By Linda Rex
September 25, 2022, PROPER 21—It appeared that the topic of interest this weekend was her majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s death and the succession of Prince Charles (III) to the throne of England. For better or for worse, people from all over the world have been touched in some way by the long arm of this royal family’s commonwealth and country.
I sometimes wonder if our fascination with royalty is bound up in some way with the spiritual reality of our royal beginning in the Triune God. Is there perhaps a core realization that we were made for so much more than this mundane existence? Could it be that God’s “very good” descriptor of his human creations includes our calling to steward the creation he set us within just as a godly king or queen stewards a country?
In both of the bookends of the Bible, Genesis and Revelation, we see humans in the garden in relationship with God and participating in his care of the creation. The revelation that we are to be “kings and priests” with God as the end result of all Christ has done resonates with our original call to stewardship, and calls us up to a new way of looking at how we live even now in this world as citizens of God’s kingdom. This stewardship, or being kings and priests with Christ, involves a real participation in Christ’s own self-offering—a laying down of one’s life and a sharing of all we have been given with others.
Indeed, with the coming of Christ, the kingdom of God entered our human sphere and set up shop. Like the stone “cut out without hands” in Daniel’s vision (Dan. 2:34, 45), the kingdom of God was inaugurated in our human sphere in a new way by the incarnation of Jesus Christ—God in human flesh. The king of the kingdom forged within human flesh our true citizenship in his eternal kingdom, life in relationship with the Father in the Spirit. In what many call the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus showed how the “prodigal” or “wasteful” Father freely welcomed home our wandering humanity (younger son) and forgave our futile efforts to work ourselves into his good graces (older son).
We move from this parable in Luke’s gospel to one about the unjust steward, and then on into the parable for today in Luke 16:19–31. In this story, it may seem that Jesus is simply talking some more about money and being rich, and about going to heaven or hell, but in the progression of the parables, we find he is talking about kingdom realities. He is focused on his reason for being there and the listeners’ need for what Jesus was doing and would do as he worked his way forward toward his upcoming death and resurrection in Jerusalem.
In this Sunday’s parable, Jesus began talking about a rich man who wore splendid, luxurious clothes and merrily enjoyed the benefits of his wealth. I get the sense that, in itself, having nice things and enjoying what blessings God gives is not a problem in Jesus’ eyes. It is the heart and motivation, and what we do with them, that is a concern though. I also realize that some of Jesus’ listeners were probably thinking to themselves, “He must be a good man like me. He loves the Lord and is one of God’s chosen—that’s why he’s so blessed.”
Jesus wasn’t content to leave them in this false state of self-exaltation—his story got a bit darker. There was a poor beggar name Lazarus lying at this rich man’s gate, covered in sores. Lazarus would have been happy simply to have had some crumbs from the rich man’s table, but all he got was what was left from the slop that he couldn’t keep the stray dogs from eating first. And what was worse, these dogs hung around and licked the poor man’s wounds whether he wanted them to or not. Were they waiting for him to die?
In ancient Jewish thought, every Jew after death ended up in Hades (or Sheol), the place of death, either in torment or paradise. Jesus used this cultural understanding with regards to death to explain his point (not to establish some doctrine regarding our eternal destiny). Lazarus died, Jesus went on to say, having starved to death lying outside the rich man’s front gate. And he ended up where every good Jew wanted to end up, in Abraham’s bosom—an ancient expression which meant paradise. A little later, the rich man died and also went to the place of the dead, but in a much less pleasant location.
Going on with Jesus’ story: while he suffered torments, the rich man saw Lazarus in paradise, where he thought he should be. He asked Abraham to send Lazarus to him with a drink of water. Let’s pause for a moment. What does this say about the rich man’s view of himself and of Lazarus? Hasn’t this been humanity’s issue since the fall, this determining that some of us are over while others are under? Wasn’t this the reason Lazarus was in Hades in the first place? Perhaps he would not have died had the rich man simply saw him as worthy of his love and grace (something each of us desperately need from God) and had helped him.
But this was not the sole point Jesus was making. He went on to say that the rich man then told Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers so they wouldn’t make the same mistake he did. Notice the rich man is still treating Lazarus like an errand boy or slave. He has not repented or changed his attitude towards those who were not as blessed as he was. Abraham replied that the five brothers already had the law and the prophets to warn them so sending Lazarus would be pointless. As those who heard the law and prophets read in synagogue each sabbath, every Jewish man had no excuse for not knowing what God says about caring for the poor and needy, and helping the sick.
The rich man said that if his brothers saw someone rise from the dead, then they would repent. And Abraham countered that even if they did see someone rise from the dead they would not repent. Here is Jesus’ pointed reference to his own death and resurrection, the very event he was at that moment intentionally walking toward on behalf of all humanity, counting each and every one of us worthy of God’s love and grace, and working to ensure that we each have a place in his kingdom. The One who had all the riches of divine existence had not been content to allow our beggared humanity to starve to death and suffer outside his gates. No, he had come and had joined us in our very sorry state in order raise us up into new life through his death and resurrection.
The Jewish leaders listening to Jesus had made up their minds that they were already members of God’s kingdom, the special people who were already included and blessed. They did not see themselves as the hungry, sick beggar lying outside the gate. Nor did they see they were meant to reflect the divine Majesty who would lay down his life for the sake of others. And they certainly did not see their need for Jesus nor did they see their need to repent or change their minds. And the greatest bit of irony to this whole parable—Jesus did raise a real Lazarus from the dead, and what did the leaders do? They immediately went out and plotted to kill him—and Jesus. They certainly did not repent and turn to Jesus.
In the New Testament reading for this Sunday, 1 Timothy 6:6–19, the apostle Paul tells us to grab hold of eternal life and to fight the good fight of faith. Part of this has to do with having a healthy view of money and the pleasures of this life—embracing contentment and generosity as part of our human stewardship of all God has made and given us the responsibility to care for. And there is also the need to, as Jesus did, make the bold confession of faith—laying down one’s life for others, being willing to offer it all on the behalf of those who are suffering and in need. In the words of St. Francis of Assisi, it is in forgiving that we experience forgiveness, in giving of ourselves that we receive, and in dying that we are born to eternal life. As God’s kings and priests even now, we acknowledge our own need for Jesus, while freely sharing with others the abundant blessings God has given to us in Christ and by his Spirit.
Lord, thank you for reminding us that all that we consider our own we receive from the Father of lights as a gift, through your generous self-offering in the Spirit. Grant us the grace to see others as you see them, Father—our own brothers and sisters, unique equals who have been made at one with you and each other and have been given stewardship over all you have made, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’ ” Luke 16:19–31 NASB
[If you are interested in participating in an in-person discussion group in the Nashville, TN area or in an online Zoom group, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. ]
By Linda Rex
September 18, 2022, PROPER 20—Do you have property or assets which require a lot of attention and effort for their care? Do you own some things which have become heavy financial or physical burdens for you to carry? Of all your physical possessions, what is your greatest asset? What do you value the most?
Even though we may own property or have physical assets of some kind, Jesus says that what is ours isn’t really our own. As we reflect on our origins, having been created by God to reflect his likeness and instructed by God to tend the garden and all he created, we see that stewarding is fundamental to our personhood as human beings. Taking care of what doesn’t belong to us but what belongs to God is an essential part of our everyday responsibilities as God’s children. We may not realize this, but our everyday lives are simply a participation in what God is doing in this world, and our actions (or inaction) are a statement of how well we are fulfilling our role as stewards of all God has made.
Too often I find myself approaching life as though what I own belongs solely to me, rather than seeing everything through the lens of stewardship—our participation in God’s life—recognizing that everything belongs to him. Perhaps it is good to be reminded that we have been given the responsibility to care for all God has made and to do what he wants done, rather than simply deciding for ourselves what we want to do with what we have. This understanding definitely puts a different outlook on how we live our lives and what we do with the physical assets which come our way.
Going beyond this, though, I am reminded that the greatest asset of all is not some physical belonging or possession, but rather something of more infinite value, meant to be shared with others. In the gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus told a parable about a rich owner who had to call his manager into account for squandering his possessions. This term “squandering” is the same term Jesus used in his story about the prodigal son, who squandered his Father’s inheritance with extravagant and wasteful living. The dishonest manager was told to give an account of his management, for he was going to be fired if he could not prove his innocence.
As this manager thought about what to do, he came up with a plan which might ensure that he had a place to land once he lost his present employment. He met with the owner’s debtors, and worked with each one to reduce the amount they owed. Surprisingly, when his master found out what he had done, he praised the manager for his shrewdness in handling the situation he was in.
It is interesting that in his parable, Jesus would have the unjust steward praised for what was, in effect, stealing even more from his master. But Jesus, as he addressed his disciples, was focused on something entirely different than simply teaching them the difference between honesty and dishonesty. Indeed, what the dishonest manager offered others was what Jesus himself was offering all people—grace, and life in the kingdom.
The leaders of Jesus’ day had been made stewards of God’s kingdom and his righteousness. They were responsible to care for those who were in need or who were estranged from God. But too often, they valued wealth, possessions, prominence and popularity instead, and did not see their own need for God’s grace and mercy. Not realizing their own need for grace, they did not offer it to anyone else. Instead, they held people to impossible standards and excluded them from table fellowship in ways God never intended.
Ironically, in Jesus’ parable, the one who was the Christ figure is the unjust steward, who offered the owner’s debtors grace. In his life coming to an end, the unjust steward offered new life to those who were indebted to his master. Jesus, as he told this parable, knew the price he himself was going to have to pay so that those listening would receive God’s grace—his rejection, suffering, and crucifixion. He knew that he was facing death so that all people might rise with him in the resurrection and be given new life. Jesus was stewarding well God’s gift of grace to humanity by offering himself freely in our place and on our behalf.
Jesus’ gift of grace in his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension is our greatest asset. Jesus’ self-offering, his willingness to lay it all down for us so that we may have new life, is the most valuable thing we own. This is a gift he has given to each and every human being—it is not limited to only those who deserve it. In fact, Jesus often pointed out that it is those who realize they don’t deserve it who best see the value of this gift.
The question is, do I, do you, see the value of God’s grace and God’s kingdom life given to us in Christ? And having been given this most precious gift, do we even realize our need for it?
And, having received this totally undeserved benefit of grace and eternal life, how well do we steward it? By God’s grace we are all included in God’s life, moment by moment sharing in what he is doing in this world. By God’s grace, we have been given all we need for life and godliness. By God’s grace and mercy, we have been included in Christ’s own intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit, having been included now and forever in the life and love of God. How well do we share this gift with others? Are we helping others to see the magnitude of what Jesus has done for them?
Whatever physical assets we may own in this life pale in comparison with this most wonderful gift. When we see and understand this, we begin to have a new perspective about everything we own. We begin to realize that generosity, sharing, hospitality, and service are each a participation in what God’s doing in this world. We find ourselves acting more as stewards, recognizing God’s ownership of us and all that we have, and we begin to actively participate in Jesus’ death and resurrection, sharing with others the good news of the grace offered to all. This is the best stewardship of the priceless asset we have been given—God’s grace and eternal life.
Thank you, heavenly Father, for sharing every good thing with us, especially the gift of the kingdom and grace through Jesus. So many good gifts! Grant us the grace to steward them well and share them freely with others, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Now He was also saying to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and this manager was reported to him as squandering his possessions. And he called him and said to him, “What is this I hear about you? Give an accounting of your management, for you can no longer be manager.” The manager said to himself, “What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do, so that when I am removed from the management people will welcome me into their homes.” And he summoned each one of his master’s debtors, and he began saying to the first, “How much do you owe my master?” And he said, “A hundred measures of oil.” And he said to him, “Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.” Then he said to another, “And how much do you owe?” And he said, “A hundred measures of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill, and write eighty.” And his master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings. He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you? And if you have not been faithful in the use of that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’ ” Luke 16:1–13 NASB
[If you are interested in participating in an in-person discussion group here in the Nashville, Tennessee area or via Zoom, please contact me at email@example.com ]
By Linda Rex
November 15, 2020, Proper 28—It can be easy to believe that God has a funny way of running the universe. He makes these creatures who have intelligent minds, the ability to make decisions and to create things. He gives them the ability to reproduce themselves. And then he gives them the capacity to ignore him, reject him, and even turn against him. And to top it all off, he gives them the responsibility to care for all he has made!
What was God thinking? Perhaps I’m being a little too humorous about this, but I believe we can take this in two ways—1) we can believe that God is loving and good and believes in the creatures he has made and is working for their good, or 2) we can believe that he is a hard, cruel God who is setting up humanity from the beginning for failure. How we respond as human beings to our call to care for and steward all God made and to love one another is essentially grounded in what kind of God we believe in, if any.
Moving forward, then. What kind of God would take on a human body and live in it, allowing himself to be ridiculed, rejected, and even crucified? And even after all that, entrust to his followers the Holy Spirit, sharing the good news of God’s love, and the responsibility of building the church and equipping the saints? The track record of the believers and the church over the millennia hasn’t always been the best, but knowing this would happen didn’t keep Christ from charging his followers with this responsibility.
It seems that too often, we as human beings have spent our time playing video games when we could have been washing the dog, cleaning our rooms or having friends over for a play date. Rather than creating a Play-Doh masterpiece for mom, we’ve been battling virtual ninjas, ending up with nothing to show for it but a great score on the leaderboard. Believe me, I love a great video game, but my point is that too often we as human beings have missed the boat when it comes to understanding who we are and what we are meant to do with our time here on earth. Too often we have taken the overflowing sack of God’s love and grace and buried it in the ground.
When we look at Jesus’ parable about the talents, we tend to narrow it down to believers needing to use their spiritual gifts in his service. I think there is a whole lot more at stake than simply that. The context is the kingdom of heaven—Jesus is describing the kingdom he was inaugurating in himself, in his presence as the Creator within his creation. As God in human flesh, he was seizing back what humanity had lost by turning away from God to the things of this world and Satan.
What every human being needs to come to terms with is that God loved him or her enough to set aside temporarily the benefits of his divinity, to come and live in our humanity, for each person’s sake. He sought to raise humanity up out of the spiritual poverty and death we had fallen into so that we could live now and forever in right relationship with him and one another. He freed us from evil, sin, and death, not so we could party however we wanted, but so that we could be a part of his heavenly celebration now and for all eternity. He sent his Spirit so we would be empowered with his very presence and person to enable us to live as we were meant to live—in other-centered love with God and each other.
What would happen if we came to terms with the reality that God loves each of us, immensely, completely, and forever? What if we understood that God has entrusted us with his Son, his Spirit, and all he has made—offering life in union and communion with him now and forever? What are we doing with this grace God has given us?
God gives us his creation to steward. God gives us himself in his Son and in his Spirit. Repentance and faith, with baptism into the body of Christ, are the immediate response he seeks. We’ve been given a huge bonus check of grace—do we go to the bank and open up an account so we can put the grace to work? Or do we cash the check and then hide the bills in the wall of our house? What do we do with the grace and love God lavishes on us?
Grace put to work opens the door for others to experience and share in God’s grace. This is our participation in the life of Christ. He is at work in this world, bringing others to the knowledge of himself and enabling them to participate as well in what he is doing in the world. By faith and through baptism, new believers are welcomed into the body of Christ, and included in our participation in the mission of Jesus to spread the gospel (the good news of God’s love expressed to us in Christ) throughout the world.
And yes, the Spirit showers spiritual gifts on believers, enabling them to play particular roles within the body of Christ—teaching, preaching, administrating, sharing, helping, and serving for example. These gifts are meant to enable believers to participate more fully in stewarding all God has given. Some are meant to equip others to do ministry and to build up the body of Christ. Some are meant to demonstrate God’s love in tangible ways in this world so that others can experience God’s love and grace in their lives.
The gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t just a story we tell. It is a life which we live. It is a person we reflect. As image-bearers of Christ, we bear his name, his Suffering Servant nature, by his Spirit in our person. As we respond to God’s love and grace expressed to us in his Son Jesus, we recognize that we are merely stewards of what belongs to the God who is the Lord over all and who dwells in perichoretic love. This reminds us to responsibly care for the world and cosmos we live in as our participation in his life and love—we seek his best interests, not our own. It reminds us to love our neighbor as ourself rather than being self-seeking, self-willed, and self-indulgent. And all of this we do empowered by and infused with the very presence and person of Jesus Christ in the Spirit.
God has lavished his love and grace on us as creatures meant to reflect his nature and way of being. He has entrusted this world to us and in Jesus has enabled us to be faithful and obedient children who serve him diligently. What are we going to do with the great big sack of God’s love and grace we have been given? What have we been doing with it? Is it time to make a change?
Father, thank you for the generous love and grace you have lavished upon as your creatures, for this amazing creation you have given us, and the gift of your Son and your Spirit. Thank you, Jesus, for doing for us in our place what we could not do for ourselves. We trust in your perfect stewardship that we may be by your Spirit good stewards of all we have been given. Amen.
“Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were born
Or You gave birth to the earth and the world,
Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.
You turn man back into dust …
You have swept them away like a flood, they fall asleep;
In the morning they are like grass which sprouts anew.
In the morning it flourishes and sprouts anew;
Toward evening it fades and withers away. …
So teach us to number our days,
That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:1–3a, 5b–6, 12 NASB
See also Matthew 25:14–30; 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11.
by Linda Rex
I love it when I get up in the morning and every devotional and scripture reading I look at has to do with that one thing God is dealing with in my life. Like this week when I was feeling so much of my life was out of control, everything I read seemed to be on the topic of control. When something like this happens, I get the sneaky suspicion I’d better be listening to what God is trying to say to me.
I believe we as humans go to great lengths to maintain control over everything in our lives and even in our universe. How much of our research into the intricacies of our bodies, our environment, our earth and our universe has to do with our desire to have some way to manage and direct what happens to us as human beings? I think we would be surprised at how much of what we do and think about every day has to do with this desire to be in control of ourselves, our lives and our world.
We get even more fanatical about holding tight to the things, people and events in our lives when we have experienced a lot of chaos and dysfunction in our early years or significant attachments. Sometimes this manifests itself in obsessive compulsive disorders, co-dependency and other mental or emotional struggles and illnesses.
In my opinion, the irony is the harder we try to control things and even to control ourselves or other people, the less in control we really are. Our efforts to be self-disciplined may work for a while, but often they fail us when we need them most. Our efforts to manipulate, manage or micromanage other people may give us an illusion of control, but they will end up destroying the very relationships and organizations we are trying to build.
It is true we were given the responsibility by God to steward, tend, and care for our world. This stewardship by necessity requires some measure of control over what is being cared for and tended. But I don’t believe God ever meant for us to assume it was all up to us. The only way it could be all up to us is if we were self-sufficient self-existent beings like God, and that’s not what we are.
As many of you are aware, I’ve been sharing the Celebrate the Grip curriculum in my preaching in recent days, and we’ve been talking about how each and every human being is held in the grip of grace. Since before creation, God determined we would be his adopted children and he planned his Son would enter our humanity and by the Spirit, bring us up into the Triune life. And through Jesus, God accomplished what he set out to do, forging for us a true humanity in and by his Son. Through Jesus and by his Spirit, God has made and is making all things new.
Talking about the grip reminds me of the many lectures and readings in which the concept of contingency was discussed in seminary. Contingency is showing up more and more in modern science and mathematics. It’s that thing some people want to call chance, but doesn’t work like chance does. It’s a whole lot more—like Someone designed and is designing things to work a certain way. And it’s something we can’t manage or control. It’s beyond us.
We don’t like things to be beyond us. Because when something is beyond us, it means that quite possibly there may be a divine Being Who has the right to call the shots in our world. We love our freedom so much—we don’t want anyone messing with our efforts to do what is right in our own eyes.
When our existence, or our future, or our daily existence, is contingent upon some divine Order or Person, then we are faced with the reality we are not lords over our own lives. This means someone else can change things in our world in such a way we may lose something we value, or we may have to struggle to do without things we think we should have. We may have to do difficult things or repent of unhealthy ways of thinking and being, and change. When Someone beyond our human existence has that much control over us and our world, we don’t like it.
Sure, we love God to be control as long as he keeps order in the world, makes the weather nice, and makes sure all the people are friendly and kind and respectful. But only because we want the world to be the way we want it to be for our convenience, comfort and pleasure. See? We’re still trying to be in control.
What about when everything in your life or mine seems to be in chaos? It can be hard to imagine God is still in control when everything in our lives seems to be totally out of control. But that kind of control is just an illusion. God has a grip on you and me which does not change. He won’t let go of us at all—we just need to trust him. And Jesus even gives us his faith so we can trust God in the midst of chaos and confusion when it seems impossible to do so.
So God says to you and to me, “Rest in me.” He calls to us by his Spirit to lay down our burdens of anxiety and fear, and to surrender all the control we imagine we have over the circumstances, people and things in our lives.
We need to be intentional about this. I find this letting go of control and fully resting in Christ is a journey. It’s a decision which is constantly being put before us—we’re tempted to try to do it all ourselves and to do it our way—or we’re called to lay down all illusion of control and to rest fully in Christ, and in his perfected humanity.
This verse which has been constantly popping up of late is found in Proverbs 3:5-6. As I remember it, it goes something like this: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge him, and he shall direct your paths.” It is a passage full of comfort and promise, and I thank God Jesus has already done all the trusting and leaning and acknowledging in my place. Now all that is left for me is to rest in his perfected faith in Abba in and by the Spirit. And that’s when my life is really under control.
Abba, thank you for being Lord over all, and thank you, through your Son and by your Spirit, you have ensured our perfected humanity and our eternal relationship with you. Grant us the grace to release all control to you and to rest fully in your perfect love. Through Jesus and by your Holy Spirit we pray. Amen.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.” Proverbs 3:5–6 NASB