Bob Dylan sings, ”You gotta serve somebody. Maybe it’s the devil and maybe it’s the Lord. But you gotta serve somebody.”1
Jesus says, “You can serve God or money.” But not both.
Today’s parable is one of the hardest to understand. Theologians and pastors scratch our heads when we read this one. So in preparing for today’s message, I turned to an expert for help. Dr. Barbara Rossing is a New Testament professor from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. She explains that our difficulty with this parable comes, at least in part, because there was a different economic system at the time that the Romans ruled Galilee. Jewish law did not permit interest. There was no such thing as capitalism or banks. But people didn’t always have the money that they needed to pay their bills and so they went to the rich ruler or landowners. And – despite the Jewish law against interest - these rich rulers and landowners were often loan-sharks who used exorbitant interest to grab more land, kicking peasants off their family land. In this parable, both the rich man or "lord," along with his steward, who was basically hired as a debt collector, were exploiting desperate peasants.2
There are still loan sharks today. Payday lenders and other high interest lenders have taken the place of the rich rulers. But because our economic and justice system is different, other parts of the parable are harder to translate to our day. However, Jesus’ conclusion still rings true. You can’t serve both God and money - or as the King James Bible called it, “Mammon.”
But, for better or worse, money is how our economic system works. You no longer have to carry around a stash of it – you can pay your bills online and use a credit or debit card when you buy something. But we still need to use it, manage it, and “steward it” because it seems we never have “enough” of it.
‘At least that’s my assumption. If you have more money than you know what to do with… see me after church. I have some ideas to help you.
But now imagine, for a moment, that you won the lottery. Yesterday, the Minnesota Powerball was $80 million dollars. The cash option –they take out the taxes for you - was $54 million, 400 thousand. It’s hard to even imagine that much money. Or what would happen to your life if you won it. Here’s what happened to a couple of people:
Friends said Lara and Roger never argued before they won a $2.76 million lottery jackpot. At first it was great - they bought their dream house and a Porsche and took luxurious trips to Dubai, Monaco and New York city. But five years later when a freak fire gutted their house, which was underinsured, their fortune was quickly used up. Their marriage of 14 years crumbled too after Lara noticed emails from another woman. Roger didn’t argue – but he did drive away in the Porsche.
“Bud” won 16 million in the Pennsylvania lottery – but was $1 million in debt within the year. He was sued, successfully, by a former girlfriend for a third of the money. He over-invested in his family’s businesses and his own brother hired someone to kill him, in the hopes that he would inherit some of the money. Bud said, “I wish it never happened. It was totally a nightmare.” 3
Clearly there are some people who have won lotteries or come into money that haven’t lost it all or wasted it. I have also heard a story of a couple who received a million dollars from an estate. They wondered what they should do with it and decided that, while it would be fun to travel, or to buy a fancy car, they could affect more lives by giving it away. And then they told the story of how much joy that gave them.
Lots of money can be a nightmare… or a blessing. But what if you – or your neighbor - were on the other side of this scenario with too little money.
Isabella is a single mom who, in addition to her children, is caring for her extended family. The company that she worked for reduced her hours. She started to look for a second job. But, on the way to an interview, her car was hit by pickup truck. It wasn’t totaled but it wasn’t drivable either. She felt she had no choice but to get it fixed.
As you can imagine, the cost of the car repair plus her reduced wages meant that she didn’t have enough money to pay her bills. Isabella felt trapped. Her credit card was already maxed out. Then she noticed a new PayDay loan office in her neighborhood. She also noticed that the interest rate was high but she felt she had no choice. She signed.
Isabella’s financial situation went from bad to worse. The next month she didn’t have enough to pay her bills or her loan, so she took out another loan. She felt even more stuck.
But, fortunately for Isabella, her church, Holy Trinity Lutheran in South Minneapolis, in response to seeing a PayDay Lending store open on their block, decided they had to do something about the unethical lending practices that were happening in their neighborhood. They began Exodus Lending, a non-profit that gives people a no-interest loan and financial counseling through Lutheran Social Services to help them get out of their debt and into financial health. Someone told Isabella about the program, and since enrolling, Isabella has not only paid her loan but has learned the importance of saving money. She is looking forward to paying the loan back so that the money will be there for the next person who gets stuck like she did.
Now I realize that most people don’t suddenly have a million dollars. And I hope that most of us aren’t stuck in a payday lending loan –– see me if you are because there is help for you. But I’m guessing that most of us are somewhere in-between. But the question is this – whether you have a million dollars or just one or are like most people and are somewhere in-between – what is your relationship with money?
Here’s the uncomfortable truth: Jesus cares about your relationship with money. He talks about money and what people do with it in the Gospels more than anything except the kingdom of God. The reason that Jesus talks so much about money, is that your relationship with money can get in the way of your relationships with God and with other people -- no matter how much or little money it is.
Jesus wants your relationship with God – not Mammon, not money -- to be number one in your life.
So how do we do that? The details of your finances are particular to you and your family situation, but here’s an overview of how to have a healthy relationship with money. #1) Have a plan for how you use your money – some people call it a budget. #2) Plan to do three things with your money: 1) Share. Remembering that our resources are entrusted to us by God, remember to put giving as the first thing that you think about when you plan your budget. The Old Testament law was 10%. That’s a great goal – but it is not a law for Christians. You are free to give less – or more! 2) Save. No matter how little you make, like Isabella, learning to save is important for your financial health. 3) Spend. Figure out what you need and what you want and have a plan for spending wisely. Share. Save. Spend. Make a plan you can live with.
God has given you and me abundant gifts of time, talents and resources – including the money we receive and the money that we earn – and wants us to manage it well so that we can reflect God’s will and God’s way through every part of our lives. Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us work to make it so putting God’s way into our daily life. Amen.
Pastor Pam Stalheim Lane
Faith-Lilac Way Lutheran Church
September 22, 2019
1 Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan," 1979.
2 Barbara Rossing, WorkingPreacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/profile/default.aspx?uid=2-barbara_rossing
3 Business Insider https://www.businessinsider.com/lottery-winners-lost-everything-2017-8#bud-post-lost-162-million-within-a-nightmarish-year-and-his-own-brother-allegedly-put-out-a-hit-on-him-2