15th Sunday after Pentecost
Today we come to a difficult Gospel reading. It’s one of those challenging readings that pastors like to assign to their vicars to preach. But somehow I dropped the ball on that. So here we are, with Jesus telling a parable about a dishonest manager, or sometimes called the “unfaithful steward”.
It’s a hard reading. And it’s not just because this is a passage about money. But that is a hard topic to cover in the church these days.
So many preachers seem to run the way of the law when they cover what the Bible teaches about money. And maybe that’s because the law works, at least outwardly. If you harp on giving and harangue people to get out their checkbooks – well, many people will do that. But we Lutherans want the gospel to be the driving force in all things – even in our giving. We want joyful givers, who give freely. So I don’t plan on guilt-ing you into putting more into the offering plate today.
Still, so many people are oversensitive at the mere mention of money in church, and easily offended. But we recognize that Jesus frequently addresses the topic, and so we really shouldn’t shy away from it – touchy subject that it may be.
Perhaps it is a touchy subject, in large part, because the truth hurts. It could be that we are more materialistic than we’d like to admit. It could be that when Jesus tells the Pharisees that no one can serve two masters - you cannot serve God and money - it could be that he’s hitting a little too close to home. For the conscience always squeals when the Law pokes its finger in there.
But to the extent that Jesus’ hard words about money apply to each of us this morning, and I suggest that is to a great extent - let us repent. Repent of our idolatry of the dollar. Repent of our putting things before God and our neighbor. Repent of our unrighteous use of wealth, our poor stewardship of his riches, and of exalting in our lives what is an abomination to God.
And find in Christ our true riches. There’s plenty of that in this parable, too, though it’s harder to see.
Just as it was in Jesus day, so it is with us today. The man in the parable – the dishonest manager – was worried about tomorrow. He knew he was getting fired, and he needed to make a living. Too weak to dig for money and too proud to beg for money, he hatches a plan to curry some favor, to make some friends, so that he can maybe get some help after his job is taken away. So he goes around quickly writing off a bunch of debts – giving out discounts on what is owed to the Master. Hopefully these people will remember me when I’m down on my luck. Hopefully I’m making some friends here.
I think the other reason this text is so difficult a passage (aside from the fact that it talks about money), is that it may seem on its surface that Jesus is commending dishonesty. Of course, he isn’t. We don’t read scripture in a vacuum, and we know from other places that thou shalt not steal. His point about the use of money is to use it shrewdly, wisely. Yes, but is there something more here?
Take a close look at the master in the story - the rich man. There are some clues here that something just isn’t right with this master. Sure, he’s about to fire the dishonest steward for his wasteful management. That’s not surprising. But even in doing so, he is merciful. He asks for an account, but he gives the man time - time the steward uses to set himself up for the future. The master asks for an account, but he never ends up demanding repayment (even from those who the steward gave a discount on their bill). And strangest of all, the master commends the dishonest steward at the end of the story - even though he’s been dishonest and wasted and given away the wealth of the master!
Who would act like such a master? Who would show such mercy, and forgive such malfeasance? Who would show such patience, and commend even the dishonest, the wicked, the one who had stolen from him? Our God and Father, that’s who. On account of his Son, Jesus Christ.
For in Jesus Christ, God does things even more outrageous and surprising and nonsensical - at least to the judgment of this world. The Father sends the Son, The Faithful Steward, if you will. He sends him, not to demand an accounting from us, who idolize things and money and fail to worship the true God as we should. The Father sends the Son, not to collect on our debt of sin which we surely owe, a debt deeper than we could hope to repay. The Father sends the Son, not to threaten us to shape up or else. No. He sends his own son that whoever believes in him would not perish, but have eternal life.
And Jesus, for his part, is just as surprising. He does the work that we don’t do, and can’t do - the fulfilling of the law. The righteousness of Christ is accounted to you. All the good he did and does - you get the credit. He’s not too weak to dig us out of our pit of sin and grave of death. He’s not too proud to beg God’s mercy on our behalf.
He, Jesus, dies the death we deserve, in our place, for our sake – and rewrites our account with God in our favor. He accomplishes his mission by paying the debts we owe - not with gold or silver, but with his holy precious blood, and his innocent suffering and death. He takes what you have - only debt - and writes you far more than a 10% discount. He gives you freely of his grace, all the riches of heaven. And a promise of eternity in his presence, in the bejeweled heavenly Jerusalem, with gates of pearl and streets of gold.
Does that sound like a lot to promise? Of course it is, but he who is faithful with little is faithful with much. And he who did not spare his own Son, but gave him for us all - how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
So, the upshot, the so-what: Jesus kind of chides us here – “I wish you, my people, were as wise with your wealth for righteous purposes as the children of this generation are shrewd in dealing with their own kind, for their own unrighteous purposes.” In other words, how much more, ought we, who know Christ’s love, use his gifts for good?
So what does it mean to use our unrighteous wealth shrewdly? What does it mean, sons of light, to deal shrewdly with our own, and make friends for ourselves with wealth so that when it fails, we are welcomed into eternal dwellings?
There are many good purposes for the money God calls you to manage and steward. Feeding your family, clothing your children, putting gas in the car. We pray that God would give us daily bread, and we receive it with thanksgiving. We are also called to share with those who have less, and to be generous and hospitable.
But the wisest use of unrighteous wealth by the sons of light means remembering what is most important of all – the kingdom of God, and the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And it means prioritizing the work of the Gospel as we manage the gifts he gives. For it is only by the Gospel that we can make friends for eternity – as others come to know our forgiving Master. So as we support this good work, and debts are forgiven in Christ – we can do so with joy – the same joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.
So maybe this parable isn’t so tough after all. Let it serve us a periodic reminder to repent of our love of money. Let it point us to Christ, for whose sake our debt of sin is forgiven. And may this story remind us to be good and wise stewards of his gifts – earthly and heavenly – and use them not for selfish gain but always in gratefulness and love for neighbor.