[Jesus] also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ 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?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.
“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? 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.”
The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed Him. And He said to 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” (Luke 16:1-15)
Fellow stewards of the mysteries of God.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Imagine someone who is concerned about losing his job, deciding to forgive the debts someone owed to someone else without the proper authority. Just wave your hand and take off $10,000 or $20,000 of a legal debt, so that later the debtor will think of you favorably. You’d end up in jail… or desperately seeking a new position. It just wouldn’t happen in real life. At least not until recently.
But Jesus had already foreseen such a scenario with His Parable of the Unrighteous Steward—a parable that has vexed preachers throughout the centuries. You’ve got this dishonest steward who is about to get canned for his mismanagement of his master’s funds. For some inexplicable reason, the master gives the steward advance warning that he is coming to get a strict accounting of his management of the master’s assets. The dishonest steward then decides to use this brief period before the day of reckoning to use the master’s funds to set up his own golden parachute by forgiving the master’s debtors. He’s not exactly a positive role model. Then, even more surprising, you’ve got the master commending his steward for his shrewdness, when he probably should be taking him to criminal or civil court. Then you have Jesus’ surprising application of this parable: “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9).
Not exactly the stuff of an easy children’s sermon or Sunday School lesson, but we’re professionals, right? So, let’s wade into the swamp.
Probably the best place to start is with the mercy of the master. He catches the steward in his mismanagement, but for some reason he doesn’t fire him. Must be a labor shortage in parable-land, too. The master doesn’t immediately call HR to the office to gather the man’s personal effects into a box and escort him out the front door. But he leaves him with access to his wealth. He gives the steward the opportunity to keep taking what belongs to the master to forgive the debts of others. It’s as if the master isn’t concerned that the steward will rob him blind. It’s as if the master has infinite wealth—that no matter how much the steward gets rid of, there will always be more.
Behold the grace of God. You and I are stewards of His mysteries, entrusted with the task of administering and distributing His means of grace. By Word and Sacrament, you forgive people their debts in the name of Christ. You tell them that, for Jesus’ sake, their debt is more than reduced; it’s paid in full. For the sake of Christ, they’re not just ex-debtors who are free to get on with their life. They’re now beloved children in the Master’s household.
That’s the stewardship entrusted to you. So, what kind of steward are you? There’s a reason clergy burnout and depression rates are so high. Look at your call document. It’s all Law, not Gospel, and the task before you never ends. It always accuses. It always points out your shortcomings. Are you seeing all your shut-ins regularly, on a timely basis? How about all those folks who haven’t been to worship for quite a while—are you visiting them? Applying church discipline? Do you spend time each day reading theological books and growing in your theological acumen? Are you a good steward of your time? How is your prayer and devotional life? Are you taking advantage of the opportunities to meet with your brothers in office and other church workers for support and mutual consolation? Are you visible in the community?
Now, if your life is anything like mine, the only things that get in the way of such pastoral responsibilities are parish ministry and family… and the terrible tyrants of limited time and energy. And what happens when you can’t get everything done that you need to—or don’t even get done all the things that you could have? That’s when the sinful thoughts come along too: anxiety, worry, impatience, anger. If you’re not careful, you start to see God’s people as the problem, if not the enemy.
All that makes you an unrighteous steward. All of it reflects sin and thanklessness and a preoccupation with oneself as the stewardship of the mysteries of God becomes a burdensome chore. It would certainly be within the Master’s right to say to you, “You’re fired! Get out, now!”
But the Master doesn’t fire you. Despite your unworthiness and unrighteous stewardship, He continues to entrust you with His means of grace. He still leaves you with access to His wealth. He’s not afraid that He’s going to run out of grace if you keep giving it out, because Christ has died for more sins than you and everybody else could possibly commit. He still has you handing out forgiveness and cancelling the debts of all who hear His Word and believe in Him.
And even though the people will not hear without a preacher, He doesn’t just do this for their sake. He does it for yours, so that you might make use of the treasure for your own salvation. In truth, God doesn’t need you. He’ll get His Word proclaimed and His people gathered in one way or another. If you and I stopped speaking, then the rocks will cry out. So, you needn’t go about your calling as a frantic rescue worker on whose efforts the Church stands or falls: at the end of the day, that’s arrogance—if not blasphemy. You’re not the Savior; you are an instrument of God, set free to tell His marvelous deeds, called to be faithful to His Word. He’ll do the work of saving.
The Master has more wealth in grace for you to receive and give out than you could ever use up. For your sins of neglect, anger, arrogance, bitterness, worry, and all the rest, Christ says, “Your debt is paid in full. You are forgiven. Go in peace.” And you know exactly where and how the Lord gives out this forgiveness to you and all: in Words and water, bread and wine.
Dear brothers, rejoice. Your redemption is different from your calling. When it comes to your vocation, Walther rightly notes that the Law is necessary as it tells us what we are to do and shows us where we fail. But your failures are covered by the grace of God, who chooses to use unworthy servants who at best of times have only done their duty. His treasure that you proclaim is for you, too, that you might be confident of His salvation. Rejoice! The Master says to you, “Remain in My household for Jesus’ sake, because you are forgiven for all your sins.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.