Letting Go: A Stewardship Sermon Series from Luke
I. “Letting Go” – Stewardship means Relinquishment (Luke 5:1-11; Matt 4:18-22)
Focus: Stewardship means Relinquishment
Application: conversion of mindset
This sermon will introduce the series by defining stewardship generally as relinquishment. Stewardship, more than anything else, is realizing that God is in control and we are not. Because we are seized by fear, we make most of our decisions based on what will keep us safe and secure. Jesus gives the miraculous catch of fish as a sign that when we follow him, we are opening ourselves up to surprises. This gives us courage to follow his command not to fear, which in turn enables us to let go.
Can you imagine the smell? You feel enclosed by it even though you are outdoors. It crowds your nostrils so that no other smell can get in. You would complain, but you have come to love this smell. It means so much to you. The smell means food on the table and smiles on your child’s face. It means security. What is this powerful smell? It is the smell of fish.
Now I am not talking about the near empty can of tuna fish you set out for the cat. And I am not talking about the overdone fish sticks in the oven. I am talking about piles and piles of fresh fish. Not caught one-by-one with a pole, but whole schools by the net. If you have ever been to a fish market in New England or San Francisco, you have a sense of what I am talking about. Yards and yards of fresh fish – the livelihood of a fisherman.
Imagine you are a fisherman. Begin to grasp what the smell of fish means to you. Keep that smell in the forefront of your mind. Now, imagine a man walks up to you. He looks around at your piles of fish. He looks at your boats and nets. He looks at you. Then he opens his mouth and out comes the strangest thing: “Follow me.” You immediately think to yourself, “Follow you? Where? Why? What have you done? What will you do? What do you have to do with me? Why should I leave my livelihood to follow some guy?”
Of course, this isn’t just “some guy” asking you to follow him. This is Jesus. You have heard what he can do. You have seen him at work. You know who he is. This Jesus is certainly someone worth following. He can preach and heal. He challenges authority and welcomes sinners. His resume is impressive.
Yet you hold back. You do not drop your nets and follow him. For good reason, too. You are not some self-centered egomaniac. You are a good person. You don’t hold on to your nets for power or fame. You hold on for the sake of your family. You hold on for the good of society. You hold on because it’s the right thing to do. But Jesus keeps issuing this irrational command: “Follow me.”
I should not be making such hasty generalizations. Certainly many if not most of you have let go. You have dropped your nets and followed Jesus. You have given up many things to be a disciple of the Lord. However, if you are anything like me, you have turned back to once again grab hold of your nets. You have let go one minute to find yourself back in control the next. One day you gave up your security to serve God, but today you have slipped into a comfortable life again. And that is totally understandable. When you have been pulling on those nets for so long, your fingers get bent into shape. It actually feels better to carry that weight than to let go. Letting go strains your fingers as they try to straighten out. So it seems more natural to stay in control of our lives because we have been bent to be in control. And in the face of this normalcy, Jesus keeps saying, “Follow me.”
Whether it is the first time or the fortieth time you have heard Jesus say this, it always stings. You want to follow but you just can’t let go. You are genuinely afraid of what will happen if the people started actually living like Jesus. The whole world would turn up side down. Daily life would change. Business would change. Government would change. Religion would change. The world just isn’t ready for that kind of revolution. Maybe there are some super-Christians out there that can pull it off. The rest of us normal Christians are busy keeping the world afloat, thank you very much.
If all Jesus did was command us to follow him, all these excuses would be justified. But Jesus’ command to follow is not the whole story. There is so much more to it than that. If we were there the day he called Peter, we might not have noticed the irrational call to follow at all. We might not have even noticed how we just suddenly let go of our nets. Why? Because before Jesus says, “Follow me,” he performs for them an astounding miracle. He displays for them the abundance of his power. Jesus doesn’t issue a bare command; he accompanies his command with a promise. His vocation flows from a vision. His proclamation is paired with a powerful sign. His call for faith is preceded by his gift of grace. Jesus does not just run around telling everybody to follow him. He proves what he can do and then simply invites us to come along for the ride.
Why does the miraculous catch of fish make such a difference? Why does such a display of power make it easier to let go of our nets? Jesus’ own words provide the clue. He says to Peter, “Do not be afraid” (v. 11). You see, Jesus knows that the one thing holding us back is fear. We can’t let go because we are afraid of what will happen if we do. We genuinely fear for our wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around us. So we horde our resources of time, skills, and money for the good cause of serving our loved ones. Jesus knows our hearts. He knows we are afraid. So he gives us a sign that he is in control. He does not rebuke our fears; rather, he calms them with his wonder-working power. Having been released from fear, we now have the courage to let go of our nets and follow him.
If your courage wanes from time to time, think again of this story. Perhaps you can simply think about the smell of fish. But if that doesn’t do it, then at least keep gathering here among the people of God. Because if you haven’t seen a miraculous catch of fish lately, there is certainly a miraculous catch of people right here. The church itself is an even greater miracle as the fulfillment of Jesus’ words. Jesus certainly made Peter and the others “fishers of people.” On the day of Pentecost Christ’s Spirit gathered 3,000 into the fold. Talk about a miraculous catch! So although we take a risk when we let go of our nets to follow him, there is ample evidence that Jesus’ ministry has not failed. Rather, he continues to have the greatest catch of the day.
There are a lot of definitions of stewardship out there. I think this story captures the heart of it. Stewardship at its core is about relinquishment. It is about letting go. The crucial attitudinal shift is that we are not in control, God is. There is a hard edge to letting go. It means a radical change of priorities. It has immediate implications for how we invest our energies. It even requires sacrifice.
But the positive side of letting go far outweighs the negative. Notice that Jesus never tells the disciples to let go. He just calls them to follow and promises a big catch of people. He merely asks them to come along for the ride, but they know exactly what it takes to enjoy that ride. It takes letting go. It is not as if Jesus is calling us to let go of a life-preserver. Stewardship is more like letting go of the handrail on a rollercoaster. It is about enjoying the ride to its fullest potential. Sure, you can ride a rollercoaster all tensed up and curled over. But it is a lot more fun to just let go and scream. Letting go simply makes the ride better. It is my prayer for you that as we delve into the deeper meaning of stewardship, God will open your heart and life to practical ways in which you can let go and enjoy the ride.
II. “What Comes First?” – Stewardship means Priorities (Luke 9:59-62)
Additional Bible Texts/Themes: First-fruits
Focus: Stewardship means Priorities
Application: time management
The potential disciples in this text had an interest in Jesus’ ministry but were not willing to make it a priority. This plays out particularly with reference to the urgency of his work. For instance, two of them simply wished to take care of important family business first, and then they would join the cause. Jesus asks for immediate response, implying that one’s priorities are played out in temporal sequence. The things we do first are of first importance. In our lives, we must place God first not just in principle but truly in practice by placing time with him and for him at the forefront of our schedule.
Whether you are the disciplined type or not, you probably write to-do lists. Type A personalities might systematize and organize theirs on their palm pilots, while Type B personalities scribble “pick up dry-cleaning” on their actual palms. Yet both make to-do lists. I suspect that if you reached in your pocket right now, a great many of you would find one. It may have gone through the laundry a few times, but there it is.
The biggest problem of to-do lists is that there is always at least one thing on them that does not get done. We seldom do all the “dos” on the list. The lists are often misplaced before they are completed. When one list expires, the unfinished dos often make their way onto a fresh list. I once cleaned out a drawer to find three separate to-do lists all containing the phrase “write thank you notes.” Needless to say I wrote that same phrase on my latest to-do list. In the time it takes to write the phrase “write thank you notes” four times, I could have finished that “do.” And then I could have had the satisfaction of taking out my to-do list and placing a little check next to that task!
We all have ways of dealing with unfinished tasks. My wife and I have one such technique. We call it the “accordion principle.” Let me explain. On the one hand, some tasks require a set amount of time. Driving to the store takes twenty minutes. Cooking the chicken takes fifteen minutes. Reading a chapter in a textbook takes forty. Watching the news takes thirty.
On the other hand, some tasks have an elastic time span. They can be done either quickly or slowly. In other words, we have some control over the time they take. How long you spend at the store could be anywhere between five minutes to an hour and a half. Preparing the chicken “just right” could take over thirty minutes. Cramming for the exam could take five minutes or last hours. Watching the news channel can last all day. My wife and I call a task of this second sort an “accordion.” Like an accordion, it can be stretched way out or pressed in real close. The accordion principle is very simple: do the set time activities first, and do the accordions second. If you get done with the set time activities quickly, then you can take your time with the accordions. If not, the accordions will just have to be rushed.
Now let’s be honest with ourselves. Time spent with God and for God is an accordion. Just think about it. The Bible does not set some exact amount of time you should spend praying, worshipping or serving. There’s no memory verse that one of the kids could stand up and recite saying, “Thou shall dedicate fifteen minutes a day to the Lord thy God, III Colossians 5:38.” There is no set minimum, and there is certainly no set maximum. Clearly we could and may even desire to give all of our time to divine tasks. But alas, life gets in the way. Time spent with and for God is the greatest scheduling accordion out there. So we treat it like one. Whether you have heard of the accordion principle or not, you probably practice it at least in this area. We all want to give God our best. We don’t want to hurry through our time with and for God. So we hurry through our other activities first and give him the rest. But the rest isn’t always the best. Most of the time, the rest never comes.
The potential disciples in today’s Gospel text encountered this very issue. Two men who desire to follow Jesus lift up a simple request to take care of important family business first. One of them needs to bury his father. His own father has passed away and the time has come to grieve his death and celebrate his life. Most of us know from personal experience that a funeral means “drop everything.” It is certainly not an accordion event. It takes a bulk of immediate time. It simply comes first.
However, Jesus looks this potential discipline in the eye and says, “Let the dead bury dead.” Jesus draws a line in the sand at this rather sensitive spot. Jesus challenges the immediacy of a father’s funeral with the immediacy of his message and ministry. I can see how the Gospel trumps a funeral in principle. But does it really have to play out that way? Does Jesus truly require us to abandon our family values in service to him?
The other man makes a seemingly less urgent request. He asks to say goodbye to his family. Jesus sharply replies that once you put your hand on the plow, you can’t look back. This small farming parable would ring true for Jesus’ hearers. They knew that your plow-line would be crooked unless you kept you eyes on a fixed point in front of you. For those of you who take lawn care seriously know this still applies. If you want those nice stripes in your lawn, just mow with your eye on a fixed point. Don’t look back, down, left or right. Just keep your eye fixed and the lines will stay straight.
But Jesus is not just being cute here. Those in earshot of Jesus would have heard a lot more than a farming fable. They were not just farmers; they were also Jews. And Jews know their Bibles. They would have recognized Jesus’ allusion. Jesus was not the first prophet in Israel. And this man was not the first would-be prophet apprentice. In I Kings 19 we read that Elisha was plowing with his oxen when Elijah called him into service. Elisha asked if he could go and say goodbye to his family. Elijah sharply grants his request. Elisha kisses his parents, burns his plow, sacrifices his oxen on it and gives it to the community. Then he joins Elijah’s ministry.
Unlike Elijah, Jesus does not grant this man’s simple request. Rather, he calls for immediate response. So Jesus not only lays a trump card on a father’s funeral, he even trumps the prophetic tradition that precedes him. So for those in earshot, Jesus is not only an insensitive prophet, he may very well be a false prophet.
I must admit that I sometimes wonder about Jesus. How can we abandon the responsibility to our families? Doesn’t the Bible teach us to honor our parents? If I require you to dishonor them, am I not a false prophet? How can all our earthly responsibilities simply fall by the wayside for the sake of serving God? Are not these very responsibilities a service to God?
These questions and caveats must be granted for what they are. But we cannot soften the thrust of Jesus words to us as potential disciples. Jesus does not present time with God and for God as an accordion in our schedule. He puts it at the top of the to-do list. The time we dedicate to him is not just first in principle, it is first in practice. Jesus demands we do it first, and deal with other things second. And if those other things don’t get done, so be it. In the light of his message, all other tasks become accordions.
However, this may not be so difficult a demand after all. For starters, notice the text does not tell us anything about the response of these men. We tend to picture these potential disciples walking away in self-pity, kicking a stone down the road all the way back to a Podunk Palestine village. But the Bible gives us no hint that such was the case. For all we know, these potential disciples became kinetic disciples. Maybe these very disciples are the ones who remembered and wrote down these words. I have a sneaking suspicion that we picture these men negatively because that way we are let off the hook. We like to see that not everybody is a super-disciple, not everyone leaves it all in reckless abandon for Jesus. But the text leaves it open. So the story is full of conviction yet also full of hope. We are both convicted to follow and hopeful that following is possible. Perhaps Luke left their response out the story precisely to set this hopeful challenge before us. If so, then these words are not about those disciples at all, but about us.
The open-ending to this story may give us hope. But how do we practically follow these words of Jesus? How do we go about putting him first not just in principle but in practice? The answer lies in the nature of the requests. There is a word in both requests that serves as the clue. They both say they will follow Jesus, but first they must do this or that. First. I suggest this little word is what triggered Jesus’ curt response to these two men. First. I can imagine Jesus’ thoughts the moment he heard that little word. “First,” he thinks to himself, “Nothing comes before God!” I honestly don’t believe Jesus is coming before us today to reject all our family values. Yet he does challenge them. Jesus challenges anything that comes before his message and ministry.
Although this word “first” sounds a bit abstract and rather picky, it is actually the clue to unlocking the practical power of Jesus’ words. Think about it. In what sense do these disciples use the word “first?” Do they mean first as in best? Or first as in most? No. They are not talking about withholding their quality time or quantity time from Jesus. Actually, in their minds they will give Jesus the best quality time and a whole block of quantity time. What use will the one man be if he does not the have emotional closure that will come with burying his father. And think of all the time the other man can give if doesn’t have to repeatedly circle back to visit his parents but rather says goodbye once and for all. These two men are offering Jesus their “best” time and their “most” time.
Yet they are still withholding something. They are offering Jesus their quality time and their quantity time, but not their priority time. You can give God your best and you can give him the most. But what God really wants is your first. Give him your first time. You may already do this. You worship him on the first day of the week. You pray to him in the first minutes of the day. You pray first before a meal. The key to being a good steward of your time is determining which tasks come first. The thing placed first in the schedule is the thing that always gets done. Any time management specialist will tell you that. What is unique for the Christian is that time with and for God is given that first place on the to-do list.
You see this prioritizing at work in the Old Testament law regarding first-fruits. The people gave the whole first harvest to God. This was a great sacrifice and a great act of faith. Yet the ironic thing is they get to keep the rest and the best. The first harvest is not necessarily the best harvest. And it certainly is not the whole harvest. The people of God actually get to enjoy the quality and the quantity of the harvest. God is generous with quality and quantity, but jealous about priorities. God desires the first. But when you seek him first, all these things will be unto you. Don’t be afraid that you are just “getting it out of the way.” God knows the way we humans function and sets up his laws to work with the grain of our created rhythms. So go ahead and “get it out of the way.” You will be amazed at how the Spirit will move in the everyday aspects of your life, provided they are preceded by time with him.
I sometimes wonder whether Jesus would have sent the one man to bury his father and the other man to kiss his mother if they would have simply said, “I will follow you first.” Surely he knew their hearts. Surely he wants what is best for all his creatures. But Jesus could not accept such things taking the place of God as first in our lives. The practical ordering of their time revealed the principled ordering of their priorities. What does your schedule say about you? What might you be doing first that ought to come second to your time with and for God? Will you rearrange your schedule to concretely display your priorities? Will you stop making God an accordion and start giving God a set time? Just as we do not know the rest of the story about these two disciples, we do not know the rest of the story about you. It is my prayer that yours is a story of hope, a story about the possibility of making God a priority in your life.
III. “A Harsh Master?”- Stewardship means Investment (Luke 19:11-27)
Focus: Stewardship means Investment
Application: use and development of skills
This sermon will first aim to be empathetic with the servant’s fears, only then to call into question whether the master is as “harsh” as the servant claims. It will structure a parallel between the master’s gift to the servants and God’s gift of skills and abilities to us. When we invest our skills in the work of the kingdom, we are the beneficiaries as our skills increase and are sharpened.
1.1. So reads the story of the wicked servant. Wicked, bad servant. So bad. He secretly hides his master’s money. Bad servant. He holds on to his master’s money rather than investing it. Bad, bad servant. He doesn’t even accrue any interest on it. Bad, bad, bad servant. Moral of the story: Don’t be like the bad servant.
And so the usual reading and hearing of this story goes. It seems fitting, since the servant is refused a reward while the other two receive great rewards. Yet there is something about this bad servant. Something unique. Something that makes him stand out. He is certainly a far more interesting character than the other two servants. He says a lot more than them. The parable even recounts his deeper intentions. So before we think we have a handle on the “moral of the story,” let’s try to get inside the head of this “bad” servant.
First of all, right out of the block he seems to be at a disadvantage. Matthew’s account of the story says that the first servant was given five talents, the second two, and our bad little servant only one. It seems unfair to judge him by the same standard. He had much less to start with. How can he be expected to change the world with a measly talent? Of course the other guys are going to do better. Of course he is going to look bad in the end, no matter what he does with the money. When you take this into account, he doesn’t seem so bad, does he? He just seems unlucky.
But that is not all. As if it wasn’t bad enough to get the short end of the stick, this servant has to work for a harsh and exacting man. This is no ordinary master. Like the servant says, he reaps where he does not sow. In other words, he steals. And apparently he steals from his own employees. He expects to gain from other’s labor. The beginning of the story seems to be a dead giveaway for the character of the master: he leaves to acquire a kingdom that is not his and the citizens there hate him for it. This servant doesn’t seem so bad when we see the kind of master he is working for. Maybe the problem is not the bad, wicked servant after all, but the bad, wicked master.
And if you haven’t heard enough to convince you, just think about what the servant did. Was it really that bad? The master simply left the money behind without instructions. How was the servant supposed to know he should invest it? He probably assumed that he was simply to keep an eye on it while the master was gone. That seems reasonable. He probably thought the other two servants were really going out on a limb. He, on the other hand, kept the money safe. He hid it, disguised and put away. No one was going to steal the master’s money while this servant was on the clock! Nor was his money going to get sucked up into some fly-by-night get-rich-quick investment scheme. When the master gets back, the money will be right where he left it.
So, when you think about it, the servant doesn’t seem so bad. He only had a little to start with, he was working for a harsh master, and he did the most responsible thing imaginable. I’d say he got shafted.
1.2. Do you ever feel like this servant? I know I do. It sounds a lot like what we deal with every Monday through Friday. We only have minimal resources. Whether its money, books, skills, people, paper, or energy, we just do not start out with much. And the bosses that some of us have to deal with. They expect more than is reasonable. They do not give clear instructions, and then they reprimand us for not doing the right thing. Others who seem to break all the rules get ahead. We get passed over. Punished for following the rules. We seem to do everything right, but nothing comes our way.
I wish I could turn around and say, “Thanks be to God that this only happens in the workplace, and not here in God’s church.” But I can’t. I can’t pretend that the church is free from the dynamics of expectation and reward. It seems that sometimes the ministries of the church are plagued by this to an even greater degree.
Think about the average church volunteer. They have so little to start with. How do we expect a software engineer to teach second grade Sunday School? Or a shy administrative assistant to keep up with teenagers? Or a busy school teacher to find the time and energy to paint scenes for the Easter pageant? Seldom do we have what it takes to get our tasks done.
Think too about the exacting and harsh masters we have to deal with. The inattentive children. The unappreciative teenagers. The critical adults. The demanding pastors who always have another sign-up sheet. And God, who seems to want so much from us, yet does not tell us in a loud booming voice exactly what to do.
And look at you. Look how hard you work anyway. Look how you keep teaching that class after twenty years. Look how you keep volunteering for those all-nighters when you barely make it past mid-night. Look how you keep at what seems to be your niche out of obedience and obligation. You should be rewarded. But again and again you are passed over. Forgotten. You persistently build a ministry that is simply passed on to some young seminary intern or rude team of teenagers because they “understand the next generation.” It seems as if you and I are in the same boat as the servant: shafted.
2.1. And yet, there is another side of the story. If we are to be honest, we need to tell the whole story. If we take the servant’s words at face value, he certainly is a character worthy of our pity. But do his actions and his words really match up with the facts? Is the servant’s perception of reality accurate? Is he telling the truth?
First of all, we need to take another look at this whole matter of talents. A talent, or minas in Luke’s account, is a quantity of measurement. In this context it refers to a quantity of gold or silver bullion. And a talent is not small amount. A talent of silver would fill a sizeable moneybag. A talent of silver would be a few years’ wages. A talent was therefore a large sum of money. And in that day and age, servants would never see any kind of capital at all. The gift of a talent would make someone an instant millionaire! We are tempted to stress how much more was given the first servant than the last servant. Yet the difference between them is like comparing Bill Gates with Madonna: they’re both millionaires! We like to imagine the last servant as the “underdog.” But he really had a high level of opportunity.
We also need to be honest about his master. What kind of master was he, really? Was he the harsh master of which the servant speaks? Though some facts seem to say as much, the specific indictment of the servant proves not to be true. The servant claims that the master reaps what he does not sow. However, up to this point in the story, we have only seen the opposite. He has certainly sown. And he has sown a tremendous amount. Yet he is not reaping. Not one bit. Rather, he is giving all the earnings back to the first and second servants. The last servant seems to be mixed up. His master is not a harsh and exacting man, but a generous and giving man. He sows and lets others reap the harvest.
So the servant not only had a better start than we imagined, he also misapprehended the character of his master. This leads us finally to the matter of the servant’s actions. Did he really do his best? According to the master, he did not. He did not even do the minimum. The least he could do was gain credit with the money. If there had been any inflation while the master was gone, hiding the money would have actually decreased its value! In the end, the master does not punish the servant for making so little money. Rather, he judges the servant according to his perceptions. The master wisely points out that if the servant really believed the master was such a harsh man he would have at least put the money in a secure savings account! But no, the servant is not even living according to his perceptions.
2.2. So the servant now stands before us as a warning, but no longer as a simplistic anti-hero. The moral of the story is not “invest, invest, invest.” Rather, the servant shows what happens when we live according to a lie. He shows us that our lives fall apart when we avoid telling the truth.
Take for instance the lies we tell about our abilities. We claim that we can’t do much. We say we are only good at a few things, and even those things we aren’t the best. There’s always someone better. We compare our one talent to someone’s five. We do not see the vast wealth of abilities and skills we do have. The average adult has 7 – 9,000 skills. That is a lot of skills. How could we miss this? How could we be so blind? One reason is our constant tendency to compare our one talent to some else’s five, forgetting that the difference is negligible. Or maybe it is because we want to avoid arrogance. Or perhaps we are afraid of failure. Or we focus too much on improving our weaknesses. Or we still believe the lies about our inabilities others told us when we were young. Whatever it is, we are living a lie when we live as unable persons. God has given us all an endless wealth of abilities from which to draw. Maybe we need to just take a look at the resources we do have, and put them to use.
This story exposes another one of our lies: that God is a harsh taskmaster. Somewhere we got it in our heads that God gives us unreasonable goals. We think that he gives us all these skills then says, “Get to work!” Or worse yet, we imagine that we better sign up for every possible church activity in order to “cover all our bases” just in case God has any hidden expectations. But this kind of thinking doesn’t correspond to reality. God gives us abilities and responsibilities for our sake. The task is the gift! Look at the story: God gives the first two servants responsibilities, and then he lets them reap the benefits for themselves. He does not come back to settle accounts. No, he comes to praise his faithful servants and encourage them along to even greater goals. We need to get our picture of God straight. When you sign up for a church activity, don’t wonder whether it is pleasing God. Dare to ask whether it is pleasing you. Is it giving you joy? Is it sharpening your skills? Remember always that God gives us tasks for our benefit.
Lastly, we need to check ourselves as to whether we are really “doing our best.” I do not take back my words about how committed we can be. I think many of us work really hard – at work, home, and church. Some of us may even be working too hard. But working hard and doing our best are quite different. The servant worked hard to keep that money safe. But according to the master, he did not do the best thing. Actually, the master’s suggestion would have been easier: simply invest the money into a credit accruing account and watch it increase. Keeping a watchful eye on a wad of cash is much more painstaking. The fact of the matter is that many of us tire at the wrong tasks. We sign up out of obligation or commitment, but never ask what the best task might be. If we take a look at the skills we actually have, and then turn to find where God can use us best, we will be much more effective and it will seem like we are not even working.
This happened to me last summer. I was going crazy trying so hard to learn new ministry spheres at an internship, when finally I realized I just needed to do more of what I was good at: teaching. I told my supervisor, and he graciously increased my teaching role. After that I was able to work far more with much less effort, simply because of the sheer joy that came with doing what I was good at. In other words, I started doing my best. So stop working so hard, and start doing your best. See what talents you naturally have, and put them to use. God doesn’t need you to build his kingdom. But he wants you. And he wants you to be the best you you can be. So feel free to stop hiding your talents, and start enjoying them. And then you will truly be working to the greater glory of God.
IV. “Hurts So Good” – Stewardship means Sacrifice (Luke 21:1-9)
Additional Bible Texts/Themes: Sacrificial System; David’s costly gift (2 Sam. 24:18-25)
Focus: Stewardship means Sacrifice
Application: money and giving
In this last sermon we will finally turn to the question of money. The focus, however, will not be on bankrolling the ministries of a local church, but rather on the sacrificial giving of the people of God. Immediately after commending the widow’s sacrificial gift to the Temple, Jesus predicts the destruction of the same Temple. Her giving was commended not on the basis of its usefulness, but rather its sacrificial nature. Such a theme will go against the grain of American pragmatist culture, which always demands to see results. But scripture and experience teach that a lifestyle of giving decreases rather than increases anxiety, as we learn to trust in God’s provision.
No sermon series on stewardship would be complete without a discussion of the “widow’s mite.” If you type the phrase “stewardship sermon series” into google, you will get page after page of sermon manuscripts and outlines on this text. The widow in this story is a great stewardship hero. She exhibits sacrificial giving like no other character. She shows that it is not the size of the gift, but the heart of the giver that really counts. She had so little, but she gave it all, which is more than we can say for the wealthy. She is the preeminent model of stewardship.
Of course, there is another side to the story. It is not pretty, but it is there. Just for a moment, let’s try to see this story from a different perspective. Let’s try to get inside the skin of the rich. Let’s try to see what they see and think like they think. Let’s dare to see both sides of the story before rushing to Jesus’ response.
If you compare based on percentage, the widow clearly gave more. The rich gave much, but it may have only been a slight portion of their entire wealth. According to Jesus, the widow gave all that she had. We make the same comparisons today when we see rich movie stars or CEO’s giving millions to charity. Sure, it is a lot of money, but it is a small percentage of their wealth and they get a tax break out of it. But think about it. The percentage may not be as high for them, but the effectiveness is great. The widow’s small contribution will make very little difference to the Temple’s ministry. The rich, despite the smaller portion, are provided ample resources for the glory of God. Today’s big donors sometimes make a big difference with their generous donations to worthy causes that far outweigh our five dollars here and ten dollars there. Can’t we give the rich a break? At least they are giving.
Of course, all this assumes that effectiveness is what counts. Maybe what Jesus is focused on is the heart. What are the true intentions of the wealthy compared to those of the widow? This concern for intentions is important. Why we do what we do should not be ignored. And yet the text itself says nothing about intentions. Neither the narrator nor Jesus himself ever say anything about anyone’s intentions. Despite the Sunday School and sermonic representations over the years, the Bible does not portray the wealthy as showy or pompous. Rather, we simply see them giving.
Furthermore, we do not see a window into the Widow’s heart. We have no idea what her intentions were. As far as we know, she struggled with pride. Or maybe she was trying to win favor with God through good works rather than faith. She is not necessarily the humble old woman we usually picture.
If we want to make the moral of the story about the heart, the text will disappoint us. This story is about money. It is about the value of a gift and how to determine the better gift. It is not about how we give but what we give. And when it comes down to it, the wealthy gave more. Their gifts are more useful. They are more effective. They are more practical. They are more.
The widow’s gift, however, is useless. It is ineffective. It is impractical. It is less. Her gift will not support ministries. It will not feed the poor. It will not send out missionaries. It will do nothing. It is a drop in the ocean. Certainly she could have done something more useful with it. Certainly she could have used it constructively for those near to her. Certainly she could have been a better steward of her resources.
You too may feel that your giving is useless. You too watch the big donors go by, supporting charity organizations and bankrolling the ministries of the church. You see how effective their big gifts are. But you keep on giving. You give till it hurts. Then you give some more. And you do not see the pay off. You do not see societies change or ministries bloom. You do not see the personal blessing that preachers promised you. You just see waste: wasted money, wasted resources, wasted energy.
The face of Jesus continues to shine before you, encouraging you to give. He comes before us in this story and says your gift is the better one. You want to believe he is right, but you can’t always feel it in your gut. Something is just not right. You are glad he appreciates your little gifts. But let’s be honest, Jesus, the big gifts are more useful. They can do more for the kingdom. They can make a difference. What’s so special about my useless gift?
Although Jesus says that the widow’s gift is better, he doesn’t explain why. He points out that it is all she had to live on, but this is only a description of her gift and not a clear reason for its greatness. If we want to understand why Jesus praises her gift, we must keep reading. Immediately after this story, the disciples point out the beauty of the Temple. Jesus responds by predicting that a time is coming when not one stone will be left on another. The very Temple to which the wealthy and the widow were giving their gifts will be destroyed. The very same Temple that stands as a reason for giving bigger gifts will fall. Neither the wealthy nor the widow’s gifts will amount to anything. The practical results of their gifts will be destroyed. So all that is left to determine the better gift is this question: who can waste more on the altar of destruction that this Temple is about to become?
I want you to know today that what Jesus values about your useless gift is precisely its uselessness. The more useless it is the better. The more wasteful, the more faithful. The more impractical, the more worshipful. The widow’s gift is not better because it is a bigger percentage. It is not better because of her attitude. Her gift is better because it’s useless. It is better because it accomplishes nothing. It is in the midst of such a lack of accomplishment that God is glorified. God’s control of the universe is displayed when his people lose control and give wastefully to him. So if you feel that your giving is useless, good. Such wasteful giving is worship in its purest form.
This uselessness is the significance behind the concept of sacrifice. We hear this word sacrifice as a big, complex theological word. It carries with it the wrath of God and the substitution of the innocent and the payment for sin. But sacrifice in its most stripped down form simply means uselessness. Not all the Old Testament sacrifices were completely useless. But some of the most important ones were. Sometimes the people would offer to God a whole burnt offering. They would burn up a whole animal. No leftovers. Nothing would go to feed the priests. It was utterly used up – a useless display of devotion to God. And Jesus knew that the Temple and the whole sacrificial system itself would soon be destroyed. He knew that in his own act on the cross he would give up his life as a perfect sacrifice.
Thousands of years ago, the philosopher Plato observed that religious rites and ceremonies shared a lot in common with children playing games. He meant this as an insult, because what the two have in common is their uselessness. The child and the worshipper both aimlessly move around with no practical result to show for it. I say to you that Plato is right. The heart of worship is wastefulness. This is why the giving of our tithes and offerings is a crucial aspect of public worship. We do not just mail in a check or set up direct deposits. We gather together to sacrifice our money as an act of worship to God. Just as we are wasting our time when we sing songs and hear sermons and eat little wafers, we are also wasting our money when the offering plate is passed.
Such sacrificial thinking is hard to swallow in our American pragmatist culture. We like to see results. We evaluate everyone on the basis of results. Our drive for results has made us successful, so we see no reason to abandon it. But when Jesus looks at that widow and praises her painful gift to a Temple that will soon be in flames, he challenges our pragmatic obsession with results. He looks us in the eye and asks, “Are you willing to be wasteful for me?”
All this talk of wasteful giving seems to destroy any sense of accountability for the recipients of the gift. I seem to be implying that whatever churches or charities do with your money doesn’t matter. Just give. Although sacrificial giving is good for you no matter who it is to, I do not intend to let churches off the hook. Accountability is crucial. But accountability should not be based on effectiveness. The question you should ask is not, “How effectively are they using my money? How are they apportioning my investment?” Rather, the standard ought to be the sacrificial giving of the church itself. You ought to be asking, “Is my church giving sacrificially? Are they properly wasting my money on things like worship and feeding the poor?” The example of the widow’s mite applies not only to individuals but the whole body. The church is called to sacrificially give of her resources, not demanding results but praising God through unrequited gifts.
Of course, sacrificial giving may start with your tithes and offerings here at church, but it doesn’t end there. Sacrificial giving is not just an act of corporate worship; it is a way of life. I was always taught to give to the poor, but to be careful about when and where you give because you do not know how they will use it. I was always taught to help the poor but to not give them hand outs. So I have been programmed to never give loose change to a bum on the street. I always find myself thinking, “He’ll probably just waste it on booze and lotto tickets.” Jesus challenges this obsession with results. Yes, handouts are not enough. But a handout is something. It is the initial act of wasting, of letting go of our resources so that God can use them to his glory. The next time you see that homeless person, don’t ask where you money is going. Take a risk. Trust God and give. It is my prayer that as we begin to waste, God will open our hearts to others and grant us more opportunities to give sacrificially. Who knows, maybe he will make it useful after all. God has been known to resurrect things that were wasting away.