St. Luke 16:1-13
August 10, 2014
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
One morning my vicarage supervisor walked in to my office and said, “Hey vicar, wanna get a free lunch?” He said it with a bit of a smirk on his face, but what’s a vicar to do? Sure. We went to downtown Springfield and sat around one of those conference rooms and listened to a pitch about some investment opportunities. I didn’t have to pay anything for lunch that day; I was only invited to put down my contact information. This turned into several meetings where I was made to feel more and more obligated to buy one of his products in return for the free stuff.
It’s like accepting a gift from the mafia. “If you got to deal with him, just gotta make sure you don’t end up owing him. ‘Cause then you’re in his debt. Which means you’re in his pocket. And once you’re in there, you ain’t ever coming out.” I think back to that smirk my vicarage supervisor gave me when he said we were getting a free lunch. I think he was teaching me some life lessons to go along with my pastoral lessons. My mom always said it, too: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
The Pharisees didn’t react kindly to Jesus’ parable. The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed them (16:14), writes St. Luke. What got under the Pharisees’ skin so much? The incident that set off a whole wave of parables for the Pharisees and Jesus disciples happened way back at the beginning of Luke’s 15th chapter. Jesus received sinners and ate with them (15:2).
Jesus. At the table with the degenerates, the tax collectors, the prostitutes. Shouldn’t these people have to show a bit of a change of heart, a change of life? Shouldn’t there be some cost to dining with Jesus? There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
In the middle part of last century, there was a book written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer called The Cost of Discipleship. In that book he coined a little phrase that has become pretty common in many Christian circles: cheap grace. He writes, “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….
“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”
This is the accusation that is leveled against preachers of grace. It’s not costly enough. There must be some cost for discipleship. Grace without price; grace without cost! Completely incomprehensible. The grace of God is a treasure that should make you want to trade in all that you have, to buy it with your own blood, if need be.
Have you ever thought that someone was skating by on cheap grace? Have you ever known a Christian who just didn’t seem to be walking the walk? Have you ever heard a sermon and thought, “Too much forgiveness, not enough Law”?
Bonhoeffer summed it up with a catchy phrase; but it’s a common way of thinking that runs rampant in the Christian Church. The preaching of the pure, unadulterated Gospel, the free forgiveness of sins is incomprehensible to those who live under the Law. The Law says, “Do this!” So why are so many Christians doing the opposite?
But, as Luther wrote, the Law says, “Do this!” and it is never done. There is a cost to grace—a high cost. There is a cost to grace that an entire lifetime of works cannot pay. There is a cost to grace that the entire reserve of Fort Knox could not even pay the interest on. There is a cost to grace that you cannot afford.
While Jesus’ parable gets under the skin of the Pharisees, it’s not directed at them. It’s for His disciples. Of all the narratives in the parables of Jesus, this one has the most bizarre surprise ending of them all.
He also said to the disciples, “There was a man who was rich, who had a manager, and charges were brought to him on the grounds that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give account of your management for you are not capable of being manager.’ And the manager said to himself, ‘What should I do, since my master is taking away the management from me? To dig, I am not strong; to beg, I am ashamed. I know what to do, so that when I am removed from the management, they will receive me into their houses.’ And calling to himself one by one the master’s debtors, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe to my master?’ He said, ‘One hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Next he said to another, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘One hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and write eighty.’ The master commended the manager of unrighteousness for acting shrewdly; for the sons of this age are shrewder than the sons of light to their own generation (vv 1-8).
The twist at the end of the parable is that the master commends the manager for giving away stuff for free. The master, it seems, has a great love for forgiveness. So, even though His grace and favor comes with a cost you could never hope to repay,
It’s the Father’s Pleasure to Give Stuff Away for Free
The parable tells us primarily about the nature of God. It is His very nature to give away the treasures of heaven at no cost to the sinner. But there still is no such thing as a free lunch. In a sense, Bonhoeffer is right—there is a great cost to grace. But the cost is not charged to your account. Christ has paid it in full. So for you, there is no such thing as costly grace. There’s no such thing even as cheap grace. Grace is the Father’s free gift to you for the sake of Christ.
He does not require you to pluck out your eye, even though it is constantly sinning. Instead, He allows His eyes to be beaten and bloodied for the sake of sinful eyes. He doesn’t require you to sell all your goods to take up a life of poverty to be a true Christian. He found you to be a pearl of great price, such that He set aside His divine royalty to take on human flesh in order to suffer the humiliating death of the cross. He doesn’t wait around for you to buy up real estate in God’s kingdom to find the treasure hidden in a field. You are the treasure hidden in the field—or rather you will be. He has paid the price of His own blood so that when you are one day buried in a field, He will return to rescue you and raise you from the dead.
Grace without price; grace without cost! Yes, Pharisees, yes Bonhoeffer, it’s true. The account has already been paid. The forgiveness of Christ is a gift freely given. It’s astonishing to those who live under the Law that this gift comes at no cost to them. But for those who live under the Gospel, it’s an indescribably beautiful gift.
As Luther wrote, the Law says, “Do this!” and it is never done. But he then adds, grace says, “Believe this,” and it is already done. This parable is not to put you back under a new kind of Law, to shame you if you’ve ever accused a preacher or receiver of grace of squandering the Lord’s treasures. This parable is a call to repentance, a call to change your way of thinking. It’s a parable that your Lord gives in order to give you the mind of Christ, who thought nothing of emptying Himself, of humiliating Himself, who thinks nothing of taking your bill and writing, “Paid in full.”
This parable is also a parable of comfort for the Christian, who has been forgiven much. There will be some time in your life, if it hasn’t happened already, when you will be accused of not acting like a Christian, of not walking the walk, of cheapening grace. This parable is also a call to faith, to believe ever more strongly that what you ought to do, what you cannot do, Christ has done.
The most common rebuttal to preachers of grace from the accusers of squandering is, “But doesn’t free grace give you a license to sin?” If there is nothing expected for God’s favor and forgiveness, won’t Christians break out in a riot?
That’s the absolute beauty of this parable, because Christ adds one more thing at the end. And I say to you, make friends for yourself from the mammon of unrighteousness, in order that when it fails, they may receive you into the eternal dwellings (v 9). The manager’s change of thinking was that he was no longer trying to get even and make things right with the master. What he proceeded to do was to try to win over some of his neighbors with kindness.
This parable shows us the true place for works. Yes, they are required by God, but not to pay the debt you owe Him. That has already been paid and His favor is free. The works He requires are for your neighbors. Win friends for yourself, Jesus says. He uses the term “mammon of unrighteousness.” Mammon is a word that deals with money and wealth, and unrighteousness means that money can’t buy you favor with God. But it can be used for the good of your neighbor. We can extend this to all earthly works.
The good that you do, your external obedience to God’s Law, earns nothing before God, but it earns everything before man. If you obey authority, treat others kindly, love your spouse, don’t steal, speak well of others, and live content with what you already have, you will have a lot of people who like you. If you take advantage of others, fail to love them, you will earn yourself a lot of enemies.
So do good, so that when you are received into the eternal dwellings by grace at no cost to you, you will find yourself among the friends you have here on earth.
In + Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard