The Unjust Steward
18th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 20C)
September 22, 2013
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
When my wife and I lived in Indiana we were invited to a 4th of July celebration. Some members from the church we attended held this picnic every year; it was important to them. They asked everyone who attended to bring a dish to pass, so being a strongly German Lutheran community, there was no shortage of bratwurst and sauerkraut. While the owners did not provide food for everyone, they did provide the entertainment. They put on a fireworks display to rival ones you’ll see in some small communities. Apparently, they had budgeted a set amount into their monthly expenses so that they could stockpile fireworks all year long. They spent a few hundred dollars each month on fireworks, so that by the time the next 4th of July rolled around they had amassed a few thousand dollars’ worth of fireworks. Then, they invited the congregation over to their farm to watch the show.
Some people might call that kind of spending wasteful, but these people loved hosting the 4th of July picnic at their home, so they found a way to make their money work in such a way that the show could go on. With that thought in mind, hear again the parable Jesus puts before us this morning.
There was a man, an account manager, who led a fairly comfortable life. He had access to the master’s money, so he grew accustomed to skimming a little off the top. A little bit here for a weekend getaway. A little bit there to take his wife out to a fancy dinner. And just a tiny bit more from over there to buy himself that nice new robe he wanted. Then, one day, unexpectedly, the jig was up. The master came to see his manager, for someone had complained to the master. The manager was accused of stealing from the master, and he was required to turn over the financial reports, to turn in his receipts, and to give an account for where the money had gone. The game was up. The manager was soon to be unemployed. He probably lived with the master or in one on one of the master’s properties, so he was going to be homeless as well.
What did he do when he knew his end was just around the corner?
He did what he could to save his own skin. He had already embezzled, so he decided to cook the books even further in an effort to save his own neck in the long term. He called in debtors and reduced their debts in an effort to gain their favor. But in so doing, he showed how crafty and clever he truly was, for when the master found out, what was he supposed to do? The people whose debts had been lowered were probably tenants who rented land from the master and used it for farming. They would have rejoiced that their debts were lowered. If the master came back to them and said, “No, that wicked manager lowered your debt without my consent. Pay me the remainder of what you owe,” then he would have angered his tenants. He may have had the legal right to do that, but to do that would strain the relationship between owner and renter, maybe even to the point where the renter would not take care of the master’s property anymore. Maybe the master would lose the renters and gain a reputation as someone who is not true to his word. Maybe it would hurt his future prospects for renting out the land. The master had to save face, so he had to allow the reduced payments to stand.
Which is why he commends the manager for his shrewdness – his street smarts. He was not happy that the manager stole from him again, yet he commended the manager because not only did the manager gain favor with the debtors, he did it in such a way that the master was ultimately powerless to stop. When the manager saw that his neck was on the line, he used what resources he had to save it, and he did a pretty good job of it.
But, that’s not all that surprising, Jesus says. For the sons of this age are much more crafty in dealing with their own generation than are the sons of light. The sons of this age know how to spend their money for themselves. That’s because the sons of this age live only for this age. Not so the sons of light. Not so you. Not so me. We ought not to use our wealth in that way. We ought to use our wealth with an eye toward heaven.
Now, I know that this is the point in the sermon where you might want to tune out. No one likes to hear a sermon about money because everyone feels the pressure of paying bills. I don’t particularly like to preach about money because it’s not like I’m rolling around in it either. There’s no Scrooge McDuck vault for me to swim in at my house. No, there’s just mortgage payments, electric bills, gas bills, grocery bills, and all manner of other bills that are on the counter or on the horizon. Beyond the bills lies the simple reality that the things of this life we enjoy, even the good gifts from God, tend to cost money. You can’t enjoy a day fishing without first purchasing a license, fishing pole, bait, and whatever other supplies you need. If you want to spend a day doing something special with your family, it costs money. And it is a good and God-pleasing thing when you use your money not only to feed, clothe, and house your family, but also to give them, as much as you’re able, the fun things of this life, to pay for their dance classes, to register them for soccer, to take them to the cider mill or a movie.
But here’s the thing. Ultimately, how you spend your money will show what you truly value, and as Christians, as bought and paid for children of God, we are called to value more than the things of this life only. We value the preaching of the Gospel, for without that preaching we would not have heard the news of our salvation. We value the work of our Lord’s church because without the work of his church our heads would never have felt the cleansing water of baptism. If the congregation here 100 years ago decided that St. John was no longer worth supporting, then we would not be here today. But we are here today, because people 3 generations ago valued the preaching of the Gospel in this place. They wanted to see the Gospel continue to be preached in this place.
The sons of this age spend their money on the thing they value most: themselves. And maybe in an effort to be more memorable due to shock value, Jesus holds up their commitment to the cause as exemplary. But his point is unmistakable: he tells us we ought to be as shrewd as they are in spending money on the things that we love, except that the thing we value most should not be ourselves. We ought to value on the proclamation of his Gospel and the mission of his church.
For like the man in the parable, the money we spend from day to day is not our own, it belongs to our master. That’s no small detail in the parable. Regardless of how we use it, the money we have is not truly our own. Our Lord has given it to us so that we might watch over it and use it as he intended. The man in the parable failed in that task, choosing instead to use the money selfishly. When he was called on it, he again used the master’s money selfishly again to save his own skin. But that just shows us how much he valued his own skin. His use of that money shows you what was important to him. How do we use our master’s money? How do we use the resources he has entrusted to our care?
The reality is that the church isn’t in the business of making money – we’re in the business of bringing the life giving word of God to souls who desperately need to hear it. We all know that’s not free, and whatever worldly costs need to be covered for that to happen aren’t going to be covered by some new gimmick or sales pitch that the church comes up with. I hear so many wonderful people speak so very highly of this congregation, of our music and our worship, and we should rejoice in those things. But if those things are going to continue, then they must be supported by people who value our ministry and mission. We are gaining new families to our school every year because they have heard good things about us and have experienced it for themselves. New families are seeking us out because you families who are already in our school love it so much that they can’t help but tell others how wonderful it is. But if our school is going to survive, it must be supported by people who value its ministry and mission.
And if we want to do more than merely survive, if we want to thrive, to continue hiring the best teachers, to continue providing the best Christ-centered education possible, to not only maintain but also to improve the building and resources available here, it can only happen if it’s be funded by people who support our ministry and mission. If, God willing, St. John is going to bring the Gospel to the city of Fraser for another 150 years, it depends of you. It depends on our members. Our Father in heaven has given us the resources. He has given us the opportunity. The sons of this age know how to spend money on the things they love, on the causes they support. What are we willing to spend here so that the word of forgiveness can continue to be preached in this pulpit and taught in those classrooms?
You know, it’s interesting that this parable about money comes immediately after the parable of the prodigal son. In fact, Luke 16 is the end of a section where Jesus teaches first the multitudes of potential followers in Luke 14 that they must deny themselves and take up their cross to follow him, to Luke 15 where he teaches the smaller group of the Pharisees that he has come to seek and save the lost, to now Luke 16, where he warns his closest disciples that even though they are not the multitudes of crowds or the Pharisees, they too will face challenges in following him: You cannot serve two masters, he says. You cannot serve both God and money. The fact that this parable is spoken to the followers of Jesus, and that we are the followers of Jesus, means it speaks directly to us.
Even more interesting is the fact that the Greek word Jesus uses to describe the manager’s waste of his master’s wealth is the exact word used to describe what the prodigal son does with his inheritance. Jesus wants us to consider these parables together, for in each of these parables the one guilty of squandering and abusing the wealth given to him ultimately turns back to the giver for mercy. We know how the prodigal son returned home to his father. In similar manner, the manager in today’s parable relied on the master not to punish him doubly for lowering the debts after already stealing. And that proved to be a good bet, for the master did take pity on the manager and spared him from the second punishment he deserved.
And so it is with us. Ultimately, we are each of us guilty of squandering, wasting, and abusing the resources given to us by our Lord. Even on our best days, we don’t spend enough time in his word. We don’t use our talents in a godly way. We desire to hold on to as much of our paycheck as we possibly can rather than supporting the work God has put before us here. Each of us deserves to face a reckoning, to be audited, to turn in our receipts and give account for what we have done with what our Lord has given to us.
Thanks be to God that when such an audit comes, when Satan accuses us before our master on Judgment Day, when the ledgers detailing how we used our resources are laid open, the manager won’t be able to read the condemning amounts on the page, for they will be covered with the blood of his son. Jesus didn’t hold anything back, but gave everything he had, his very life itself, to buy what was most precious to him: you. This is our greatest comfort. This is our greatest treasure. Living by faith in this reality and sharing the news of this forgiveness with a dying world is what we are here to do. We are to live in our baptism and work out our salvation with fear and trembling, putting our faith into action, for faith without works is dead. And a working faith includes being faithful stewards with our Master’s gifts.
May God grant us such faith, that our use of all his gifts, both the spiritual gifts of the Gospel as well as the earthly gifts of wealth, would be pleasing in his sight, and would demonstrate to the world around us the immeasurable depths of his love for us.