Just above the imposing front doors of Highclere Castle in southern England is a saying etched in stone. The same saying appears over every first-floor window and in multiple places inside the massive building: “Unc jai serviray.” The tour guide informed me that the language is old Norman French. The saying is the family motto of the Earls of Carnarvon, who have resided at Highclere for centuries. It means, “Only one will I serve.” They could not live a day in that house without being reminded of it. But that raised a question for me. Who is the “one” they serve? I asked the tour guide if it was God or the King. She said it depends, both on the present monarch and on the present Earl.
“Only one will I serve.” Unless you are preaching in the United Kingdom, few of your hearers are likely to be tempted to serve the Queen above God. But other masters compete for your hearers’ fealty, including the one Jesus brings up in the Gospel reading for this Sunday.
This is not the first time Jesus speaks about wealth in Luke’s Gospel (cross-reference 6:20, 9:25, and 12:33-34), but it is probably the most challenging thing He says about the topic. The task here is twofold. First, there is the challenge of understanding what this parable means. Commentators have stretched themselves beyond reasonable explanations to offer only unsatisfying interpretations. The fact is Jesus says some things in this parable which do not seem to fit with the rest of His teaching. Commentators cannot even agree on where the parable ends, and Jesus’ instruction begins. This is why some suggest passing on the Gospel reading and preaching on another text this week. You could do that too. But you are reading this reflection, which suggests you are at least considering this challenging text for your sermon. That is a good instinct, for the more difficult texts are often the ones we should address. I say that about this text because of the second challenge. Jesus does say something clear in this text, and it is a message many Christians today need to hear. It comes in verse 13: “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.”
That is a good instinct, for the more difficult texts are often the ones we should address.
Jesus spoke this parable and instruction to the disciples (16:1), but it is the reaction of the Pharisees which Luke records. He makes it clear they got the message. They were “fond of money,” as BDAG (Bauer–Danker–Arndt–Gingrich; the third edition of the Bauer-Danker Greek Lexicon) translates φιλάργυροι in 16:14. They responded with ridicule rather than repentance. This led Jesus to conclude His message about wealth with a final contrast specifically for them: “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (16:15).
If you decide to preach on this text, keep a few things in mind from the outset. First, you might consider changing the appointed Epistle reading. Rather than reading the counter-cultural verses from 1 Timothy 2 about women and men (which, if you read that text, you should probably preach on it), you could use one of the alternate Epistle readings offered for next Sunday. They both speak about money (1 Timothy 3:3 and 6:10). Either one could fit well with this text. Second, remember your hearers are not Pharisees. They are baptized and forgiven children of God. Be sure to speak to them as such. Third, it is also true that they are tempted to exalt things which fallen humans exalt. They are tempted to justify themselves and their service to things other than God. In this respect, they have something in common with the Pharisees in the text. They (like you and I) are fond of money, and we need to be called out for ways in which we serve the wrong master.
As you do so, you might use the saying etched above the front doors to Highclere Castle as an image. There are worse things we could carve above the doors to our own homes. After all, God commands we serve only Him. We serve Him with all we have and all we are, including the 90% of our income which does not go in the plates. What does it look like to serve God above money? Chose some local examples and encourage your hearers toward generous living under their generous Master.
This encouragement must be accompanied (and overshadowed) by the promise of our Master’s incredible generosity to us. Much more than a castle in southern England, God has promised us an eternal home in His heavenly mansion when Christ returns. This comes with the life and forgiveness we have in Christ who gave Himself generously, even to the point of death. The guarantee of this promise is His resurrection from the dead. We serve Him alone, for He alone is our generous Lord and Master.
Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Luke Luke 16:1-15.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 16:1-15.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 16:1-15.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Peter Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Luke 16:1-15.