Matthew 25:14-15, 19 29
I Thessalonians 5:1-10
Blaise Pascal was a French philosopher and mathematician and research scientist of the eighteenth century. Among many illustrious accomplishments, he is known for a particular argument in favor of belief in God. It has become known as “Pascal’s wager,” and it’s really quite simple. Consider the possibilities: Either there is a God to whom we are accountable in the next life for the way we conduct ourselves in this one, or there is not. If we do not believe in such a God, and there indeed turns out to be no such God, then we may be right, but what will it matter? If we do believe in God, and turn out to be wrong, then the most we might reproach ourselves for, in the moment of death, the moment before eternal annihilation, is that we have unnecessarily denied ourselves some of life’s material pleasures. If, on the other hand, we do believe in such a God, and there indeed turns out to be such a God, then we will have been right, and it will matter a great deal. But it’s the fourth logical possibility that is the zinger in Pascal’s wager: If we disbelieve in God, and it turns out that we were wrong, then there are enormously unpleasant consequences, and we will have eternity to regret the choice we have made. So it boils down to how much do you have to lose by being wrong?: If you bet in favor of God, and are wrong, you lose a few of life passing pleasures for a few years on this earth. If you bet against God, and are wrong, you lose a chance at everlasting joy and peace and fulfillment beyond imagination. Which risk does it make more sense to take?
Pascal’s wager, of course, isn’t entirely convincing, because many people still, by the way they live their lives, bet against the existence of a God who will one day judge them. But to those who are more mentally and emotionally mature, and are inclined to take a long view of things—a very long view, in this case—today’s readings from Holy Scripture offer some reinforcement and encouragement. The prophet Zephaniah, writing in the seventh century before Christ, speaks of the dreadful “day of the Lord,” when distress and anguish and darkness and gloom will descend upon the earth, and there will be no escape for those who are being justly punished for their unrighteous behavior. Zephaniah makes a point of observing that God cannot be bought or bribed—even those with great fortunes will not be able to purchase an exemption from divine wrath.
This notion, of course, is echoed in many other places. On the whole, the Bible has a very cautionary attitude toward wealth. Not only can it not buy God’s favor, it may be an actual hindrance to the reception of Grace. St Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians also speaks of the futility of relying on material resources as a buffer against the wrathful judgment of God:
When people say, ‘There will be peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape.
In other words, when the labor pains start, something is going to get born, and it will happen whether one is rich or poor. So, in the season when we expect to come to church and hear a sermon about money, I’m not going to disappoint you! I’m going to hold up the question, What do these passages say about the Christian’s relationship with his or her bank account? What are the biblical principles of asset management?
I would suggest to you that one of the things they tell us is that Christian stewardship is a good bet. It’s like Pascal’s wager written in lower case letters, applied to a specific situation. If there is no God, and we live this life as if our material and financial resources really do belong to us, then we’ll still die, and we still can’t take it with us, especially if there’s nowhere to go. If we do live as though everything indeed comes from and belongs to God, and there turns out to not be a God, then, sure, we may have given up the chance to be Donald Trump or Bill Gates, but they will have to face the Grim Reaper just like we do, and all their millions won’t matter in that moment. On the other hand, if there is a God, and we manage to live as though we realize that we are tenants and not landlords, we will be most blessed and fortunate. And if we bet the other way, and go through life exploiting somebody else’s money—and by that I mean to say God’s money—we will most miserable.
Which bet do you want? Which risk seems the more acceptable? It’s just a matter of taking the long view, and there’s nothing particularly spiritual about it. It’s the same impulse that leads hundreds of thousands of people to invest in new stock offerings even when the companies have never yet made one dime of profit. It’s taking a chance now for the sake of tremendous rewards in the future. When the Day of the Lord has come and gone, the tangible and in the intangible, the material and the spiritual, will have traded places. What is fleeting and ephemeral now will be hard currency then, and what is prudent and rock solid now will have turned to dust and ashes on that day.
Yet, how difficult it is to take Pascal’s wager, whether it applies to the existence of God in general or the advisability of practicing Christian stewardship in particular. Our human intuition does everything it can to convince us that stewardship is a folly, an unacceptable risk. Why give up expensive vacations, or drive a more modest car, or live in a smaller home, or eat more simply, just so we can make that ten percent tithe to the church? Why give without strings attached, when we could put conditions on our contributions and at least maintain some control over how it is spent? Stewardship may be good theology, tithing may be thoroughly biblical, but from a modern practical point of view, they seem quaint—noble and high-minded, perhaps, but foolish. Why prop up an institution like the Church, which, on its best days is inefficient, and on its worst days is corrupt, and which delivers only an intangible benefit, nothing that can be measured and reported?
So, in an attempt to minimize the unacceptable risk of real stewardship, in an attempt to maintain some control over what we still—knuckleheads that we are—think of as “our” money, we employ strategies like giving only what we’re “comfortable” with. There are many church members who, if they totaled up their expenditures at the end of the year, and compared their giving to the Lord with the tips they leave for servers at restaurants, would see very similar figures. What does it say about our attitude toward God, what does it say about our attitude toward the Church, the Body of his Son, when we, albeit unconsciously, think of him as someone deserving of a nice “tip?”
The attitude our Lord encourages us to have is not one of maintaining control, but letting go of control. This is represented for us in the familiar parable from Matthew’s gospel about the “talents.” A talent was originally a unit of currency, but, through this parable, which is a stewardship parable par excellence, it has come to mean anything in our possession which is purely a gift from God, unearned and unmerited. Three servants are entrusted with three different amounts of money while their master leaves town for a while. Two of them had the attitude of stewards, and realized that they would be expected to put those assets to active use, even if it meant taking a few risks. The third one, out of sheer laziness and fear, simply buried the money and figured his master would be happy just to receive it back intact when he returned. He was wrong, as the end of the story demonstrates. The servants who doubled their master’s money while he was away were rewarded, I think, as much for their willingness to take a risk as for the results they achieved. Stewardship is indeed a gamble. It involves engaging in risky behavior, behavior that may not seem prudent or wise by the standards of this world. But when you weigh the odds, and consider the consequences, it’s a risk worth taking.
Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen, place your bets. Amen.