One Thing's Needful (Trinity 09, 2009)

Todd A. Peperkorn, STM
Messiah Lutheran Church
Kenosha, Wisconsin
Trinity 9 (August 9, 2009)
Luke 16:1-13

For an audio MP3 of this sermon, CLICK HERE

TITLE: “One Thing’s Needful”

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.

At first glance, this is one of those texts that you wish you didn’t have to read. It kind of hurts your mind, and makes it hard to understand what Jesus is really getting at here. It would be simpler if Jesus would say “God loves you” and leave it at that. But Jesus knows you better than you know yourself, and so he uses parables, picture stories, to get inside your head and root around, turn everything upside down, so that he can put you back together in his image. It’s kind of uncomfortable at first, but like all things with God, when you look back on it, you will see that it was worth the doing.
This story is all about honor and shame, two concepts we’ve almost completely lost in America. It’s a warning to sinners, and it is a pointer to where true mercy may be found. Let me explain.

So let’s look at our cast of characters in this story. The steward, or manager, is corrupt. He landowner does not know he has a dishonest manager. Then you have the debtors, or renters, who are a part of the larger community.

The manager’s job is to collect the rent. All of the people in this story are well off, which we can tell by the amount of money changing hands. We’re not talking about second story apartments here, but vast sums of land, and a lot of money for the time. Now the way it worked in first century culture, the way the manager made his living was that the manager was paid a fee by each of the renters for arranging the contract, and he could expect to receive other monetary gifts from them throughout the year. The manager made his living directly from the renters, not from the landowner.

But according to our text, the manager/steward is wasting his master’s goods. We don’t know how. All we know is that he is not being a faithful steward or overseer of what the landowner put him in charge of. So the landowner tells him to go settle the books and give them back to him, for he’s getting fired. Notice here that the landowner does not believe the steward is dishonest; he is merely incompetent. He has no inkling that this steward would take advantage of him. The landowner assumes that the steward is an honorable man, even if he is a lousy manager.

The manager, however, is in a quandary. He won’t be able to find another job because he’s incompetent. He can’t do manual labor. It would be shameful to beg, and would bring shame on his family and everyone around him. What is he to do? He is in a crisis, and it is in this crisis that the manager uses his knowledge of the landowner to his advantage.

The manager decides to gamble. He is going to bank everything, his honor, indeed his very life on the character of the landowner. So the manager goes and rewrites all of the bills of the renters. He basically cuts their debt in half, so that they will be well disposed toward him, in the hopes that they will return the favor, perhaps even hiring him themselves. But he does this at great risk. He didn’t have the write to declare a fire sale on the landowners property. He was simply supposed to turn in the books. But instead he rewrites history so that he will look like he cares more about the renters than the landowners.

Now somebody cares about the landowner’s reputation, and alerts him to the problem. So now the landowner is in a quandary. He is under no legal obligation to honor these reduced rents. He fired the manager. He can have him thrown in jail. He probably could have even had him executed as a thief. He would simply have to tell all of his tenants that they had been deceived, as well as he. Now he can do this, or he can honor the reduced rents and in so doing “save” the reputation of the manager.

So what is the master to do? If he gives the guy what he deserves, he would be right but his own reputation as being merciful would disappear. If he shows mercy to the man, he’ll lose a hefty chunk of money but will retain his own reputation in the community, as well as the reputation of the steward and everyone else involved.

In the end, the master is merciful. He accepts the new bills, loses a lot of money, and pays a price so to speak for saving the manager. And it is at that point that the master/landowner praises the steward. He doesn’t praise the steward for being a sneaky liar. He praises the steward for knowing where to place his bets. He praises the steward for knowing that the master would be merciful no matter what. He praises the steward for recognizing that to the landowner, mercy and honor were far more important than money.

So let’s bring this little parable home. Our sins are not hidden. We have squandered what God has given us. If we were to stand before the judgment seat on our own merits, we would never make it. You can’t work for his favor. You can’t beg for it. You have no options.

But God is merciful. That is his chief characteristic, for it goes hand-in-hand with love. God is willing to pay the price for your squandering of His gifts. The price that He must pay for you is His own son’s life. And He does it. Even though you don’t deserve it, He saves you. He pays all your bills. He gives you everything and puts it all on His own Son, Jesus Christ.

This is good news, dear friends. Everything depends on the mercy of God. Don’t be afraid of your sins. Don’t be afraid that somehow God will not forgive. God has forgiven you in Jesus Christ. He demonstrates this to you by giving you His own body and blood in His Sacrament. This is proof-positive that God is merciful to you, and that He will stick with you, no matter what may come. Believe it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

One thought on “One Thing's Needful (Trinity 09, 2009)

  1. The story that Jesus tells is a strange one. After the manager learns that he is about to be put out of his job, he quickly sits down with his master’s debtors and cooks the books.

    In any earthly business, the rich man would have been even more upset with his manager. The manager was giving away the profit. But God isn’t mad at all. In fact, “the master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.”

    There is generosity, and then there is generosity. The rich man in today’s parable is generous beyond measure, and that is the point. God is more generous to us than we could possibly deserve, and He wants us to be the same way toward others.

    The surprise in today’s Gospel is that when you hold on to God’s gifts and keep them for yourself, you are actually wasting them. But when you give them away to other people, then you are managing God’s property correctly. God is generous. He wants you to give His gifts away. He wants you to distribute His profits.

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