Preached August 1st, 2010
1 Corinthians 10:1–13
St. Luke 15:11–32
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen
This is the fourth in our five Sunday sequence on our Christian obligations and duties, and the focus today is our role 1 Peter 4:10b as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. As we have seen in previous Sundays, we are incorporated into Christ’s Church in Baptism, thus admitting us into God’s service. This is our adoption as sons of God and now we need to consider the responsibilities that go with this high honor that has been bestowed upon us, what it means to be stewards of the manifold grace of God.
Today, the ninth Sunday after Trinity, deals with the stewardship of all Christian people. Next Sunday will deal with the special responsibility of those to whom unusual gifts have been given. The fact that some have been given special gifts, however, in no way diminishes the fact that all are called to serve as Christ’s stewards.
In order to understand the role of stewardship, we must understand what the steward does. He is placed in charge of some asset, whether it be money, a business or farm, or any other asset, and told to use it wisely for the benefit of the owner. He has authority over that asset and can control it, manipulate it, buy and sell parts of it, but eventually he must give an accounting of his stewardship to his master. Thus the steward is both a person of authority over the asset, and a person himself under the authority of the master. A good steward, one who is wise and attentive, will increase the value of his master’s asset over time and will enjoy the full confidence and joy of his master. Conversely, a lazy and wasteful steward may allow the value of the asset to dissipate, perhaps to total loss, and when the time comes for the accounting, his master will be quite angry with that steward for failing in his duty to be diligent in protecting the asset under his care.
To make this all somewhat more concrete, imagine that an apartment house in our city is owned by a man living far away. He hires a local man to manage the apartment house for him, so the local man becomes the steward for the absentee owner. The local man is given authority to collect the rents, to make repairs, to advertise for tenants, and to make lease agreements. If the agent, the steward, does his job well, the owner will prosper. The owner knows that a certain amount of maintenance is to be expected, so he is not alarmed when he sees routine repair bills come every month along with the rent money. If he begins to see bills for the installation of solid gold faucets, he will be alarmed. Similarly, if he sees bills for cheap plastic fixtures of a much lower grade than were originally used in his building he will be alarmed. Either of these will signal that the steward is not doing his job correctly. In the case of the gold fixtures, the steward is being wasteful, while in the case of the cheap fixtures the steward is allowing the asset to decay.
By virtue of God’s Covenant with them, the ancient Hebrews enjoyed a unique position in the sight of God, and this applied to everyone of them, without exception. This is the point that St. Paul is making at the beginning of our Epistle lesson for today where he repeats the word “all” a total of five times: “all our fathers,” “all passed through,” “were all baptized,” “did all eat,” and “did all drink.” He is emphasizing the fact that all of their forefathers, without exception, were a part of the Chosen People. Even as the original Covenant had made them the Chosen People, so now Christians are even far more blessed in Christ Jesus, our Lord, the Son of God Himself.
St. Paul sees a baptism of sorts for the ancient Hebrews in their passage through the Red Sea as Moses led them out of Egypt. The closing of the sea upon the Egyptians cut the Hebrews off from their prior lives of bondage entirely; it was a new birth into a new life of freedom for them under the leadership of Moses.
Recall also the mystical bringing forth of water from the rock when struck by Moses in Exodus 17:6 and the manna that fed the people during the exodus, Exodus 16:15, ff. These St. Paul describes with the words 1 Corinthians 10:3-4 3 And did all eat the same spiritual meat; 4 And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. Thus both the manna and the water from the struck rock foreshadow the Holy Communion instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ. We may even go so far as to say that they are in fact the same thing, that it was Christ Himself, providing for His people in the Exodus, long before His first coming.
Despite being the stewards of God’s special grace and favor, many if not most, of the ancient Hebrews gave in to temptation and turned aside to idolarty, to lust and fornication, and all manner of sin. As they moved into the Promised Land, they mingled with the inhabitants of the land, rather than killing them or driving them out as they had been told to do. This brought evil practices into the Hebrew nation, and further separated them from God.
Our position as Christians is much higher than that of the ancient Jews because we have been redeemed by the blood of Christ Jesus Himself, something the Jews never had. For that we must be extremely grateful! At the same time, we must not be overly confident. Our higher position does not mean that we cannot fall just the same. We must be alert to the danger of over confidence, not becoming smug or self-confident in any way less we fall immediately. We cannot stand by ourselves at all.
On the other side of the coin, neither should we despair. We can trust God to never lay upon us more than we can bear. Whatever trials come our way are never more than we can manage if we lean on Jesus, although they are frequently more than we can manage by ourselves. We have to understand that God always provides a way out, but it is always an exercise in humility, not pride.
Our Gospel lesson for today is the familiar parable of the Prodigal Son, the story of the younger son who asks for his inheritance, wastes it in riotous living, is reduced to feeding the pigs, and eventually realizes that his father’s servants are better off than he is. He therefore resolves to return home and seek to become one of his father’s servants, being no longer worthy to be a son in that house. You will remember, of course the joy with which he is received by the father and the celebration that follows his return. He has repented, and he is welcomed back as the lost son, returned and restored to the house.
There is also the older son of the family, and this one, on hearing the merrymaking and finding out the reason, is mightily displeased. He refuses to even enter the house where the celebration is happening because he is nursing his hurt over the slight that he feels. When the father comes out to him, to try to get him to join the family celebration, he answers rudely, Luke 15:29-30 29 … Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: 30 But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.
Let us consider for a moment, each of these two sons as stewards of their father’s fortune. We may reasonably assume that the intent of the father for his fortune is that it provide for himself through his own life and to give a start in life for his sons. This is the common wish that fathers have. So how have each of these sons managed their father’s wealth?
The younger son has valued the fortune very little. He thought so little of it that he carelessly threw it away in foolish living. It bought him a few easy “friends,” while there was plenty of money to be spent, but when the money was gone, those easy “friends” immediately disappeared. They were only there to help him spend his money. He indulged in various vices – wine, women, and song – as the saying goes, but when the money was gone, those things were denied to him as well. He got to the point where he could no longer even provide food for himself and was forced to seek employment as a swineherd. This represented the extreme of social degradation, and it was only then that he began to see what he had done. But it all began with simply placing too little value on the great gift that had been given to him. He was not a good steward.
The older son is quite the opposite. He makes it abundantly clear that he values his father’s fortune in the extreme. He says, Lo, these many years do I serve thee; he is much aware of just how much he has invested in his share of the father’s fortune. He is quite aware that it has come at some personal cost to him, not always the thing he would have preferred to do, as we see when he says, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment; He would not be so conscious of having not transgressed if it had not been somewhat costly to him to do this. But he has done it because he wants the father’s fortune that he values entirely too much.
With the older son, things have gone well beyond being a good steward and are now into the realm of covetousness and greed. He wants his father’s fortune, and he wants it all to himself. He is resentful of the idea that his younger brother has returned and might claim a second slice of the pie for himself, never mind the fact that it is his brother we are talking about. He will not be so much concerned for expanding the fortune as he will be for gaining it all for himself. He is not a good steward.
There is a third example of stewardship in this parable, that of the father. The father begins with his treasure, his family, and responds gracefully when the younger son asks for his share in order to go and seek his fortune. While that son is away, the father keeps watch, hoping and praying for him, and when he returns home, he welcomes him back into the family.
When the older brother makes his sour response, the father attempts to reconcile him, saying Luke 15:31-32 31 … Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. 32 It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found. The Holy Scripture does not tell us whether this attempt to reconcile is successful or not, but the point is that the father is always trying to keep his family together, to avoid division and separation. The faithful stewardship of the father is evident as he tries to keep them all together. They are much more together than they could ever be when separated.
The role of the steward is an active role, one that requires our constant attention. We cannot sit back and let the world go by, thinking that in so doing we are being good stewards. Stewardship requires that we be constantly working to be sure that the Kingdom assets that we have been given are being put to good use. If they are lying idle, we are being faithless stewards, and the master will not be pleased when the time of accounting comes.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.