Text: Luke 16:1-9 (10-13)
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.Luke 16:8-9, English Standard Version
The words of our Lord and our text for today. These are some of the most vexing words of Jesus that we hear in the Gospel; or, at least of those words we hear regularly on Sundays. When students are studying the parables in their sermon classes at seminary, they’re offered the opportunity to pick which parable they’d like to preach on. If a student should pick today’s, and preach it well, they get an automatic A in the course. Nobody picks this one. I certainly didn’t.
As we learned last week, one benefit of the lectionary is that it forces us to sometimes go outside of our comfort zone. Not everything that our Lord says is easy. The problem isn’t with what He says, but with us, who hear it. Today’s text is difficult not just because the story is somewhat strange, but also because of what it’s about – stuff, things, worldly possessions, and how to use them. None of us like to be told how to do things, or what we should do with what (we think) belongs to us. Yet, that’s what Jesus does today. The truth is, the things we have aren’t really ours, they’re God’s; we’re only the managers. Therefore, Jesus encourages us to use our worldly possessions in God-pleasing ways while also promising to forgive us when we do fail.
The first thing to do when interpreting a Biblical text is to look at the context. We must look at the verses surrounding a passage so that we learn the setting: who these words were spoken by and to whom, when, and, perhaps, for what purpose. If we do that with our text today, we find that, as the Gospel started, Jesus is speaking to the disciples. (v. 1) But, there’s a little more going on. The parable today follows in the same conversation Jesus has been having for a couple chapters. This parable follows right after the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son. Jesus told those because the Pharisees and scribes grumbled that our Lord receives and eats with “tax collectors and sinners.” (Lk. 15:2) Evidently, Jesus quieted them down for a bit, but they’re still in the background listening in as Jesus taught the disciples today’s parable. St. Luke tells us that, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things.” (16:14) The parable today might be as much for their benefit as the disciples’ and ours.
Our Lord starts the parable by saying, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions.” (v. 1) This much, we understand. A rich landowner assigns management of his property to a manager and the manager squanders it. In the Greek, the manager does the same thing the prodigal son did with all his inheritance; he wasted in reckless living. The rich man receives word of this and demands an accounting from the manager. Now, this is where the manager thinks quickly. He said to himself that he’s not strong enough to dig, and he’d be ashamed to beg; then he figured out what to do. Jesus said, “Summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ [The debtor] said, ‘a hundred measures of oil.’ [The manager] said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’” (vv. 5-6) This went on all with the other debtors, as well.
Now comes a confusing part, “The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.” The master didn’t praise him in the sense that the manager’s dishonesty should be replicated, but that the manager’s singular focus on achieving his goal with what was available to him was commendable. The manager’s goal was to continue in his life of comfort, and he used his means to make that happen. Though dishonest, he still understood how to use earthly possessions, to make friends for himself. That gets us nearer, perhaps, to what we should take away from the text today.
In the parable, the master represents God. A few weeks back, we heard the Feeding of the 4,000 and I had us speak together the First Article of the Creed. We confess that God the Father Almighty is the maker of heaven and earth. Everything that exists came into existence out of nothing by His work alone. Because He made everything, everything belongs to Him. The Holy Spirit teaches this, for example, in Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for He has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.” (vv. 1-2) All things belong to our God because He created them. We belong to God because He created us. Yet, as we learn from Genesis, our Lord does place parts of creation beneath our care. God cares for us and we care for others through what God gives us. In other words, we are managers of what God creates and gives.
God blesses us by giving us everything that we have. All of our stuff, our things, our earthly possessions belong to God, but He gives them to us so that we might use them in faithful ways. We use our possessions faithfully, first, when we use them to God’s glory. This happens when we give of what is ours to support the work of the Church, whether financially or though our time and talents. When we give to beautify the sanctuary and enhance the worship happening there, that is really to God’s glory. When we give to support the spread of the Gospel, that is a faithful use of our possessions. We are only managers of what God gives, and we should use what He does place into our hands for His glory.
We should also use what God gives for the help and support of those whom He places in our lives. Fathers, you are called by God to support your wives and children, and the possessions you have are to be used toward that end. Likewise, mothers. Since we all live in the world, we also have neighbors, many who are in need. When we have the means and the opportunity to do so within our vocation, we should do good to all with what God gives us. In the third place, we may use what God gives us on ourselves. We aren’t called to impoverish ourselves. We are free to enjoy God’s good creation and the blessings He gives, to have hobbies and interests; but we should devote ourselves to those things only after caring for those whom God has placed in our lives and supporting the work and worship of His Church.
The master in the parable praised the manager for his devotion to his goal. He had priorities, he stuck to them, and he used his means to achieve his goal. Do we? We are Christians. We have been called to faith by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Word and the washing of Holy Baptism. Through these things we have received the forgiveness of our sins and entrance into eternal life. We know (and are reminded today) that what we have comes from God and should be used for His glory and the support of our neighbor. Only after that should we dote on ourselves. But, is that how we always order things in our lives? Do we not, more often, reverse them? We spend our time and money on ourselves, and then on our families. Then, in only a distant third place, do we give to God. To be sure, there are times where, by the working of the Spirit, we are faithful with what God gives us. But, we shouldn’t pat ourselves, because we all feel in our hearts the temptation to act otherwise. And we have, repeatedly, and sometimes, for years. We’ve placed our wants first, God’s last.
There’s one aspect in this parable that often gets overlooked, though, and that is the reaction of the master, the rich man. When he found out what the manager was doing, he didn’t punish him. He fired him; but he didn’t throw him in jail – which would have been well within his rights. Instead, he was merciful. Remember what we said, the rich man in the parable stands for God. God, likewise, places us as managers over what belongs to Him. And, He also sees how we often mismanage what He gives, and we sin by doing so. God sees our mismanagement, and you know what He does? He forgives. He has mercy on us. Instead of demanding an accounting from us for our evil deeds, He accepts Christ’s accounting on our behalf. Christ balanced the ledger by making the full payment for our sins, and it is counted to us by faith.
This parable’s a tricky one. I didn’t pick it to preach on in seminary, but we hear it together today. In this parable, Jesus teaches us that we are only managers of what is given to us. We should use our possessions to further our Master’s goals: that His glory would be proclaimed in all the earth, that our families and neighbors would be provided for, and – in third – on ourselves in thankfulness to God. We must confess that we don’t always keep those goals in the right order, and we sin. Like the master, however, our God is merciful. Let us pray this week that He would continue to grant us to think and do those things that are right with what, ultimately, belongs to Him.