The Unrighteous Steward (Trinity 09)

(This text is the perennial boxing championship of the one year lectionary.  I fight this text every year.  Here was this year’s round.)

Todd A. Peperkorn, STM
Messiah Lutheran Church
Kenosha, Wisconsin
Trinity 9 (July 20, 2008)
Luke 16:1-13

For an audio MP3 of this sermon, CLICK HERE

TITLE: “What is the World to Me”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.  Our text for today is the Gospel lesson just read, the parable of the unrighteous servant.  We focus on the words of Jesus: And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.

“Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!”  (Isaiah 5:21 ESV)

In Judges we hear about how when the people of God rebelled and lost faith, that every man did that which was right in his own eyes (Judges 17:6; Judges 21:25).   King David, on the other hand, did what was right in the eyes of the Lord (1 Kings 14:8; 1 Kings 15:5).  Our parable this morning is a matter of perspective.  Jesus says that the “the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8 ESV).  What does it mean to look at such a convoluted and unusual parable from God’s perspective, and now from our own?  And what will it teach us about the mercy of God?

So let’s get at our text.  We have front page news here.  The CFO of a major company slashes the debts of his clients in the hopes of landing himself a job when his boss finds out he is wasteful.  Our text doesn’t say how he is wasteful.  It is, however, fair to presume that he’s not giving money to charity here.  He’s not doing what he’s supposed to be doing with the possessions that his boss gave him to take care of.  He’s wasteful.  He’s not reinvesting as he ought, or he’s spending money that he shouldn’t.

What’s a bright chief financial officer to do?  He can’t start at the bottom of the rung again, and he certainly could never apply for unemployment or something so distasteful as that.  In his pride, the manager comes up with a scheme.  What if I cook the books in such a way so that all of my bosses clients will see how much money I saved them?  Then, so he thought, they would be beholden to me and perhaps I won’t end up in the poor house.

Now this scheme would never work in America.  In our culture the owner would simply have the manager arrested and his insurance would probably cover any loss.  The worst that would happen would be speculation on the evening news.  So in order for us to understand the genius of the manager and the point of the parable, we have get into the mind of first century Judaism.

It works like this.  In Jesus’ day, their culture was much more closely defined by shame than we are anymore.  How you were viewed in the eyes of those around you was everything.  This wasn’t simply a matter of worrying about what other people thing.  They were a much more community or communal minded culture.  That mean they didn’t think individually quite like we do.  They had a much stronger sense of the group, of those around them, and how each person shaped and defined everyone around them, and how they in tern were shaped and defined by everyone around them.  When we think about questions of God’s Law, for example, we can and should be talking about what is true and right.  What does God want?  They thought that as well.  But they also asked the question of how their behavior would change the community.  Would it hurt the reputation and well being of those around them?  How would it change their family, their friends, their neighbors?  We have, sadly, lost a great deal of this sense of honor and shame in our culture.

Now this is what the shrewd manager is banking on in our parable.  He is banking on the fact that the master or owner would be perfectly justified in throwing him into prison, but that he can’t do it.  Why can’t he do it?  He can’t do it because it would shame him.  If the master throws him into prison, then he has to admit that the manager swindled him, and more importantly, now he has to go and demand higher prices from all of his clients.  This would ruin his reputation as a kind and benevolent master.  He would now be seen as stingy, vindictive, and cruel.

The manager banks everything on the reputation of the master.  He is willing to risk his well-being, prison, even his own life to insure that his future is secure.  Now this manager may have been dishonest, but he knew that the master was honest and honorable to a fault.  And to be fair, in the eyes of the manager, it was no risk at all.  He knew his boss.  His boss could no more turn him in than he could change his own skin.
This is our lesson on the parable of the unjust steward or the shrewd manager, but what’s the point?  Where is Jesus and the gospel in all of this?

It is first of all a great temptation to make this into a stewardship sermon.  The Law part would be pretty clear: Nothing that we own is really ours, so we must be wise in using what God has given us to His glory.  Even the use of hymns like our sermon hymn this morning (“What is the World to Me” LSB 730) might point to this interpretation.  This is true after a fashion, but that’s not finally the point of the parable.

The point of the parable is this: The mercy of God is everything, and everything else must be seen and understood in light of it.  Jesus, the very mercy of God in the flesh, does not simply lower your debt to a manageable amount: he cancels it.  The Father does not commend your understandable but altogether wrong headed ways of living your life.  He doesn’t commend them; He forgives them.  If a worldly master can understand and commend his wayward servant for acting in His own interest, how much more will our heavenly master not merely pat us on the back for being so sneaky, but will actually forgive us our sins?  But perhaps even more than this, because the mercy of God is truly everything, this means that you, dear sinner, can bank who whole life on His mercy.  You can live freely, knowing that you do not squander God’s gifts by giving to those in need; no, you actually are emulating Him.

Finally, because God’s mercy is everything for you, trust that you know God will feed you and clothe you with the very best of food and drink.  You don’t have to dig your own grave.  And although we are all beggars, as Luther’s put it, God does not require your begging.  You are sons and daughters of the king.  He has lifted you up to His heavenly banquet table, so that you need not be ashamed to stand in His presence at the Last Day.

Trust in the mercy of God.  His wisdom is beyond all understanding, and His mercy knows no bounds.  Believe it for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

2 thoughts on “The Unrighteous Steward (Trinity 09)

  1. I still think that this parable makes sense if we think of the steward as clever, and the rich man as amused. The steward is shrewd (Think “Oceans Eleven,” or “The Sting,”), and he cares about his earthly future enough to plan for it. So also should Christians plan for their heavenly future. It really is about stewardship, as Luke has much to say about the Christian life. The manager does not represent God in this parable, I think, but has the point of view of everyone of us. We admire the clever machinations of the steward. Why, as Christians, do we not give as much thought for our eternal future as pagans give thought for their earthly future?

  2. Pr. Pepercorn,

    I preached on this text for the 9th Sunday after Trinity, too. The title of the sermon is “Into the Everlasting Tabernacles”. Perhaps you will find the comparison/contrast interesting. It is available at brideofchristelc dot com.

    Peace in Christ Jesus,

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