(An Opening joke)
One Sunday morning, the pastor noticed little Alex was staring up at the large plaque that hung in the oyer of the church. It was covered with names, and small American flags were mounted on either side of it. The seven-year-old had been staring at the plaque for some time, so the pastor walked up, stood beside the boy, and said quietly, “Good morning, Alex.”
“Good morning,” replied the young man, still focused on the plaque.
“What is this?” Alex asked.
“Well, son, it’s a memorial to all the young men and women who died in the service.”
Soberly, they stood together, staring at the large plaque.
Little Alex’s voice was trembling and barely audible when he asked, “Which service, the 9:30 or the 11:30?”
I think that essentially the parable that we have today is about service–but a special aspect of service that we truly need to consider closely.
I wonder if I asked you what the moral of the parable of the dishonest steward is, what would you tell me? I suppose it could have several. Many wise stories indeed do have multiple layers of truths. You have a dishonest steward who was clever enough to reduce the amount of what his master’s debtors owed so that once he was fired he would be welcome into their homes, or at least they would owe him something when the steward became “down and out.” The dishonest steward is a clever fellow. Jesus tells us that we need to be clever. But while being clever we also need to be honest. There’s a good moral to the parable. Of course, Jesus also talks about being trustworthy in small matters. He says that the one who is untrustworthy in small matters is also untrustworthy in larger matters. There’s another moral.
But why is that? Because being trustworthy doesn’t admit of an amount. “Oh well, I swore I would never tell this secret that would hurt my neighbor, but if keeping the secret really starts damaging me than I guess it’s o.k. to rat on him.” Well, no it isn’t. Or no, I won’t normally cheat or steal with a small amount, but if there is a chance that a little white lie might win me a fortune, I guess I could bend the rules some. Well, no you can’t. Most of us wouldn’t dream of selling ourselves to someone else for the purpose of temporary slavery. Let’s say the price was $10,000, and that person could make us do whatever they wanted, or do to us whatever they wanted no matter how awful or weird for a single day without any fear of criminal or civil punishment, as long as we were not killed or permanently harmed. Most of us would say no without even giving it a second thought (I would hope). But what if the price jumped to, say, five million dollars? Would that first thought turn into a second thought THEN, possibly even a third or a fourth thought, or even a “yes”? This is what I mean when I say that being trustworthy or honorable does not admit of an amount. You see, we might convince ourselves that we are morally righteous as long as the price tag is low, but how honorable are we when we stand to benefit, say, five million dollars? You see, if we said yes to any amount–even $500 million dollars–what we are admitting is that we are slaves. If we agree to sell ourselves off at any amount, that means that our honor has a price tag and we are mercenaries for higher–we are businessmen and businesswomen with our morals, and we prove that we will sell off our soul to the highest bidder.
Have you ever heard this definition of character? A man or woman with true character acts that way when no one is looking. That is similar to a good definition of true forgiveness. True forgiveness is honestly accepting the apology that you never even received.
Going back to what I said before about selling ourselves, it’s quite a sobering thought, isn’t? Would we trade our principles for absolutely anything, even if its a huge amount of money or fame or power? Because if we will, then we are slaves.
I asked you before what you thought the moral of the dishonest steward is. What I have just said will make Jesus’s final sentence make much more sense. The parable that Jesus tells in the gospel today has one single punchline. Let’s listen to the words of the Master:
He will either hate one and love the other,
or be devoted to one and despise the other.
You cannot serve both God and mammon.”
In the vocabulary of the time, mammon was a Jewish word for riches or wealth, or it could simply mean “that in which one places his trust.” It was used as a negative insult by jews and christians alike to describe the false gods that the pagans strived after–most of all, money, power, and sex.
You see, the parable of the unjust steward really isn’t about being clever. It is not mainly about being honest or trustworthy. Ultimately, Jesus is trying to get us to honestly ask the question, “Whom do you truly serve?
No one of us would say that we would ever directly serve Satan. Satan’s list of employees are fairly few in number when we compare it with those of God’s. But I guarantee you that there are far more on his payroll than you might imagine. What does Jesus tell Peter when Peter tries to convince him that it is not his mission to suffer and die for the people? “Get thee behind me, Satan.” Anytime we begin to lose our identity, or cooperate with the world, or here’s the big one–any time we do any action that serves no one but ourselves— then we work for the Enemy. We serve Mammon. We serve Satan. And we cannnot truly serve two masters.
Do you know that one of the Satanic mottos is “I am my own redeemer,” and “I am my own master.” One of the most Satanic songs ever written is Frank Sinatra’s, “I did it my way.” Don’t get me wrong. It is well done. And there is something Romantic and beautiful about it. but that is exactly what is dangerous about the mindset described by that song. Selfish people want to be in the front of the bus, in the back of the church and at the center of attention. Imagine that! If you go through life doing things your way then you will not have taken GOD’S way, and it is only THAT way that leads to heaven. And why am I all of a sudden talking about being Satanic? Am I being overly dramatic and intense here? I’m trying to make a point, people. The point is that if you have not decided directly to serve Jesus Christ as your master, then you are in the service of Satan whether you like it or not. You are in his camp. You are on his team. You might not answer directly to him, but you do answer to one of his lieutenants. In Pope Francis’s very first homily as pope–an extremely important moment for him to set the tone for his entire ministry as the vicar of Christ on earth–he said the following words: “Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil. When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness.”
We cannot serve two masters.
Whom do you serve? Really? Are your morals up for sale if something really good comes along? Are you a mercenary out for hire doing good things because you will be rewarded, or have you truly had an experience by which you understand that you serve the God who has set you free and will continue to do so if you allow Him? No payment out of pocket for this service need be necessary. To hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Now enter into your reward,” at the end of my life would be quite sufficient, thank you.
According to tradition, at the moment when all of heaven stood in tension and on the brink of civil war, Lucifer turned to God and said, “Non serviam–I will not serve.” And St. Michael hurled him down along with one third of the hosts of heaven, creating hell as we know it. And when he arose from the ash and the fire of his new eternal home, John Milton has Satan say in his masterpiece of Paradise Lost the following words: “Better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven.”
There are some who think this way. I urge you control freaks, you men and women who often get caught in judgments and in your own pride, please remember that it is no insult to serve. That is what we were made for. That is all we are, and we are all the more glorious when we actually find that special way that God has asked us to serve and then to embrace that service with all our heart. It is that service that can give us the very life of angels while on this earth. To refuse to serve is to serve ourselves, and to serve ourselves is to serve the master of selfishness–the devil himself.
No one can serve two masters.
So whom do you serve?