The Merciful Lord and the Unrighteous Steward
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The text for today is our Gospel, Luke 16:1-13.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
A while back I read an article in Christianity Today, entitled “What Makes a Good Bible Study?” The author states: “Remember that the point of all Bible study should not be to simply impart knowledge. It should produce change... 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 replied online: “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 He came to save me and a world of sinners with His perfect life and atoning death.
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. But you already know what’s wrong with that: None of us can keep the Law perfectly.
This misapplication of Law and Gospel describes much of what passes for biblical teaching today. It’s all Law. 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. That’s dangerous! For those who come to realize the futility of reaching perfection, it leads to hopelessness. For those who think they’re somehow pulling themselves up by their own spiritual bootstraps, it leads to false security and 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? 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 out the door.
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. 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. Talk about the fox guarding the hen house—and in this case it’s a fox with the smell of feathers on his breath!
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 has a great deal more authority than a manager of a business. He is 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.
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’s not fair!” is one of the first appeals made to higher authorities—most often Dad or Mom.
But do you really want fairness? Do you really want to get what you deserve? Think about it. Your Lord has created you. 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.
So, how’s that stewardship thing going for you?
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 put it to use for gossip, deceit, or malice. The Lord gives you eyes to see the beauty of His creation, but you use them to indulge your fleshly lust. The Lord gives you ears to hear His Word, but you let them be filled with 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 entrusts to you. So the Lord declares that the day of reckoning is coming. It’s only fair. It’s only just.
But thank the Lord, 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.
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 the world. And He has made you His steward.
As His steward, the Lord sends you out with simple instructions: “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?”
And 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 visits you, to serve you, to give you His very own body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith?
An honest examination in the mirror of God’s Law will show you are far from a faithful steward of the Lord’s riches. 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. 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 tell them that Christ has died for all of their sins. 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.
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.