18th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Luke 16:1-13 Sermon 
September 30, 2007

Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
171 “Our God To Whom We Turn”
385 “My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less”
370 “Just As I Am”
510 “Take My Life And Let It Be”


TEXT (vs. 10-13): “[Jesus said] Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own? No servant can serve two masters. 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 both God and Money.”

This morning, I’d like to share an experience with you that happened to me some years ago, and it’s an experience that I hope will teach you a valuable lesson.

I was at home one evening when my phone rang. On the other end was a person I could barely understand. Not only was the connection rather poor, but he spoke with a very thick accent that I couldn’t identify. He said that he was a missionary and that he had something to share with me. He then asked if I had a FAX machine available. At that time I did have one with a separate number, so I gave it to him. He said that he would send me a FAX explaining his situation.

When the FAX arrived, it was on official looking letterhead which bore the name of an African church body I had never heard of. I can’t tell you verbatim what the letter said, but I can give you the gist of it.

It seems that a rather wealthy African businessman had become a Christian late in life, and he had amassed a rather large estate in a foreign bank. He had since died, but there were problems settling the estate, especially the large sum of money he had bequeathed to this African mission. Because of various legal and tax issues, the mission couldn’t get the money directly. In order for them to receive anything from the estate, the money had to come from overseas.

He said he was writing to me because I was the pastor of a congregation, so he felt he could trust me. He wanted to do a wire transfer from the African bank in the Ivory Coast to my bank account in the United States, providing I would then send the money back to a different bank so they could access their funds. For my time and trouble, I could keep ten percent of the funds, and I needed to assure him that the money would be used for the work of the Lord. That ten percent would have netted us just over eight million dollars.

Of course I was suspicious. I tend to believe that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But then I got to thinking. The treasury of our small congregation wasn’t in very good shape. We wanted to expand, possibly with a building program and starting a school. Even though eight million dollars was only ten percent of the stated amount of the inheritance, it still would have put us way ahead of where we needed to be.

So I decided to check it out. I FAXed this man back, asking him to explain the details and tell me exactly what he wanted and how I could help. When he replied, he said that all he needed was a deposit slip for my account so he could make the transfer. He also stated that I would not be out-of-pocket even one penny for this. And I could tell absolutely no one as to what was going on.

Naturally I was smart enough not to send him a deposit slip from my regular bank account. So what I did was to go to a bank with whom I had never done business. I opened a small savings account with thirty dollars. And just to be safe, I used a post office box for an address. I then received a few temporary deposit slips which had my account number on them, but no address. I then took one of those deposit slips and FAXed it to the man. I further reminded him that he promised me there would be no out-of-pocket expense with this, and if he asked me for any money, then I would know it was a hoax.

Several days later, I heard back from him. He had received my deposit slip, but there had been some complications. There was a thousand dollar service fee the bank was requiring in order to transfer the funds. Red lights were really going off in my mind now. So I wrote him back and reminded him of his original promise. I then suggested that they simply deduct the thousand dollars from the net amount; and if that wasn’t possible, then his group in Africa could front up the money—after all, they were going to be getting a very sizeable return. And I told him that I didn’t have the thousand dollars to give him, which was a very true statement.

He wrote back again, and told me that the thousand dollars was something I had to provide. Furthermore, I had to come to Africa with the thousand dollars in U.S. currency in order to complete the transaction. There was a little more that went on after that, but that’s basically where things ended.

It was later on that I learned some startling things about this dishonest scheme. Back then, I had never heard of bank account theft. What could a person do with a deposit slip? Deposit money in my account? They couldn’t take funds that way, right? But my suspicious nature told me to take precautions, so I opened that very small account.

I was told that they were indeed able to gain access to my account. And when they discovered I only had thirty dollars in it, they went to plan “B.” They asked me to bring it to them in person. Most likely what they would have done, would have been to meet me at the airport, take whatever money and valuables I had on me, and then dispose of me, never to be seen or heard from again.

This is an example of what has become internationally known as the “419 fraud scheme.” The number 419 is used because it is the section of the Nigerian penal code which covers fraud. Federal agents from the United States, Canada, Australia, and numerous European countries even have special task forces dealing with 419 scams. It is just that serious.

This isn’t anything new either. Scams like this have been going on since the 1920’s; but in the 1980’s they began to take on epidemic proportions. The situations explained in the letters will have various differences. The letters will come from different countries. But the end result is always the same. People will pay out big dollars with the hope of a huge cash reward at the end. After all, what’s a thousand dollars now if I will be getting eight million dollars in the end?

The situation is so bad that the Central Bank of Nigeria has even taken out huge ads in major newspapers warning people about this fraud scheme. They estimate that just in Nigeria alone, Americans are being bilked to the tune of about two billion dollars annually; and that’s billion with a “B.” This doesn’t even take into account the fraud schemes being operated out of different countries.

Why does this happen? Douglas Cruickshank, the editor of Salon People, credits the very careful construction and phrasing of these letters. Each and every word is meticulously chosen, even down to selectively using broken English to achieve the maximum effect. And the results of these letters have indeed been very effective. (Our internet readers can read the entirety of Mr. Cruickshank’s article here: http://archive.salon.com/people/feature/2001/08/07/419scams/print.html )

I have a better explanation. It’s called greed. It’s called the love of money. And it’s caused by the infection of sin in the entire human race.

Depending on what radio station you listen to, you might have heard blues artist George Thorogood and the Destroyers sing the song, “Who do you love?”, where he asks the same question I’m posing to you all today: “Now tell me, who do you love?” This is the very same question Jesus implies in our Gospel lesson for today.

Today’s Gospel relates a story of dishonesty and fraud. A rich man, presumably rich by less than honorable methods himself, discovers he has a manager who is himself dishonest. His employer discovers his dishonesty, and calls him on the carpet for it.

We don’t know the exact terms of his dishonesty. The Bible just tells us that he was wasting his boss’s possessions. He could have been stealing things, or padding his expenses, or falsifying his time, or doing any number of different things. The “how” doesn’t matter; it’s the fact that he was doing it.

So when the manager discovers that his employment is being terminated, he uses his dishonest tactics to make a few fast friends. He probably had the reputation of being somewhat of a tyrant himself; so when he goes and adjusts the accounts of his employer’s debtors to their benefit, people began to see him in a different light. He knew that when he was let go, he’d have a few people who would feel indebted to him, and therefore increase his employment opportunities.

In verses 8-9, Jesus says: “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves…”

Now tell me, who do you love? This is the world’s answer to things. So many things revolve around the love of money. Both the master and the manager were shrewd businessmen. The manager knew that his master’s debtors thought along the same lines that he did. They all loved money and wealth. So their regard for each other changed with the dollar signs and decimal points.

Now tell me, who do you love? For the Christian, the people Jesus calls “people of the light” in our Gospel, they have a completely different mindset. Money and greed and shrewdness and sinful conniving aren’t to be the object of their love. The Christian’s love is to be as Jesus describes in Matthew 6, 33: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” This is to be the Christians answer to that question, “Now tell me, who do you love?”

So if that dishonest manager would have gone to one of the debtors who were Christians and had their love priorities straight, they would have given a far different response. The person who loves God first would have said, “Hey this is not right; this is dishonest; it would be cheating for you to alter our accounts.”

Now tell me, who do you love? Our Gospel for today, Jesus says: “No servant can serve two masters. 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 both God and money.”

In a similar sense Paul writes these familiar words in his first letter to Timothy, chapter 6 verse 10: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

This morning, as we look into the inner reaches of our own hearts, I think we’d all discover that this love of money has controlled our lives to one degree or another at various times. We are all battling the temptation to allow our love of money to control us. Satan wants us to shift our loyalty away from God and place it instead in worldly wealth. Greed will cause people to do all sorts of unspeakable and sinful actions. And we need to examine ourselves and constantly be aware of this trap.

Now tell me, who do you love? God gives a very direct answer to this question about himself. In John 3:16-17 we read some very familiar words: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

Now that’s quite a priority of love, isn’t it? When we who love the wrong things come face-to-face with God, we are humbled. That’s when we look to Jesus in faith for forgiveness. For whatever we have wrongly loved in our lives, we can be thankful that Jesus continues to love us rightly and properly. We can be assured that we can come to him just as we are, and find the open arms of love and acceptance.
When the love of money has pierced us with many griefs, when we have been unfaithful with what we have been given, or when we have been less than honorable in dealing with others, God will still always love us first. Jesus is there waiting to accept us. He paid the price for our forgiveness and redemption through his holy and precious blood. And all this is ours through faith in him alone.

Back when I received that FAXed letter from Africa, I thought it might be an answer to prayer. I dreamed about how valuable that money would be to our ministry and mission. But part of me also thought about a substantial raise in salary, better benefits, a good home, and a nice car. I am, of course human after all. And so, with a somewhat divided loyalty, I decided to investigate it further, hoping that there was the chance it could be true.

In Romans 8:28 God tells us:  “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Even when my loyalty was divided, God’s love for me remained constant. He saw to it that I didn’t waste my money or go to the Ivory Coast in Africa where I most likely would have lost my life. He intervened and kept me safe and secure, and brought the plans of those who were trying to dishonestly scheme against me to an end.

That’s so often the way God works in our lives. We can look back in retrospect and see his hand of protection and blessing even when we have our priorities messed up. And when we ask him that question, “Now tell me, who do you love?” We see Jesus giving us the answer, “It’s you that I love, beyond anything and everything else.”