✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
Back in my seminary days, I took a class on the Gospel of Luke. Each of us pastors-to-be were assigned a passage from Luke that would show up in the Sunday readings; we were to make a presentation on it so that we could help each other prepare to preach on these texts. I was assigned today’s Gospel reading, the parable of the unjust steward. I really struggled to fully understand what this passage was trying to say, and so I remember beginning my presentation by saying to my fellow seminarians, “When the Sunday comes when this is the Gospel reading, it might be a good idea to preach on the Old Testament reading or the Epistle.” I don’t think my presentation that day was particularly helpful to anyone. Today I’ll try to make up for that a bit.
The reason this Gospel reading is hard to understand at first is because the one Jesus praises and holds up as an example is a man who mismanaged his master’s goods, and then he cheated the master out of what the people owed him so that they would treat him favorably and give him room and board after he’s fired. What is Jesus’ point?
We should begin by asking whom does the steward represent? First of all, he represents us according to our old Adam, who have been poor stewards of the goods of the Master, the things the Lord has entrusted to us. Have we always used the money and talents and possessions that we’ve received from God to serve our neighbor and to help build up the Church and the ministry of the Gospel? And when we have done that (because we know it’s the right thing to do), has there still been a struggle against the flesh which wants to use our resources for other things? ($100 seems a lot bigger in the offering plate than it does at state fair, doesn't it.) Or in our stewardship as parents and grandparents, have we encouraged our children’s devotion more to sports and extracurricular activities or their devotion to the Word of God, pleasing their peers or pleasing the Lord? Are we more concerned about their making a good living or having eternal life? And when we’re faced with a situation in life where following God’s Word means taking a financial hit, do we justify not following God’s Word? The truth is, if we were called before the Lord to give an account of our stewardship, to lay out not only our bank statements but also the dreams and desires and motivations of our hearts, there also would be cause for us to be dismissed from our stewardship.
However, I would suggest that in a deeper sense, the steward in the parable actually represents Christ Himself, the eternal One who is the manager of the heavenly Father’s goods. For remember what occurred right before today’s Gospel. Jesus had just finished telling the story of the prodigal son; He had just been accused of wasting His time and efforts on tax collectors and sinners, throwing away His “goods,” mercy and forgiveness, the Father’s goods, on people such as that. And now He tells a parable about a steward who was supposedly mismanaging goods. Do you see? He’s talking about Himself and the way things are in the kingdom of God.
For what does the steward do? He goes around to everyone forgiving debt! To the one who owes 100 measures of oil, his bill is reduced to 50. And to the one who owes 100 measures of wheat, his bill is reduced to 80. The steward desires to be received by them, and the way that happens is by forgiveness, by debts being cut and taken away.
This is the way of Jesus. He comes to us as one who “mismanages” the Father’s goods, throwing away God’s mercy and forgiveness on us. It doesn’t matter to Jesus that He’s accused of giving away God’s grace too cheaply. After all, His grace is not cheap, it’s free, since He purchased it for us at the greatest cost of His own blood! Jesus’ mission was to bear every accusation, to take all that we are justly accused of and make full payment for our debts. Jesus made eternal friends of us, not by hoarding things for Himself, but by living as one with no home of his own, no place to lay his head. The material things of this world He used entirely in the service of others, having nothing but literally the clothes on His back. He became poor so that we might know and receive the riches of His mercy. He even gave away His own body into death, that through His atoning and all-sufficient sacrifice we might be cleansed from all unrighteousness.
Jesus the Steward desires to be received by us, into our homes and into our hearts. That doesn’t happen by some decision or commitment that we make; it comes by the forgiveness and the release from the debt of sin that He freely gives. Jesus has done much more than cut your bill by 20% or even 50%. He’s taken care of it all. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” All of it. You are debt-free toward God in Christ. Repent and believe that Gospel.
Which brings us to one more important point about the steward in the parable–his faith. Jesus praised him not only because he was shrewd, but also because he trusted in his master’s mercy. That’s the key. He believed that the same master who didn’t have him thrown into prison for wasting his possessions (when he could have) would also be merciful to him by honoring the debts he reduced (which the master didn’t have to). The steward knew what sort of a gracious and good master he had, and that’s where he put his hope. He believed his master to be a man of generosity and forgiveness, and he staked his salvation and his future on that. So it’s not just the steward’s shrewdness, but it is the faith in the master’s mercy that is praised here.
So also, you are called to trust that the Father is a God of mercy who will forgive your debts through Christ, that you may be received into an everlasting home. We stake our salvation and our future on the generosity and forgiveness of our God. It is that faith God desires and praises. We believe that God the Father will be merciful to us for the sake of Jesus–just as Jesus relied on His Father’s mercy and trusted in Him even on the cross. Jesus believed that the Father would honor His death in our place to cover what we owed and that He would raise Him up on the third day.
And now Jesus has ordained stewards to stand in His place, to distribute the eternal blessings He has won by His death and resurrection. Jesus commends His stewards when they “squander” His possessions in the ministry of the Holy Gospel and cancel the debts you owe Him. That is the job of a pastor–to be a steward of the mysteries of God (1 Corinthians 4:5), to the take the Master’s goods and give them away. Whenever you hear the Gospel and the absolution, it’s as if I am asking you, “What does your bill say? What impossible debt do you owe because of your sin? Sit down, take your bill, and write 0, paid in full.” You are all squared up with God in Christ–and then some.
Living in that faith, you are freed to be shrewd like the steward in the parable, not using mammon only to make friends in this life, but putting unrighteous mammon to use to make eternal friends in the fellowship of the Gospel, supporting the mission of the church in your offerings and in your estate planning, investing in the things that will last into eternity, using the things of this life with an eye toward the life of the world to come, desiring to be received by your fellow saints into the everlasting home prepared for you by Christ.
Here in divine service, unrighteous mammon, ordinary stuff is put to a righteous use, as wood and stone and lights and microphones and cloth are put to use in proclaiming the redemption that is ours in Christ Jesus. And particularly in the Sacraments do we see this. Temporal water is combined with the Name of God in Baptism to become a sacred anointing and a cleansing from sin. Ordinary words become the vehicle for delivering to you the extraordinary absolution from the Lord. Common bread and wine are consecrated to be the holy, eternal body and blood of Christ, given and shed for your forgiveness. Especially here in this place, the things of this world are sanctified by the Lord’s Word, so that sinners are made to be saints, fallen people are made to be the very body of Christ. Here the Lord’s people make friends in Him, those with whom you will be received into an everlasting home.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠