[Jesus] also said to His disciples: “There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and an accusation was brought to him that this man was wasting his goods.So he called him and said to him, “What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’ “Then the steward said within himself, ‘What shall I do? For my master is taking the stewardship away from me. I cannot dig; I am ashamed to beg.I have resolved what to do, that when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.’ “So he called every one of his master’s debtors to him, and said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’And he said, “A hundred measures of oil.’ So he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’Then he said to another, “And how much do you owe?’ So he said, “A hundred measures of wheat.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’So the master commended the unjust steward because he had dealt shrewdly. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light.
“And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home.He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much.Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?And if you have not been faithful in what is another man’s, who will give you what is your own?
“No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
(Luke 16:1–13 NKJV)
This parable has a surprise. If you’ve heard the parable before, you lose the surprise. But imagine you’re hearing it for the first time. There’s a manager who has been cooking the books. He’s been caught, and the CEO has told him to clean out his office. But instead, he quickly alters the records even more, so that the people who owe the company money get a big reduction. He’s hoping that the people he helps will in turn help him once he’s out on the street.
Now right at that moment, when the evil person has been exposed, many of Jesus’ parables will conclude with condemnation, something like, “It would be better for that man to have a millstone hung around his neck and cast into the depths of the sea”; or, “Bind him and cast him into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth”; or, “Assuredly I say to you, that man will be cast into prison and not get out until he has repaid the last penny.”
We expect to hear a pithy ending to the story that promises justice in the end. But instead, Jesus surprises us with a radically different kind of ending: the embezzling, wasteful, dishonest manager gets praised. So what’s going on?
First, we have to remember that many of the things Jesus says are absurd. The absurdity is where Jesus makes His point, that the kingdom of God doesn’t operate according to our expectations or rules. In the sayings of Jesus camels go through the eyes of needles, armies go to war over snubbed dinner invitations, and bridesmaids get locked out of wedding receptions.
Now I hope it’s obvious that Jesus doesn’t endorse cheating. So what is He teaching us with this absurd parable? Three things: First, you have a problem with money; second, you need to take action to prepare for your future; and third, God is lavishly generous.
You have a problem with money. Jesus doesn’t aim this parable at con-men and book-cookers. He aims it at you. You may say, “I’ve never embezzled money; and if the IRS audited me, they would find I’ve paid the taxes I owe.” But the parable isn’t really about cheating. It’s about the problem of having a life and a heart in the service of money.
Everything you have, God has given you. Even more, God has given you what you have for a purpose. He’s entrusted it to you, and this parable teaches us that we have to be faithful to that trust. “If you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?” Mammon means wealth, property, food, provisions; the ESV simply translates it as “money.” Jesus calls the mammon unrighteous not because it’s evil in itself, but because of the power it holds over us. And He concludes by telling us we can only have one master. “You cannot serve God and mammon.” “No servant can serve two masters.”
So what has mastery over you? St. John Chrysostom describes our problem with possessions:
There is a certain erroneous opinion inborn in mortal men that increases evil doing and lessens good. It is the belief that whatever comes into our possession in this life we possess it as master of it; and so when the chance arises we seize these things as ours by special right. The contrary is true. For we are not placed in this life as lords in our own houses, but as guests and strangers, brought hither whether we would or not, and at a time not of our choosing.
We grasp things as ours – and then when we give a gift we think it’s our gift; when in fact we’re just doing with God’s stuff what He instructed us to do.
There’s something incredibly freeing about being a steward and not the lord – and not just regarding the money. We might prefer to live in a different time and place; yet realizing that God has put you right where you are in just the situation you are in – then you can embrace your crosses as callings. You can say, quite truthfully, “God has put me here, in 2018, in this country, this church, this family, with these neighbors, with this work to do.”
When the unjust steward is called before the rich man, he’s told, “Give an account of your stewardship.” That’s the imperative that will be put to each one of us. “Give an account of your stewardship.” The Lord says, “I give you this money, this job, this spouse, these parents, these children. Be faithful there, and seek nothing else; do not worry about what some other person has; do not covet your neighbor’s house, or wife, or property. Be faithful just where I have put you.”
When Jesus is telling St. Peter about his eventual martyrdom, Peter points to St. John and says, “What about him?” And Jesus says, in short, “Don’t worry about him. That’s My affair. You, follow Me.”
And that’s what Jesus is saying to each one of us in today’s parable. “Don’t worry about the money not entrusted to you. In fact, don’t worry about money at all. I have promised to give you your daily bread. And I have told you that this very night your life may be demanded of you. What then will come of the money you have heaped up? Be faithful today, as a manager of My things, as a steward of what I have entrusted to you.”
The second thing for us to learn today is that we are called to take decisive action to prepare for the future. The corrupt embezzler in the parable is not praised because of his criminality, but because he saw his situation and acted.
In the teaching that follows the parable, Jesus tells His disciples to prepare for the time “when you fail,” i.e., when you die, when you are called to account. We do not know when that will be. What we know is that Jesus calls us to repent now. The Holy Spirit today says to you what He said to the Israelites: “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion” (Heb. 3:7f). You are called to repent “While it is called, ‘Today’” (Heb. 3:13).
This is not just to make sure you get it done before the deadline. How much of your life is being wasted by holding a grudge, refusing to forgive, ruminating on the raw deal you got, filled with lust, pride, sloth.
Our Lutheran Confessions say,
This is what true repentance means…. “You are all of no account, whether you are obvious sinners or saints in your own opinions. You have to become different from what you are now. You have to act differently than you are now acting….” Christ declares, “Repent and believe in the gospel.” That is, become different, act differently, and believe My promise. [SA III, III.3]
This parable comes on the heels of the Parable of the Lost Son, and they carry a similar message: “Go home. Now. The Father forgives. He is merciful. Do not delay.”
And that’s the final point to draw from today’s parable: God is lavishly generous. God’s character is mercy, love, generosity.
Isn’t it strange that the unjust steward is only getting fired? You’d expect him to be thrown into prison, humiliated. But he’s being treated gently. This tells us something about the rich man, that he’s merciful. And the steward knows this and uses it. How quickly the debtors accept a reduction of their payments, a hundred measures of oil is cut to fifty; a hundred measures of wheat is cut to eighty. The steward is banking on the rich man honoring these deals, even though they’re unauthorized. Again, because he’s generous.
And while I’ve presented the unjust steward as being a dishonest embezzler, the particular accusation against him was that he “wasted his goods.” He’s squandered what he had, just like the Prodigal Son. It’s almost like the unjust steward figures out at the last minute that the only way to be is to be like the rich man – to be generous, to be merciful, to forgive debts, to use what you have for the benefit of others instead of wasting it on yourself.
That’s who God is. He gives. He’s generous. He’s been generous with us Americans beyond measure. All of us, just to live in twenty-first century America, are wealthy in a way most people in the history of the world could not dream. But far more significant than our wealth is the treasure we have in Baptism. Today again we saw a child, little Katherine, become God’s own child, a princess in Yahweh’s royal court, a little sister of the Lord Jesus Himself.
God’s generosity is shown most when Jesus is called to account before an unjust judge. Jesus assumes our debt, and stands in the place of dishonest men. In the cross of Jesus debts are not reduced but cancelled entirely. He takes responsibility for your dishonest ledger and in its place inscribes your name in the Book of Life.
Has your repentance been half-hearted? Has your life been selfish? God is still patient with you. He forgives debts. Repent, and believe His promises. He is faithful, and He will keep them. +INJ+