investment has gone to support oil companies destroying the earth, or those who manufacture weapons of death. In our relationships we might make good financial decisions in a bad way, not taking the time to listen and understand one another.
We can never fully avoid doing harm with money. We can be more aware, asking if the way we are using money lines up with our values and priorities and faith. In many ways our world is like a public library: if we are careless, if we take more than we need and refuse to share, others will pay the price until we change our ways and fix our mistakes. But if we treat what we have with care, we will leave future generations a better world. That is good stewardship.
In a moment we will celebrate a baptism. Promises will be made. To invest in the life and well-being of this child, with love and care. These promises carry a high price tag. Raising and nurturing children is expensive and risky, but worth every penny and every tear because a good future is worth tough choices now.
Good stewardship uses money not to protect ourselves and what we have now, but to do as much good as possible for the world around us, so that the future might be better than the past. It doesn’t always make sense in the ways our world thinks about these things, looking only at the now. Sometimes it means generous spending when conventional wisdom would have us be stingy; other times it means carefully saving in a consumer culture that says spending equals happiness. In every decision, it is about having faith that when we do what is right and not what seems easy, generations yet unborn will look back and say “they were acting with faith and courage. They were acting with love.”
May we be such good and faithful stewards. Amen.