As his ministry drew to an end, only days before he was hung on a cross to die for the sins of the world, Jesus told his disciples the parable of the talents. (Matthew 25:14-30) In it he described a man who was going on a journey and entrusted his property to his servants for safe-keeping. After a long time the master returned from his trip and called his servants to account for how they had managed his property. Because as sinners we have a tendency to think that some things, especially material things, are not really related to our spiritual life, are not really God’s business, Jesus told this parable to clarify a few things for us while we await his return. First, as we sang in Psalm 24 the earth is the LORD’s and everything in it (Psalm 24:1) – so how we spend our money, use our possessions, cultivate our abilities IS God’s business. Second, God has loaned us his property, not to use as we wish, but according to the will of the owner. And third, he will return and will call us to account for how we have managed his possessions. Those are the principles we will keep in mind as we consider the 7th commandment. In which God himself gives us a lesson in finance; teaching us Christian property management – that we are to manage our hearts and our possessions and leave the rest to God.
Luther, in his Large Catechism, focuses most of his attention, not on brazen sins like breaking and entering or armed robbery – he commits those sins to the hangman; he focuses on what he calls “open thieves” – those who rob and steal from others in plain sight. That’s in line with Hebrew word for “steal” (ganab) which emphasizes taking things in a secret or deceptive manner. Today, while we could attempt to list all of the ways stealing can and does take place: by filing dishonest or fraudulent tax forms, by putting in less than an honest day’s work for a full day’s paycheck, by calling in sick when we aren’t, neglecting to scan an item at the self-checkout, withholding our offerings from God, laziness, wastefulness etc., our time is better spent addressing the source of it all: the heart.
Our Gospel lesson exposed the danger of a greedy heart. Jesus was in the middle of a sermon about the things that decide whether a person will spend eternity in heaven or hell when he is interrupted by a man with something else on his mind: teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me. (Luke 12:13) Jesus is talking about salvation and judgment, and all this guy can think about is getting his hands on his relative’s estate. On a side note: pastors see this sort of thing all the time. Many of my day-to-day contacts with non-members – sometimes with members – have to do with material things: rent payments, gas money, medical bills, estates and inheritances, etc. It’s gut-wrenching to see how people get so wrapped up in the temporary, trivial things of this world while they allow the true riches of forgiveness, the Word of God and the Sacraments blow by like pieces of trash.
Jesus responded by ignoring the request and exposing the real issue: watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. (Luke 12:15) Greed, as Jesus defines it (pleonexia), is the constant desire to have more. John D. Rockefeller, one of America’s first millionaires, is often considered the poster-boy for greed. Once asked “how much is enough?” He responded, “A little bit more.” At the same time, greed is not tied to any one tax bracket; it is common to rich and poor and middle class alike. The problem is not having wealth. (Job, Abraham, and David were richly blessed by God and were commended as fine examples of faith.) The problem is always wanting more. So the first issue that this commandment addresses has nothing to do with stuff, it has to do with our hearts. What is our attitude towards wealth and stuff? Do we think that just a little – or maybe a lot – more would make us truly happy? Does our desire for the stuff this world offers ever get in the way of receiving the blessings God wants to offer us? What does our attitude towards wealth teach our children and neighbors? We might believe that we have kept this commandment as long as we haven’t committed armed robbery, but Jesus teaches that greed is stealing in God’s eyes.
Living in a free-market capitalistic society, it’s impossible to enumerate all the ways this commandment can be broken, but the famous artist, Norman Rockwell, put his finger on the “open thievery” that takes place every day in our world. (Illustration) Are they thieves? They wouldn’t dare rob a bank or steal a car – and wouldn’t rank a spot on the FBI’s most wanted list – and yet they see nothing wrong with gaining an advantage for themselves at the cost of the other. Watch out: what the world might call “driving a hard bargain” or “smart shopping” is often the sinful result of greed. Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. Christian property management starts with managing our hearts through daily repentance for our greedy desires and less-than-honest ways.
But it doesn’t end there. What we do with the stuff God has loaned to us is known as “stewardship”. A steward is a caretaker or manager. When we hear the word stewardship, we typically think only of money. But God has given us so much more than money. (Which is why, properly speaking, every sermon is a “stewardship” sermon – even if we don’t bring up dollars and cents!) He has given us families to care for and love and bring to Jesus, a certain number of hours, days, and years to spend wisely, a variety of talents and abilities to use to his glory, our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit, our faith – which needs regular feeding, and he has given us his Word and Sacraments – treasures more precious than all the gold in all the banks in all the world. As Paul told the Romans, money is not the only offering God expects from us: I urge you…in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. (Romans 12:1) Everything we are, everything we have, everyone around us are gifts on loan from God – gifts he expects us to manage to his glory.
That being said, the 7th commandment does narrow down our stewardship focus this morning to the possessions God has loaned us. Just as the 6th commandment showed us that the way we use our bodies has everything to do with our relationship with God, so our earthly, economic life cannot be separated from our eternal, spiritual life. We don’t like to hear that, do we? We have a tendency to want to divide up, to compartmentalize our lives: there’s my spiritual life, my time spent in church and devotion, the time I volunteer and the offerings if give; and then there’s everything else – and God, you keep your hands off; mind your own business! Scripture makes it clear that there is no separating the physical from the spiritual. Just ask Esau, who sold his spiritual birthright for a bowl of stew (Genesis 25-27); or the fool in Jesus’ parable who thought he had enough stuff to see him through life – he did; and it cost him his eternity (Luke 12:16-21); or Judas, who sold his Savior to his enemies and his soul to Satan for 30 pieces of silver (Matthew 27:1-10). The stuff in our lives – the food, the house, the car, the job, the bank account, the family and friends – all these can either point us to the giver or lead us away from him.
Scripture shows us three main areas in which God wants us to manage his property. The first is providing for our families. Paul told Timothy: If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Timothy 5:8) “Providing” includes more than putting food on the table and a roof over their heads. Our families need more than nice clothes and good schools and the newest toys; they need our love and attention, our compassion, our time and our guidance, our discipline and instruction in the Word of God. Be aware that Satan is a skilled scam artist. He can lead us to do things in the name of “providing for our families” – be it spending too much time at work or placing too much importance on career advancement; while the whole time we are stealing the time and love and energy our families really need.
The 2nd area is spelled out by Paul in Romans: This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect, if honor, then honor. (Romans 13:6-7) Did you know that paying taxes gives glory to God? Sometimes people question the morality of paying taxes to a government who might turn around to use them for ungodly and anti-Christian purposes. Why should we support policies and politicians that are contrary to God’s will and Word? Because God tells us to. When it comes to how tax dollars are used or misused, our responsibility is to submit to the governing authorities – and leave the judgment of government up to God.
The third and final area supporting the work of Christ’s church. We sometimes think of our offerings as an obligation; just another bill we have to pay. It would be better, however, for us not to think of this in terms of obligation, but privilege. It is a privilege to bring our offerings to be put to work in God’s kingdom because before and apart from anything we gave him, he gave us his Son, he forgave our sins and made us members of his kingdom. Sharing and supporting the proclamation of the Gospel is a privilege God gives only to believers (which, incidentally, is why we don’t ask outsiders to fund the work of the church). Paul offers simple guidelines for Christians as they plan their support of God’s kingdom: on the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income. (1 Corinthians 16:2) The four timeless truths for Christian giving are that: 1) it is each individual’s responsibility; 2) which are to be planned; 3) regular; and 4) proportionate to what you have. And if asked “How generous are we to be?” The answer: how generous has God been to you? Providing for our families, paying taxes, and bringing our first-fruits for the advancement of God’s kingdom are the three main areas in which God expects us to be faithful and wise managers of his property.
Did we miss anything in our study of this commandment? Our sinful nature thinks so: what about me? What about what I need, want, desire to have? God commands me to manage his property for the good of others, but who’s going to take care of #1? Isn’t that worry what drives our workaholism, our greed, our stinginess, our hoarding and piling up, our fixation on stock markets and nest eggs and economic prosperity? Isn’t that why giving our first and best back to God seems to demand an extreme act of will? At the heart of greed is selfishness and at the heart of selfishness is unbelief – doubt that God will provide. And the only cure for unbelief are the generous Gospel promises God gives us in his Word. We ask “what about the stuff I need?” God answers: do not worry, saying, ‘what shall we eat?’ or ‘what shall we drink?’ or ‘what shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:31-33) We ask “what about my retirement and my children’s future?” God answers: be content with what you have, because God has said, “never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5) But really, the most important question we should be asking is: “What about the time and energy I have wasted on “stuff” that is here today and gone tomorrow; what about my selfish hands, my grumpy giving, my greedy heart? How will my infinite debt of sin be paid?” God answers that one too: you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9) Jesus gave up the riches of heaven to sign his name next to our debt of sin. When we look at Calvary, we usually think there were only two criminals there. That’s not exactly accurate. We were there – because the law convicts us as thieves whether we taken with our hands or only our hearts. But the gospel reveals that Jesus was the greatest thief of all – he stole our sins, he robbed us of the punishment we deserved, he suffered the bankruptcy of hell in our place – and he replaced it all with his perfect generosity, his cheerful giving, his inheritance in heaven’s glory – and the promise that he will provide everything we need to get there. Who’s going to take care of you? Who’s looking out for #1? God did and God will. That’s a promise you can take to the bank.
So manage God’s property wisely during your short time on this earth. Watch out for greed – it’s a faith killer; manage the things God has given you according to his will; and, most importantly, guard your most precious treasure – the Savior who paid for all your sins against the 7th commandment, not with gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood. Look to him and his cross and trust that no matter how much or how little you have now, God has promised and prepared for you an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you. (1 Peter 1:4) Amen.