The Shrewd Steward and the Merciful Master
Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
The parables of our Lord are wonderful teaching devices, not least of all because they make us think. And our text for today is certainly one of the most difficult to understand and interpret. But one of the characteristics of parables is that they contain a “crack” or something unusual that makes the reader realize that this is not a story that comes from human experience. For human experience cannot teach us the “knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.”
In this text, the obvious jarring note is the reaction of the master who, instead of raging against his steward, “commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” It is difficult to see how we might reconcile this with a righteous, holy God. But that is our task as we explore this parable from Luke 16:
“There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me?’” (1-3). So far the text.
And, so far, our understanding of this challenging parable is clear. This steward, or manager, was put in charge of the estate of a very wealthy man. He was given the responsibility of managing his master’s property. But he had not been faithful to his calling. He had wasted his master’s goods. His squandering of the master’s goods must have been apparent to many in the community, for word of this steward’s unfaithfulness soon reached the ears of the master. And now the master had come to call his steward to task. The steward knows that he will be fired, and that his days of employment by the rich man are numbered. Thus comes the very understandable question: “What shall I do?”
Now, up to this point, the application of this parable is clear as well. Jesus is speaking these words directly to His disciples. He is teaching His disciples—and that includes you and me—about being good stewards of our possessions. Or, I should say, it’s about being a good steward of God’s possessions. For we really do not have any possessions in this world. They are all God’s. All things in this world are God’s possessions given to us as gifts to manage on His behalf.
Yes, it is God Himself who is the rich man in this parable. And each one of us is a steward of the property that God has generously placed into our trust. All of our worldly possessions—and all of the talents and time that we use in acquiring worldly possessions—are gifts to us from God. He gives them to us so that we will use them in carrying out His great commandment and great commission: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and “Go and make disciples of all nations.”
Our heavenly Father wants us to use His good gifts to show mercy to our fellow man and to witness to the love of God in Christ Jesus. Our Master would have us use His resources to help our neighbor in every need of body and soul. We are called by God Himself to show that we do indeed love Him above all things, and trust in Him alone when He calls us to be good stewards, to use His possessions—in service to our neighbors in this world: in service to our family, our congregation, our government, our neighbor next door, even our enemies on the other side of the world who do not yet know the one true God.
Yes, we are stewards of The Rich Man… and yes, sadly, we too, have been unfaithful to our calling. We’ve squandered our Master’s possessions. We’ve spent far more of His treasure trying to satisfy the cravings of our flesh for selfish pleasure than we’ve spent to satisfy the cravings of the hungry for food. Our talents have been used far more often in leisure than in building up our congregation. We’ve spent far more time in the pursuit of worldly wealth than in the pursuit of the righteousness of God in His Word and sacraments.
We all live daily on the verge of having the Master come to us and say, “you can no longer be manager… If you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? … You cannot serve God and Money.” Then should come from our own lips the question asked by the steward in the parable: “What shall I do?”
The steward in the parable seems to solve his problem by some additional dishonesty. He recognizes that he can win some friends for the future by doing a favor for them now while he is still the master’s steward. He goes to two others who owe the master money and cuts the amount that each one will need to repay. Little wonder then why these men would be glad to take care of the steward after he’s fired by the master, for he’s saved them a significant amount of money.
But there is a big wonder over the reaction of the master to this seemingly shady deal, for the master “commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.” Can you believe it? The master praised the steward for the steward’s shrewd dealing! That doesn’t sound too much like our righteous Master, does it?
Here is where our understanding of this parable and its application become challenging—for we do not know at first what to make of the fact that God seems to be praising a wicked steward for a dishonest deal. But here is the key that unlocks the mystery. The main point of the parable is not found in the details of the steward’s dealings. In fact, the steward is not even the main character. The main character is the master, and the main point is his dealings with his steward.
You see, the reason why the steward even dares to change the two accounts is because he knows his master is a lord of mercy. The master has already shown mercy in not immediately firing the unfaithful steward, but quite shockingly has given him an opportunity to somehow straighten out the books. And the steward banks even more on his master’s mercy when he arranges for the huge discount on the two debts.
The steward acts quickly here, not so much to avoid detection by his master before the deal is done, but he wants the deal sealed before the debtors find out about his firing and think that this was merely an act of self-preservation by a desperate man. The steward is desperate, but he is desperate to demonstrate to these two debtors—and to his master—that he trusts in his master for mercy.
The readiness of the debtors to accept the steward’s rewriting of their bills indicates that they believe this comes from the master’s hand. The entire community is dependent on this generous and merciful master and has come to expect this sort of mercy from him, and so, the steward benefits from that reputation in that he is viewed as an extension of the master.
By the time the master discovers what the steward has done, he is in a bind with only two options. Legally, he can reverse the steward’s decisions to adjust the accounts. But in doing so, he will anger his tenants and force them to reassess whether he really is a generous and merciful master. On the other hand, if he lets the adjustments stand, he’ll further secure the goodwill of his tenants.
That, then, is the obvious choice for the master, if he is to be consistent with his own character. He must commend the steward for shrewdly managing his personal crisis since the steward trusted the character of his master and staked everything on the master’s love and mercy. The steward is not disappointed. His master delivers mercy to him, rather than the wrath he deserves.
And so does our Master deliver His mercy to us! Just as the steward had created trouble for himself and could only trust in his lord’s mercy for the solution, so we find the only resolution to the desperate problem of our sinfulness in the mercy of our Lord—the Lord of all! Though we stewards are exceedingly poor in our dealings with our fellow man, our Master is exceedingly rich in His merciful dealings with us! Though we squander all of the good gifts that God gives to us as His stewards, He’s not taken away the stewardship from us.
Instead, God the Father, in His great compassion for us, sent to us His most precious gift—His Chief Steward—His Own Son: Jesus Christ. Jesus came to settle our accounts with God. As a result of our poor stewardship and all of our sinfulness, we owed a huge debt to God—a debt payable only by an eternal death. But along came Jesus, the Chief Steward of God—and reduced our debt—not by twenty percent, or fifty percent, or eighty percent—but by 100%! Christ writes off all of our debt to God, trusting in His own Father’s mercy to accept this cancellation of the debt, trusting that His Father would accept His own holy, precious blood as the full payment for the sins of the world.
And God the Father delivered! Our invoice remains nailed to the cross to which Christ Himself was nailed. The empty tomb of Jesus means that your tomb—and the tomb of all who trust in Him—will be empty for all eternity, for your bill has been paid in full by Him!
And the Master restores you to full stewardship! God in His mercy not only forgives you of all of our sins and gives you the promise of everlasting life, but He gives you new life to be used in His service for the remainder of your time in this world! Through His Word, through the water and Word of Baptism, and through the bread and wine of His Holy Supper, God, in His mercy, sends anew to forgiven sinners the gift of the Spirit of stewardship—His Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit calls you through God’s Word to live as faithful stewards. He encourages and empowers you to make the lifestyle changes necessary to change your stewardship, so that you manage your possessions—or, rather, God’s possessions—in a way that pleases our Master. The Holy Spirit enables you to conform your stewardship—and your entire life in this world—to love your neighbor as yourself, to show mercy to your fellow man, to help everyone everywhere every way you can.
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. And so He does. Your Lord commends you today with these words, “You are saved by My mercy this day, because I have accounted for all your sin at the cross. You are baptized into My death and resurrection. You have been fed with My body and blood, empowered by My Word. Go in peace and serve your neighbor. You are forgiven for all of you sins.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.