The Merciful Lord

The text for today is our Gospel, Luke 16:1-13, which has already been read.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

I’m on Facebook.  My wife says it’s a waste of time.  I think she’s worried that I might reveal too many details about our life to the whole world.  I justify my use of this media with the fact that I am able to keep up with friends and family members, many of whom I haven’t seen for years.  And because a great deal of my “friends” are fellow pastors, I also get a chance to sharpen my pastoral skills by engaging in theological discussions.

Last week I responded to a posting of an article from Christianity Today, entitled “What Makes a Good Bible Study?”  The author concludes: “Remember that the point of all Bible study should not be to simply impart knowledge.  It should produce change.”  Therefore, one should “look for a Bible study that digs into the meaning of the text but also provides a way to apply it.  We can study the Ten Commandments until we’ve completely dissected them, but if we don’t figure out how to obey them, that will be meaningless.”

Fuddy duddy Lutheran that I am, I disagreed.  I responded: “I need a Bible study that shows me Christ as He is revealed in all of Scripture.”  That, to me, is what makes a good Bible study.  It has to show me Christ.  It has to teach Law that shows me my sin, and it has to teach the Gospel, showing me how Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, who comes to save with His perfect life and atoning death.  That is the main purpose of all of Scripture.

Jesus told the Pharisees: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, and it is they that bear witness about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me that you may have life” (John 5:39). 

The Pharisees took God’s Word very seriously; they just misunderstood it.  They thought it could bring them eternal life, if only they could learn to keep it good enough.  And to an extent, they were right.  God’s Law can bring eternal life—if you keep it perfectly.  But there’s one big problem with that.  None of us can keep the Law perfectly.  So the Law ends up condemning us, killing us.    

This misapplication of Law and Gospel describes much of the teaching that you will hear today.  It’s all Law—“Law-lite,” if you will.  Do this and you will find your life’s purpose.  Do that and you will have a perfect marriage and well-behaved children.  Too often the Bible is used simply as a handbook for morality and virtue.  That’s dangerous!  For those who come to realize the futility of ever reaching perfection, it leads to hopelessness and despair.  For those who think they’re somehow pulling themselves up by their own spiritual bootstraps, it leads to false security and smug self-righteousness.  Both paths lead to hell.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the Bible does teach morality.  That’s what the Law is—the holy will of God, how to live a God-pleasing life.  But the primary purpose of God’s Word is not to make you a better person, but to save you.  St. John’s summary of his Gospel applies to all Scripture: “These things are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ and that by believing you might have life in His name.”  God’s Word is not about what you must do to be reconciled to God; it’s about what Christ has done to reconcile you and the world to God. 

Our text for today is a perfect example of what happens when you put the emphasis on the wrong thing.  It is often called “The Parable of the Unrighteous Steward,” but that misses the main point.  If you think this parable is about the steward, you’re going to get it all wrong.  After all, what sorts of lessons are there to learn from the steward?  If you slack off or waste your boss’s goods, don’t get caught?  If you do get caught, decide you’re too proud to beg, too weak to work?  Use your boss’s business to gain friends by losing more of your boss’s money?

Do any of these lessons sound like something you want to teach your child?  Are these three habits of highly effective people?  Hardly.  This guy is the reason that when someone gets fired, they hand him a box with his personal effects and the security guard escorts him straight out the door.  He’s the role model for the unrighteous sons of the world who know how to look out for themselves. 

No, if you think this parable is about the doings of an unrighteous steward, you’re in for a bumpy ride.  There’s one thing to learn from the steward.  There’s one thing that the steward does that all of us ought to do; but we’ll get to that later on.  Right now, let’s get to what the parable is really about: the steward’s lord.

The steward’s lord is a just man who runs a good business, and he employs the steward to look after things.  When he finds that the steward is wasting his goods, he tells him that he’s fired and the day of reckoning is coming for his abuses.  That only makes sense.  But here’s the part that doesn’t: the lord leaves the steward in charge of his business until that future day of reckoning.  Donald Trump certainly isn’t going to approve of this one. 

The steward makes the most of his time before the day of reckoning by taking the lord’s profits and giving them to others.  And then the lord commends the unrighteous steward for his shrewdness.  Kind of a strange story from our Lord, yes?  This obviously isn’t meant to teach a moral lesson.  Neither is it a real-deal message about how to succeed in business.  Nope.  This is a parable about mercy. 

To understand what the lord in the parable is doing, we need to first talk some about stewardship.  Relax, I’m not going to preach about increasing your offerings, although that could certainly be relevant.  Toward the end of our Gospel Jesus speaks of using money wisely for His kingdom.  No, I’m specifically talking about the man who is left in charge of his lord’s business affairs.  He is a steward.  Our text uses the word “manager.”  But a steward had a great deal more authority than a manager of a business.  He was like a regent, ruling on behalf of the king. 

This is important because the lord in the parable will and must honor the deals that the steward makes.  If the steward says, “Take your bill and write fifty,” then it’s fifty.  He has the authority, the power of attorney, if you will.  To renege on the new bill would be like the lord going back on his own word.

So far, so good.  The lord might do that simply out of honor or to uphold the law out of fear of punishment.  But here, the lord commends the steward for what he has done.  He praises him!  That’s the real surprise.  This lord wants to forgive debts.  He wants to give away his kingdom.  He was displeased before because the servant was wasting his possessions.  How so?  We’re not explicitly told, but we are given an important clue: The ESV calls this steward “dishonest.”  The Greek says “unrighteous,” which tips us off that this is a lesson about sin and forgiveness.

In our daily lives, possessions are wasted by spending them frivolously, by throwing good money after bad, by not paying attention.  But if giving away the lord’s possessions for free pleases the lord, then how were they wasted before?  By keeping them… by holding debtors to their debts… by trying to make a profit.

This is good news for you.  You have debts you can never repay.  If you had to deal with a just steward, you would be in a world of trouble.  No, when it comes to your debts before the Lord, you don’t want justice—you need mercy.  Justice demands repayment.  Justice demands punishment.  Mercy withholds punishment that is deserved.  Mercy cancels the debt that has legitimately accrued.

This parable should be shocking to your sensibilities.  Jesus means it to be.  Because your vanity is forever thinking God is like you.  But His ways are not your ways; His thoughts are much higher than your thoughts.  Your old Adam is small and petty, incapable of separating temptation from sin.  You can’t and don’t love your neighbor as yourself.  But you most assuredly love yourself, and from early childhood on, covet being treated fairly above all else.  That part of you notices this isn’t right, that you don’t deserve this. 

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 above all things and your neighbor as yourself.

You know what comes next: all that you are and do by nature is tainted by sin, and none of you or 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’ve put it to use for gossip, deceit, or malice.  The Lord gives you eyes to see the beauty of His creation, but you’ve used them to indulge your fleshly lust.  The Lord gives you ears to hear His Word, but you’ve let them be filled coarse words and crude jokes.  The Lord gives health and fitness and you’re tempted to vanity.  You are the unrighteous steward, wasting the things your Lord has entrusted to you.  So the Lord declares that the day of reckoning is coming.  It’s only fair.  It’s only just.

But the 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, Jesus went about His Father’s business.  He kept the Law perfectly, fulfilling every requirement without sin.  He loved His neighbor and served His Father in heaven.  In other words, Jesus was the perfect, righteous steward as He went about His Father’s business.  He showed mercy to the needy.  He proclaimed God’s Word. 

And then what?  He was crucified in your place.  He gave up His sinless body to death for you.  He shed His holy, precious blood for the remission of your sins.  He was made to be sin for you, in order to suffer the just judgment for your sin.   In other words, at the cross, Jesus was accounted as 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—you, me, and all the world.

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, the means of grace.  The Lord has placed His name upon you in Holy Baptism, giving you His kingdom forever.  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 to strengthen and preserve you in the one true faith unto life everlasting.  By these means, He strengthens your faith and sets you free with all that He has given you.

So now, as His gathered and forgiven stewards, how are you doing?  Our Lord gives you a few statements against which to measure your stewardship.  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 eternal dwellings.” 

Money is unrighteous because it has 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 home of heaven for the sake of Jesus?  Or do you find yourself hoarding it all, still using what you have in service to you?  The Lord says, “If you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?”  

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’ve already died the second death and have eternal life?  Or do you regard it as just a point of history that has little relevance for you now? 

Do you eagerly desire to 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 to 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 own 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 that Word of God for the sake of appearing more agreeable to the world?

An honest examination in the mirror of God’s Law will shows you that you are far from a faithful steward of the riches the Lord entrusts to you.  And sadly, you are probably more careful with gifts of unrighteous wealth that provide for this body and life than you are with the gift of Word and Sacraments that bestow righteousness and eternal life.  Even now, as a baptized child of God, you are still an unrighteous steward who wastes what the Lord commends to your use.  The day of reckoning is still deserved.

But once again, look how your merciful Lord treats you.  Although you often take His means of grace for granted, He does not relieve you of your stewardship.  From now until the Last Day of reckoning, He keeps you as His steward.  He wills that you continue to make use of His means of grace, so that through them He might forgive you for the sake of Jesus. 

Furthermore, He wills that you use them to erase the debt of others.  As you encounter sinners who are burdened with a load of killing sin, you do not tell them to erase half the debt and go from there.  No, you confess to them the Word.  You tell them that Christ has died for all of their sins—not 20%, not 50%, not most of them, but all of them.  You share God’s grace with everyone who will receive it.

Does our Lord grow angry that you give out His grace so freely?  No, not at all!  He commends this as the mission of the Church.  “Freely you have received,” He declares; “freely give” (Matthew 10:8).  The Lord has more mercy than you could ever give away.  His supply is inexhaustible.  It is infinite!

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 to learn from the steward.  Here it is: the steward’s entire scheme rested on his lord’s mercy.  If the lord was 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 the lord would commend, not punish, him.   

By the grace of God, you trust in the Lord’s mercy.  You confess your sin and unrighteousness to Him, trusting that He who gave His own life to redeem you will continue to save you now.  You pray that He would forgive your trespasses as you forgive those who trespass against you for His sake. 

And so He does.  Your Lord commends you today with these words, “You are saved by My mercy this day, not because of what you have done or haven’t done, but because your sin was accounted to Me at the cross.  So I declare you righteous.  I declare you holy and clean.  I declare you pure and blameless.  Indeed, I declare: You are forgiven for all of your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Amen.


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