Jesus said to the disciples, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”Luke 16:13
Jesus concludes today’s gospel reading (Luke 16:1-13) with a six-word summary of it all:
“You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Simple enough, right? If we want to serve God, we cannot serve wealth. That’s what Jesus says. But if that is the case, why? Why can’t we serve God and wealth? There certainly are wealthy people who are very devoted to God. And poor people who are not. So it doesn’t have anything to do with how wealthy we are. Nor does Jesus suggest that it does. But he is very clear about the fact that we cannot serve both God and wealth. We cannot have two masters. We will end up either hating the one and loving the other, Jesus says, or being devoted to the one and despising the other. And so, we must choose: Serve God, or serve wealth.
Now, a general belief that I have about all of the rules in the Bible is that they are there for our good. They are there because God loves us. So today, let’s figure out why this particular law, that we cannot serve God and wealth, is good for us.
No Other Gods?
And to start figuring out why Jesus teaches us this, we really have to go back to the Ten Commandments. And particularly the first commandment (Deuteronomy 5:6-7):
“I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me,” says the Lord.
The good news is that our Creator wants to be our God, wants to be in relationship with us. But for this to work, we cannot have any other gods. There is only one true God, of course.
But back when this commandment was first given, it was quite common for people to worship and serve more than one god. It was a way of covering one’s bases, you might say, and making sure that you didn’t anger any of the gods by ignoring them. That all sounds kind of old-fashioned to our ears these days. Monotheism has won the day, you might say. People either believe in God these days, or they don’t. But I bet you don’t know very many people who believe in more than one god. So, does this first commandment even make sense anymore? “You shall have no other gods before me”?
But wait a moment, Martin Luther might say to us. A god, he tells us in his Large Catechism, is just a term for that to which we look for all good; it is whatever we might turn to when we are in need of refuge, protection, or comfort. We have a god, Luther reminds us, whenever we trust and believe in that thing with our whole heart.
We don’t have to call it “god,” in other words, for it to be a god to us. If we place our faith in it, if we look to it for all good, and find refuge in it when we are in need, then it is our god. And Luther would suggest that there are many of those in our day and age.
So, perhaps we are not quite as monotheistic as we might have thought. We just have to ask the question a little differently. Where do people turn to find happiness? Or to escape from their troubles? Or to find security, safety, and protection from danger? What do people place their trust in, these days, to get them through this thing called life?
Martin Luther teaches us that there is one of these at the very top of the list. And is the one Jesus is talking about in this gospel reading: wealth. That was true 500 years ago, and I think it is still true today. Of course, it was also true in Jesus’ time as well, which is why he teaches us in this gospel reading that we cannot serve God and wealth. Over and over again, Jesus identifies wealth as one of the chief temptations for us, one of the most common places we turn for refuge or security or happiness.
Why Are Other Gods So Tempting?
Before we get to why that is a bad idea, let’s think for a moment about why these other “gods” might be so tempting to us. Why is wealth tempting for us to serve? Why is worldly success so desirable to so many of us? Why is pleasure something that seems to compete for our time, talent and treasure? And one reason, it seems to me, is that these things seem to make us feel happy and secure. They give us a way to control our lives, and be in the driver’s seat on the road to happiness. We can see them, and in some cases touch them and taste them. And because of that, we have some control over them. A lot of what happens in our life is out of our control, you know? And it is nice to have some things that we can turn to that we really have some control over. These other gods are tempting to serve for just that reason.
Our God is many things, but certainly not something that we can control. To serve our God requires faith and trust. And it requires giving up control. And we struggle with that at times. So we are tempted to serve these other gods that are easier to control.
But there is another reason why these other gods are so tempting to serve, it seems to me. And that is that we have an enormous advertising industry doing everything it can to convince us to serve these other gods. Every advertisement, when you think about it, has one purpose: To convince us that we won’t be happy without their product. And we are bombarded with advertisements wherever we turn these days. It’s hard to avoid them, and it takes a lot of self-control not to get sucked in by them. So, we buy the new smart phone or tablet, because it seems like it will make our lives a little better. Or we buy that new car with all of those amazing safety features. But a year later, there is a newer, better phone. And a car with even more amazing features. And the advertisements never stop, no matter how much we buy. And no matter how much we buy, there is always one more thing that seems like it is what we need to be happy.
All Other Gods Disappoint In the End
And that is what Jesus is getting at, I think, when he talks about serving wealth. And why serving wealth is a bad idea. Because it rarely seems to serve us. It is always the other way around. We serve it, and the more we have, the more we must serve. If we choose wealth as our god, it is a very jealous god, indeed, and will eventually consume all of our time and attention and energy. We will never have enough of it; we will never be fully secure; and we will never sleep better because we are wealthier.
And not only that, but all of these things that we buy with our wealth eventually disappoint, don’t they? The new phone is hard to set up, and the screen that wasn’t supposed to break already has a crack in it. And the car is making a strange sound that the dealer will charge a pile of money to investigate.
There was an advertisement for a car a few years back that I have not forgotten, because it was so blatant in its claim. This car, said the ad, could save your soul. Really? Save my soul? And what happens when it breaks down? And what happens when I can’t afford the payments anymore? And what happens when I am too old to drive? And what happens when I die? Where will this car that could save my soul be then?
Whatever it is – a car, a phone, wealth, health, success, pleasure, boats, beaches, cabins, cruises – whatever it is, it cannot save our soul. None of these things are bad, necessarily. But they aren’t worth worshiping. Or serving. Because they will all eventually fail us. They will disappoint us in the end. All of these things will fade away. They are all temporary. Nothing apart from God is eternal.
The “Eternal Homes” in Jesus’ Parable
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells us a parable about a man who clearly serves wealth. The good news for him is that his master clearly serves wealth, too. So he gets away with squandering his master’s property when he figures out a clever way to serve the master they both hold in common: wealth.
But Jesus concludes this parable with a very interesting statement. He tells us in verse 9 that we should do the same thing if we want the friends we make with this wealth to welcome us into the “eternal homes.”
“Eternal homes”? How can wealth purchase those? And that’s the twist in this parable, I think. After Jesus tells us a story encouraging us to use our wealth wisely, he reminds us not to get too caught up in this. Use our wealth wisely, but don’t think that it will ever purchase our “eternal home.”
Eternal homes cannot be purchased or made with the wealth of this world. No matter how big the pyramid, how majestic the tomb, it will not bring us eternal life. No amount of wealth can buy eternal life. And as the old saying goes, there is a reason why we never see a U-Haul behind a hearse. We can’t take it with us. No matter how big our house, or how beautiful our car, we can’t take it to our eternal home. All the wealth in the world cannot build an eternal shack, never mind an eternal home.
There is only one eternal home that matters, and it is the home built by Jesus. The home “with many rooms,” as Jesus describes it; our heavenly home. And we can’t buy it or build it. We can only accept it as a gift from the only God that can give it to us. That is who we should be making friends with. That is who we should serve. And that is who we worship today. The God who created us and all that we see.
Serving anything apart from God is not going to get us anywhere in the end. In the end, there is only one God worth serving. It is the God who, because of our Lord Jesus, we are blessed to call our heavenly Father. And our heavenly Father, our God, is a faithful God; a loving God; a God who will not disappoint; a God who will not break down; a God who never needs to be updated or replaced; a God whose love is unconditional, never-ending, never-failing, and stronger than death itself.
And today, we are invited, once again, to place our ultimate faith and trust in this God, who is the one and only true God. Come and serve this God, no other, and find true rest for your souls. Now, and forevermore. Thanks be to God. Amen.