The Dishonest Manager and the Merciful Master

Text: Luke 16:1-9 (10-13)

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.” Jesus says one of the most vexing sentences in all the Gospels in our text today. It seems to follow the parable of the Dishonest Manager as Jesus’ interpretation of the story. Make friends, Jesus says, by means of unrighteous wealth (you may have heard that phrase by another title, mammon), so that when it fails, you may be received into eternal dwellings. What is Jesus telling us to do, and why does the master in the story commend the dishonest manager? To use the familiar Lutheran question: Was ist Das?

When I was a student at our seminary in Fort Wayne, students took three homiletics classes. In these classes they learned what a sermon is, how to write one, and got some practice in delivering them. The first class covered sermon theory, the third class covered wedding and funeral sermons. It’s the second class that covered parables. In my experience, we were offered the choice of any parable to preach on. If you chose the parable we have today, and preached it well, you would get an automatic A in the course. No one picked it.

There are two ways that we’re going to look at the text today. First, we are going to look at it doxologically. That means that we’re going to look at it in a way that gives all glory and praise to God. We’ll do that by focusing not on the manager in the parable, but the master. Second, we’ll receive the parable as a teaching on the proper use of mammon, wealth. For, Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and money.” In the parable of the Dishonest Manager, Christ teaches us the proper use of wealth and about our merciful Master who forgives.

I.

Let us start with the text. Luke 16 begins, “[Jesus] also said to the disciples, ‘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.’” On a surface level, the first chunk of the parable needs no explanation. The story is about a wealthy landowner who has hired another man to be the manager of his property. The system was such that the landowner rented his land to tenant farmers. The farmers would pay their rent as a set portion of their crop, usually either in oil or wheat. The manager was in charge of collecting that rent. After a time, charges were brought to the master that his steward was squandering the landowner’s property.

One of the keys of interpreting a parable is to look for things that don’t match up to reality. Our text today is part of an ongoing section in Luke filled with parables, all of which we’ve actually looked at over the last couple months. The one that comes right before our text today is one you all probably know, the parable of the Prodigal Son. We’ll use that as an example. What is it in that parable that doesn’t match up to reality? Well, it’s not the younger son wasting his inheritance. We’ve all heard stories like that in our lives; and, who of us hasn’t wasted our possessions on immoral living? Or, how about the older son, the one who holds himself high and looks down on his brother who has fallen into sin, the one that we would describe as “self-righteous,”? No, both of those are quite common in reality. What doesn’t match is the father. The wealthy father sees his younger son from afar, he hikes up his robe and runs to greet his son. He embraces him, clothes him, and kills the fatted calf – for his son was dead and now is alive.

The parable of the Prodigal Son is perhaps better called the parable of the Merciful Father, because it’s not about the son but the father. From it we learn about our merciful God who forgives our sins by the blood of the Lamb. Same thing with the parable of the Dishonest Manager. It could probably be called the parable of the Merciful Master. That is the thing in this parable that doesn’t match up to reality. We would expect that, when the master hears his steward is cheating him, he would immediately throw him in jail. That would be his right. But instead, the master has mercy. And, not just on the manager. Remember what the manager did when he figured he was gonna get fired – he went and lowered the debts of all the master’s debtors. In response to that, the master honored the lowered debts. Again, that doesn’t line up with reality. If you fire your bookkeeper, and he in the meantime fudges the ledger, you wouldn’t be expected to honor those changes.

I said a few minutes ago that the first way we are going to look at this text is doxologically. That is, we’re going to look at it in a way that gives all glory and praise to God. We do that focusing not on the manager, but on the master. But first, the manager: what were his goals? Comfort and self-preservation at all costs. That involved squandering his master’s possessions, and lying to cover it up. I wish we could say that is what doesn’t match up with reality in the parable but, sadly, it does. Even among us Christians. The word for what the manager does is the same for what the prodigal son does in that parable: He takes what is his master’s and he wastes it on sinful living.

And so do we. We are each placed in various vocations by God, and given various resources to glorify Him and contribute to the work of His kingdom. We confess in the Small Catechism that God gives us everything that we need to support this body and life; everything we have and own belongs to God and is given for the support of our lives and for service to our neighbor. But instead, we put own spin on it. We dedicate our time, our money, and our talents, to our own comfort. And then we lie about it.

II.

The dishonest manager squanders his master’s possessions. He takes what isn’t his and uses it in service of his belly, then he lies to cover it up. When the master finds out that his manager, for perhaps a long time, has been cheating, he doesn’t immediately take to punishment. That would have been his legal right: to punish, to throw in jail, to take back everything, perhaps even to kill. Instead, he has mercy. And, so does our God. In His infinite wisdom, God knows every sin we have ever committed. Every single little indiscretion, and every lie we’ve told to cover it up and comfort ourselves, He knows. He knows every time we’ve used our money and possessions in service to iniquity, and when we’ve made idols out of them. He knows these things, and He forgives.

The central point of our parable today is not the manager, but the master. We are all dishonest managers of what God has given us, and yet our master has had mercy on us. He sent His only-begotten Son into our flesh to bear our sin and be our savior. He has taken our iniquity into Himself, and has died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. He gives this forgiveness to us freely, not because we are perfect managers, but because He is a merciful Lord.

Now, that leaves us with the last verse of the text, the verse that I read at the beginning of the sermon. 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.” What’s that all about? The master commended the dishonest manager for being so clever, and then Jesus clobbers us with this verse of interpretation. The simplest way to understand it is this: Jesus uses the word, “mammon.” Mammon is a Hebrew word that means wealth and possessions that are above and beyond what you need to directly support your life. The world says that anything you can make over what you need to eat and have a home, that you can use for play. But, here Jesus says that proper use of everything that doesn’t go directly to the support of the body is for God’s glory and for service to our neighbor.

Everything. That’s why Jesus couches this in the parable of the Dishonest Manager, or rather, the Merciful Master. We are the dishonest manager. We misuse the things that God gives us and we lie to cover it up. But, God has had mercy on us and given His only Son to die for us. Through His Word and Sacrament, God daily conforms us to the image of His Son and leads us to use our time and possessions in ways that are pleasing to Him.

Our text today is hard passage. We can’t claim to have plumbed the depths of its meaning today; it’s good that it’ll come up again this time next year. However, when viewed in the context of the surrounding passages, particularly the Prodigal Son, we can see that it isn’t primarily about the manager who squanders and lies, but the Master who is merciful. Such is our God, who forgives us poor wretched managers.

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