The following is the sermon I delivered on our church’s annual Stewardship Commitment Sunday. In it, I challenge the church to give a tithe, ten percent of our income. This is by far the most explicit appeal I’ve ever made for tithing. If we understand that the most important mission of our church is to save people from hell, and the money we give is used by God to support that mission, how can we not be generous? Besides, as I argue in this sermon, our money isn’t our own to do with as we please: it comes from God and belongs to God.
Sermon Text: Luke 16:1-14
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
Yesterday, Joe Thomas Sr., a running back for South Carolina State University, set a new NCAA record for Division I football with his performance. He rushed—are you ready for this? He rushed for three… yards against Savannah State University, on his only carry of the day. It doesn’t seem like three yards should be such a big deal, much less a new college football record.
But it was. And when I read about it yesterday, his great accomplishment made me want to cry.
Why? Because Joe Thomas Sr. is 55 years old! Fifty-five! How could that not bring a tear to my eye! He gives me hope! It means I still have nine years to get ready and get in shape and get on the field!
Joe Sr. has been on the team for the past four years—at least on the practice squad. A part of that time included playing—or at least practicing—alongside his son, Joe Thomas Jr., who now plays for the Green Bay Packers. But Joe Sr. himself had never realized his dream of playing big-boy college football in an actual game—until yesterday. Which was literally his last opportunity. It was senior day, the last game of the season. And Joe Sr. is also, well, a senior, graduating soon with an engineering degree.
I read the article about him last week, which discussed how badly he wanted to play in a game—to earn his varsity letter, to make history as the oldest player. It seemed unlikely. His coaches didn’t think it would happen. This was his last chance. Time was running out.
Time was running out… That’s a theme in today’s scripture.
Time is running out for the manager about whom Jesus tells this parable. This manager was the equivalent of a CFO who was hired by a wealthy man to keep his books, to run his businesses, to run his estate. This manager made all the financial decisions, and he apparently made some foolish or dishonest ones. His master finds out about his mismanagement and tells him he’s going to fire him—but first he asks him to bring in the books or ledgers—to give an account for how well or how poorly he’s managed his master’s estate.
So the manager realizes he has a little bit of time to tie up loose ends and get the books in order. Before he has to meet with his boss… and get fired.
“What am I going to do?” he asks himself. “I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m too proud to beg.” The manager’s reputation will be ruined. He won’t be able to get another job. So he hatches a plan. While he still has possession of the books, he goes to his boss’s tenants and starts forgiving or drastically reducing the debts that they owe his boss. As the manager of the estate, he may have had the legal authority to do that—if not, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, since he figured he was getting fired. In one case he slashes a debt in half. In another, he reduces the debt by 20 percent. Either way, it’s a lot of money. Whether it’s jugs of olive oil or bushels of wheat, it’s as if the manager wrote each tenant a check for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars!
How would that make you feel if you were a tenant? Grateful. And wouldn’t you happily let the manager live with you if he needed a place to stay? Of course you would!
So that’s what the manager is counting on.
And the punchline is in verse 8, when the rich man finds out what his manager had done: It’s not that he enjoys being ripped off by his employee, but he can’t help but admire the man’s shrewdness! My point is, Jesus isn’t holding the shrewd manager up as a moral example to follow. But he is saying that there’s some things we can learn from him.
For example, we can emulate the shrewd manager’s generosity.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking: That’s not generosity! Because why? Because it wasn’t the manager’s money to begin with! The money didn’t belong to him. It belonged to his master! It was his master’s money!
To which I say, “Yes, that’s right! It wasn’t his money; it did belong to his master”—which illustrates the first and most important principle of financial stewardship for us disciples of Jesus Christ: The money that we have doesn’t belong to us. Your money isn’t yours.
If you read this story and think, “It’s easy to be generous with someone else’s money,” then explain why we Christians aren’t more generous with ours! Because our money isn’t ours! It belongs to God!
Listen: I’m sympathetic if this idea bothers you. Because you’re an American, after all—most of you. And we Americans have been taught all our lives that we need to be “self-made” men and women; that we need to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps; that we need to earn everything we have!
And I’m not saying that successful people don’t work hard for their success. Of course they do! But what do they use in order to work hard? Well, first, in order to work hard, we have to be alive, and who’s responsible for giving us life? In one sermon, pastor Tim Keller said that if you think you’re a self-made man or woman, ask yourself how successful you’d be if you were born on top of a Tibetan mountain in the 13th century! Not very successful, no matter how hard you worked!
The truth is, when we consider what we contribute to our success versus what God contributes, it’s not even close: We’re all deeply indebted to God. We’re all blessed by God beyond measure.
Think about it: Our heavenly Father has given us the gift of life and breath; the gift of time and health; the gift of this amazing world which supports our lives so well; the gift of this great nation; the gift of our mothers and fathers and family; the gift of teachers and coaches, doctors and nurses—people who’ve cared for us, looked out for us, and sacrificed for us in order to shape us into the people we are today.
He’s given us the gift of our talents and skills, which enable us to do meaningful work and create beautiful things. Yes, we must do something, but what we do is infinitesimally small compared to what God has done for us!
When the people of Israel were about to cross over the Jordan into the Promised Land, Moses warned them, “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth…”
The point is, our Father gives and gives and gives. And he asks us, in return, to also give. And in the Old Testament, God’s law said that God’s people, Israel, had to give a tithe, which means to give ten percent of their income. That’s a biblical standard of giving. Is that a law for us Christians? No, we’re no longer under the law; Christ has fulfilled the law for us—it’s as if Christ has given a tithe on our behalf.
But that hardly mean the law is bad or wrong: it just means that we now follow God’s law for a different reason—out of love and gratitude, not compulsion.
Besides, the evidence from the New Testament is that the tithe may not be enough for many of us! Remember the widow’s mite. Her two copper coins were all she had, Jesus said. More than a tithe. Remember the Rich Young Ruler from last week? Jesus asked him to give everything he had. More than a tithe. Remember Zacchaeus? He voluntarily gave half of his money and possessions. More than a tithe. Remember Acts chapter 4? Luke tells us that in the early church, “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” More than a tithe! I’m not saying that we’re supposed to do the exact same thing; only that there are many examples of New Testament Christians who are extraordinarily generous with their money—in ways that far exceed ten percent!
And as many of you hear me say this, you’re thinking, “Oh, I can’t afford to tithe!” At least I can only assume that many of you are thinking that, because the vast majority of you don’t give a full tithe!
But if you think you can’t tithe, I want you to consider this: Suppose that you had a child who would die unless he or she received some life-saving treatment that cost ten percent of your present income. Ten percent of whatever your take-home pay is. Ten percent is the difference between life and death. Would you be able to afford it?
Let’s face it, brothers and sisters: you would find that ten percent if it meant life or death for someone you love more than life itself. Right?
I hope none of us is ever in that situation, but in some ways the situation we face is even worse. Why? Because we all have neighbors, co-workers, friends, family members—children, parents—who may very well go to hell and be separated from God for eternity because they have not received God’s gift of eternal life in Christ. Hell is worse than merely dying… This is not me talking; this is Jesus. What does Jesus say? “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
What would you be willing to give in order to save people you love, not simply from dying—which the Bible warns isn’t the worst thing that can happen to us—but from facing God’s judgment, facing eternity, without the saving grace available through Christ. If it only cost you ten percent of your income to do that, wouldn’t you say that’s quite a bargain? Wouldn’t that be completely worth it?
If not, what’s wrong with you?
Do you remember that heartbreaking scene at the end of the movie Schindler’s List? When Oskar Schindler realizes too late that he could have have saved not merely 12 hundred Jews from the death camps, but hundreds or thousands more—if only he had worked harder and spent more money! If only he hadn’t been so selfish or self-centered! That’s what he says at the end of that movie. “I had the money and resources. I could have saved so many more lives!”
How are we not like him when we consider the money and resources God has given us?
Our Lord has put us here at Hampton United Methodist Church to do nothing less than save people from hell! Of course, he’s put us here to do more than that, but not less… Not less. I’m afraid we’ve been doing less for a long time—and I take my share of the blame for that—but I’ve repented. As long as I’m your pastor, our top priority will be to save people from hell. Or at least die trying!
That’s my vision for this church. You can find a more eloquent way of putting it, but that’s it… And I think this was the apostle Paul’s vision, too!
In Acts chapter 20, Paul is saying goodbye to the elders of the church at Ephesus, a church he started, a church where he lived and ministered for three years. And he says some interesting words: “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” I am innocent of the blood of all… Paul understands that one day he will stand before his Lord Jesus Christ in judgment, and will have to give an account for how well or how poorly, how faithfully or how unfaithfully, he was in proclaiming the gospel to the people God sent his way. In other words, “If the people of Ephesus die without being in a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ,” he says, “it won’t be because I didn’t warn them about the consequences; it won’t be because I didn’t offer them Jesus Christ; it won’t be because I didn’t make clear what they needed to do in order to be saved.” In other words, Paul says, his conscience is clear because he’s done all he can do to save the people of this city.
I want to be able to say, “My conscience is clear. I’ve done all I can do—all the Lord has appointed for me to do—to save the people of this city.” Don’t you want to be able say that, too?
If so, I’m asking you to buy into this vision with me. People all around us are dying without the soul-saving, eternal-life giving medicine of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Will you join with me in offering it to Hampton, Georgia, and the surrounding area? Will you join me?
Because if you will, well… don’t you know that most of this trivial nonsense that Satan uses to divide our church—to make us fight with one another, and gossip about one another, and judge one another, and feel superior to to one another—most of this nonsense would disappear instantly if we were united by this common vision—because we wouldn’t have time for nonsense. We’d be too busy saving people’s souls!
Will you join me? Will you buy into this vision?
Because if you will, you have to know that it’s not free. I’m asking you to start with ten percent. Please know that in asking for that, I’m not asking you for anything that I myself am not also doing.
But if you won’t give ten percent, hear this warning from our Lord: “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
Jesus doesn’t say, “You shouldn’t serve God and money.” Or “It’s not a good idea for you to serve God and money.” Or “You’d be a better Christian if you didn’t serve God and money.” He’s saying you can’t serve God and money. It’s impossible to serve both God and money.
So which will it be? The Rich Young Ruler walked away from salvation in last week’s scripture because he was unwilling to stop serving money.
What about you? Who are you serving? Who’s your master?
Because if money is your master, you can be sure that he’ll tell you—maybe he’s telling you right now—that you don’t have enough money to tithe. That you’ve got bills to worry about, and mortgages to worry about, and car payments to worry about, and Christmas season to worry about, and college tuition to worry about, and medical bills to worry about, and the economy to worry about, and retirement to worry about, and… well, it’s always something.
If money is your master, you’ve got to admit he doesn’t give you much in return for your faithfulness to him except a lot of worry!
You know there’s a better way… And this morning I’m asking you to repent.