“Faithful Stewards” (Luke 16:1-15)
In the Gospel for today, Jesus tells the Parable of the Dishonest Manager. This story is also known as the Parable of the Unrighteous Steward. The terms are interchangeable: dishonest or unrighteous; manager or steward. But keeping the titles straight is the least of the problems with this parable. This text from Luke 16, on its surface, is a difficult one to understand. It seems that Jesus is commending the dishonest manager, the unrighteous steward, for his unrighteousness! And what does Jesus mean by, “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth”? What’s that all about? This Parable of the Unrighteous Steward presents us with some difficulties. But since Jesus is the one who tells it, it must be important. And it is. For in this text Jesus is teaching his people what it means to be “Faithful Stewards.”
Jesus teaches us about being faithful stewards by way of a story about an unfaithful steward, a certain manager of a rich man’s possessions: “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.’”
So this rich man had a manager. A manager is a steward, someone who is entrusted with and manages things that belongs to someone else. A manager, a steward, is not the owner. He works for the owner, managing his property and possessions–his household economy, if you will. That is the stewardship that has been entrusted to him by his master. But in this case, the steward was not managing his master’s property well. He was wasting his possessions. And word got back to the master. So he calls in the manager and tells him, “Turn in your books. I’m dismissing you from your position.”
Well, this presents the manager with a crisis. He soon will be out of a job, with no income and no place to stay. But for some reason, the master doesn’t have him turn in the books right then and there. There’s a little delay of time. This gives the manager a chance to think. He says to himself: “What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.”
The manager has come up with a plan. He knows his time is limited, but he thinks he can work it so that he’ll have a place to stay when he gets booted out of where he is now: “So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’”
So here’s his plan. The manager goes to his master’s debtors and reduces their debts. Now whether he was sacrificing his own commission, or the debtors thought the master was showing generosity toward them, or whether they were going along with the manager’s crookedness and taking advantage of it–we just don’t know. The text doesn’t tell us. In any case, the bottom line is that by reducing their debts, the manager was making friends for himself for the future. These people would feel like they owe him one. And soon he would need them to return the favor. When he’s out looking for work or needing a place to stay, these people will be more likely now to help him out and to open their homes to him.
Well, somehow the master got word of this, that the steward had changed those debts in order to look out for his own future, and what was the master’s reaction? Somewhat surprisingly, it was this: “The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.” Notice that the master did not praise the dishonest manager for his dishonesty or his crookedness. No, he commended him for his “shrewdness,” that is, for his clever thinking in the midst of a crisis. He praised him for his prudence, his foresight, in that he could come up with a plan, a sensible way to solve his problem.
So that’s the story. And then Jesus adds, “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” Notice, “the sons of this world” and “in dealing with their own generation.” This puts all of the story in the context of unrighteousness, in the ways of this world–shrewdness or prudence in solving a problem in this age, using whatever means might work or that someone could get away with. Again, it’s not that Jesus is commending dishonesty or unrighteousness. But he is talking about prudence, wisdom in a time of crisis, and taking advantage of an opportune moment to make provision for the future.
And that’s how Jesus applies this story to us Christians, to us “sons of light,” as he calls us. Jesus would have us be shrewd, prudent, in planning for our eternal future. Christ would have us look beyond this age to the age to come, and to so arrange our affairs in this life with that long-range future in view.
And to underscore this point, Jesus now adds, “And 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.” In other words, use the worldly wealth that is at your disposal–use it now in this life with an eye toward eternity. Use your money and your possessions now in a way that is pleasing to God and for the good of others. Realize that there is going to come a day when your life in this world will end, and your money is going to come to an end, too. What will happen then, at that time? If you are wise, you will have friends who will welcome you into your eternal home in heaven.
“Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth.” “Unrighteous wealth” is money, possessions, riches, but with a negative connotation. “Mammon” is the term for that. Mammon, money, is commonly used by the people of this world in ways that are not pleasing to God–hence, “unrighteous wealth.” But you, dear people, you are Christians made righteous by the righteousness of Christ. You are able to use the unrighteous wealth you have for righteous purposes. As faithful, wise, shrewd stewards, you and I can use our wealth, such as it is, for God’s purposes and for the good of others.
For example, you and I can use our time, talents, and treasures to help our neighbor in need. We just saw a great example of that in recent weeks with the outpouring of support for the Benear family after the house fire. I imagine Doris is going to be one those friends who will be welcoming us into heaven when we get there, since she got there first.
“Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” We can also use our money to support the church’s work of preaching the gospel, both here locally through St. Matthew’s, and around the world through our synod’s missionaries. The ministry of the gospel–this is our neighbor’s greatest need. This above all is what people need: to hear and receive the good news of the forgiveness of sins in Christ. You and I and everyone else in the world–we all need that precious gospel.
And here is what’s so wonderful about it: The gospel says, not only is your debt reduced–from a hundred to eighty, or from a hundred to fifty–not only is your debt reduced, it is taken away! A hundred percent! Erased, wiped out, down to zero, nada! Your debt has been paid in full! Jesus paid it all for you! He paid the price you could never pay. “Christ Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all.” Yes, Jesus Christ, the Son of God in the flesh, gave himself to redeem us, to set us free. His death on the cross paid the debt that we poor sinners owed, the entire debt of all our sins. Jesus is the wise steward who reduces our debt to nothing. And he does it honestly, because his holy precious blood really does pay the debt for all our sins.
That’s the gospel, the good news. This is the testimony we have to bring to people. This is how we make friends for eternity. And our money can be used to help spread this message, to preach it and teach it. We do that here, every Sunday, week in and week out, month after month, year after year. In services and sermons and Bible classes and home visits and hospital visits–and soon we will be starting up a Sunday School and a catechism class for the kids. This is what you are supporting when you use your money to support St. Matthew’s. You are making friends for eternity. As faithful stewards, you and I want to support, and even expand, our gospel ministry. This is a faithful and wise use of our money. This is using unrighteous wealth for a righteous purpose, God’s purpose. This is pleasing to God our Savior, “who desires all people to be saved and to come the knowledge of the truth.” There is no finer use of your wealth in this world than to give it for the work of the gospel.
And this is the gospel I bring to you once again today! You and I may not have been as faithful of stewards as we should have been. Perhaps you have not been giving as generously as you could to support the work of this congregation. But the good news today is that God forgives you. He forgives you and renews you. He does this not because of anything you have done. Or anything you will do. It’s not because of how much better you’re going to do from now on. No. God forgives you and saves you and receives you into his heavenly dwellings purely and simply out of his free grace in Christ! It’s all a gift. You have an eternal dwelling waiting for you, dear friends, because Christ Jesus has gone to prepare that place for you. It’s a gift. Christ has earned it for you. The Holy Spirit is working, through the means of grace, through Word and Sacrament, to strengthen your faith in Christ. And that same Spirit will make you into the faithful steward you are meant to be.
Yes, God is at work to make us his faithful stewards. He owns it all, everything there is. And out of his marvelous grace, he gives us all the good things of this life to enjoy. He entrusts them to us as stewards to manage for his good purpose. To be a steward is a high calling.
Our true riches are in heaven. And there is no price tag we can put on them–forgiveness, life, eternal salvation, righteousness before God. All the wealth of this world cannot buy any of those priceless gifts. Christ has purchased all those treasures for us with his holy, precious blood. And God gives them all to us as a free gift. Money cannot buy the eternal salvation we have in Christ.
But now, here in this life, we can use our earthly wealth for a heavenly purpose. Faithful stewards use unrighteous wealth for God’s righteous purposes, especially for the eternal good of others. And by his grace, God will continue to make us into those faithful stewards, faithful stewards who are making friends for eternity.