[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” (Luke 16:1-13).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
It’s a simple story, but a problematic parable. A narrative that is easy to follow, but hard to accept. It’s about a day of reckoning and what a man will do to prepare for it. Let’s review it first and then look at it in greater detail.
A rich man received a bad report that his steward (manager) was wasting his possessions. He called the steward to bring back the account books. He could no longer be his steward. Not liking his other options, the ex-steward produced a plan. He summoned his lord’s debtors and cut their debts so that those people would be likely to receive him in their home when he was without a job.
That’s when we get to the perplexing part: The lord commends his dishonest steward for his shrewdness. And it seems Jesus agrees: “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” (Luke 16:8b-9).
What’s going on here? Is Jesus commending dishonesty? That’s how it appears if you’re focusing on the actions of the steward. But what if you consider the parable from the lord’s perspective? That’s really the purpose of all Jesus’ parables: To tell us what the Kingdom of God is like when the Lord is busy and active among His people. If one considers the parable from the lord’s perspective, then the focus of the parable is not on the dishonesty of the steward, but on the mercy of the lord. This assumes that the lord is an honorable man, which seems to be the pattern of the households of Jesus’ parables. The rich lord’s mercy to the steward who squandered the lord’s estate is like the father’s mercy to the prodigal who squandered the father’s inheritance (Luke 15:13). The purpose of the parable, then, is to reveal the lord’s mercy.
The lord is an honorable man who shows his integrity and his concern for his estate. The steward is most likely a salaried estate agent. The debtors in the parable probably rent from the lord to grow crops, and the debt is a pre-determined portion of the harvest, whether it be olive oil or wheat. When the report about wastefulness comes, the lord tells the steward he is fired, but he does not throw him into jail or punish him in any way. This would have been the lord’s right, but he is a merciful man. It is this mercy that the steward banks on in deciding upon the solution to the problem of his day of reckoning. When one chooses to focus on the mercy of the lord, the question of the dishonesty of the steward in squandering the lord’s possessions becomes a moot point. It also lessens the significance of the exact arrangements the steward makes with the lord’s debtors.
With this understanding of the context, the actions of the steward and the response of the lord are plausible. When the steward hears of his firing, he does not protest but deliberates over his future. (This is prudence.) His first reaction is to approach the crisis from a human point of view. What can he do, humanly speaking, to extricate himself from this mess he has caused? He is so overwhelmed that he even contemplates two alternatives (digging or begging) that are, in reality, impossibilities. Like the prodigal son who desired to eat pig food, the unrighteous steward has hit the bottom and realizes that he can do nothing for himself. Humanly speaking, there is no escape from his day of reckoning.
The steward’s great insight is to see that the solution must come from outside himself. His entire plan is based on his assumption that the lord is an honorable man who will respond in mercy, as he has in the past. The steward trusts that the lord will allow a brief span of time, an opportunity to prepare for the imminent reckoning and reversal.
The significance of the seemingly innocuous adverb “quickly” cannot be overemphasized. That the steward must act in haste so the lord’s debtors will think that the adjustments in the accounts stem from the lord’s mercy and not the steward’s rewriting of their bills indicates that they believe this comes from the lord’s hand, perhaps under the gentle persuasion of the wise steward who is looking out for the renters. The community is dependent on the “generous and merciful” lord and has come to expect this sort of mercy from him, and the steward benefits in that he is an extension of the lord.
When the lord discovers what the steward has done, he is in a bind with two options. He can reverse the steward’s adjustments of the accounts, but in doing so, he will receive wrath from his renters and force them to reassess whether he really is a “generous and merciful” lord. If he lets the adjustments stand, he has further secured their goodwill. That, then, is the obvious choice for the lord. He must commend the steward for shrewdly managing his personal crisis since he trusted the character of his lord and staked everything on the lord’s mercy.
It’s a simple story, but a problematic parable. A narrative that is easy to follow, but hard to accept. This obviously isn’t a message about how to succeed in business, profit-making, or business management. This is a parable about mercy.
The English translations call the steward “dishonest” or “unjust.” The Greek says, “unrighteous,” which tips us off that this is a lesson about sin and forgiveness. Your Lord has created you and all creatures. He has given you your body and soul, eyes, ears and all your members, your reason and all your senses and still preserves them. That makes you the steward to whom the Lord has entrusted His “business” of loving Him and your neighbor.
You know what comes next: all that you are and do is, by nature, tainted with sin, and none of you and what you do is righteous before God. Your Lord gives you possessions with which to serve others, and instead you want more for yourself. The Lord gives you a mouth to sing His praise, but you use it for gossip, deceit, or malice. The Lord gives you health and fitness, and you’re tempted to vanity. You’re the unrighteous steward, wasting the things your Lord has entrusted to you. So, the Lord declares that the day of reckoning is coming when you must give answer for your stewardship. It’s only fair. It’s only just.
But your Lord isn’t just just; He’s also merciful, and here’s the part of the story that doesn’t get mentioned in the parable. The Lord has sent His Son to be your Savior. From conception on and throughout His life, He kept God’s Law perfectly, fulfilling every requirement without sin. He loved His Father above all things and His neighbor as Himself. Jesus was the perfect steward. And then what? He was crucified in your place. He was made to be sin for you, to suffer the judgment for your sin. In other words, Jesus was the unrighteous steward of the world. Good Friday was the day of reckoning where the Lord condemned His Son for the sin of all His stewards.
Christ is risen from the dead! And risen, He continues to be of service to you. In fact, since you are now His people by His grace, He entrusts you with His most precious treasures. He entrusts to His Church the means of grace by which sins are forgiven, salvation is bestowed, and disciples are made. He gives them to you, personally, that you might have life in His name. He has placed His name upon you in Holy Baptism, giving you a home in His eternal dwellings. He continues to speak His forgiving Word of Holy Absolution to you, to cleanse you of your sin. He gives you His body and blood in Holy Communion, to strengthen and preserve you in the one true faith unto life everlasting. By these means, He strengthens your faith and sets you free to serve with all that He has given you.
So, fellow forgiven stewards, how are you doing in your stewardship? Our Lord gives us a few statements against which to measure ourselves. He says, “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” (Luke 6:9). Wealth, money, is unrighteous because it had no forgiveness to give. It’s only for this world. Do you make use of what you have in service to others, particularly for the spread of the Gospel so that others might be friends in an everlasting dwelling of heaven for the sake of Jesus? Or do you find yourself hoarding it all for yourself?
The Lord says, “If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” (Luke 16:11). How well do you make use of true, everlasting riches? Do you begin each day remembering your Baptism, giving thanks to the Lord that you have already died the second death and have eternal life? Or do you regard it as outdated with little relevance now?
Do you eagerly hear the Absolution, knowing that it is only by the Lord’s forgiveness that you have the hope of salvation? Perhaps. Or perhaps you regard His grace as a safety net, as you decide which sins will be useful for you in the coming week. Or perhaps you think that you’ve heard enough of forgiveness to last a while, and no longer desire to hear of the Lord’s love for you.
Do you take the time to prepare for the Lord’s Supper, marveling that the Lord God of Sabaoth visits you, to serve you, to give you His very body and blood? Do you take seriously the truth that those who are unprepared will receive this Communion to their judgment, or do you set aside the Word of God for the sake of appearing more agreeable to the world?
Among us and all the world, there is no one righteous—not even one. We are far from faithful stewards of what our Lord entrusts to us. And sadly, we are probably more careful with gifts like unrighteous wealth than we are with the Word and Sacraments that bestow righteousness and life. Even now, as the baptized people of God, you and I are still unrighteous stewards who waste what our Lord commends to our use. The day of reckoning is still deserved.
But once again, look how our merciful Lord treats us. Although we often take His means of grace for granted and treat them shabbily, He does not relieve us of our stewardship. From now until the Last Day of reckoning, He keeps us His stewards. He wills that we continue to make use of His means of grace, that through them He might forgive us for the sake of Jesus. Furthermore, He wills that we use them to erase the debt of others. As we encounter sinners who are burdened with a load of killing sin, we do not tell them to erase half the debt and go from there. No, we proclaim to them the Word. We tell them that Christ has died for all their sins—not half, not most, but all. We give our Lord’s grace out to all who will receive it. Does our Lord grow angry that we give out His grace so freely? Not at all! He commends this as the mission of the Church. “Freely you have received;” He declares, “freely give” (Matthew 10:8).
How abundant and excessive is the Lord’s mercy for you! Because His Law demanded a level of righteousness you could not muster, He became flesh, gave the accounting, and suffered the judgment for your sin. So that you might be forgiven, He continues to pour out His grace upon you by His Word and Sacrament, proclaiming you righteous for His sake—by His work, not your own.
His work, not your own. I mentioned a while back that, while this parable is about the lord and his mercy, there is one thing for us to learn from the steward. Here it is: the steward’s entire scheme depended on his lord’s mercy. If the lord were not merciful, he would have the steward thrown out right away, imprisoned, or killed for using his goods to his own advantage. But the steward used the Lord’s things to make friends, trusting that that lord would commend, not punish, him. By the grace of God, we trust in the Lord’s mercy. We confess our sin and unrighteousness to Him, trusting that He who gave His own life to redeem us will continue to save us now. And so, He does. Your Lord commends you today with these words, “You are saved by My mercy this day, because Christ has accounted for your sin at the cross. So, I declare you righteous 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.