St. Luke 16:1-13
August 2, 2015
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
The parables of Jesus offer a particular challenge to interpretation. In the pre-Reformation Church, there was a prevailing fourfold interpretation of Scripture. First was the literal sense, the plain sense of the words. The second was the allegorical sense, in which the plain sense was representative of higher spiritual truths. Third was the tropological sense, or the moral sense. Ironically, this Roman Catholic approach is alive and will in Protestant churches—if you’ve ever heard someone talk about relevant sermons that you can apply to your own life, chances are good the preacher’s working with the text in a tropological way and turning the Bible into a pattern that you must exemplify in your own conduct rather than a revelation of Christ and His kingdom. The fourth was the anagogical sense, which would apply the text to the final judgment and the kingdom that is to come.
In contrast to this fourfold sense of interpretation, the reformers held to a single sense of Scripture—the literal sense. Now this doesn’t mean a mechanical or wooden reading of the Scriptures that disallows metaphor and figures of speech and nuanced or ambiguous language. The literal sense is first to recognize the literary form and the intended sense of the words. Parables are simply extended figures of speech, and to aid us in sticking with the literal sense and not fly off into fanciful allegories, it’s necessary to identify the point of comparison. Today’s parable of the unjust steward is a parable about debts and forgiveness, and shows us where righteousness that counts before God can be found.
You Are not Righteous Because of What You Have, But Because of What’s Been Forgiven You
The manager in the parable is given control of a vast business; presumably he made a very comfortable living off of his position. But then one day it all goes away. Amid accusations of mismanagement, the lord removes the manager from his position and wants him to turn in all of his accounts. Christ is pointing us to the temporary and fleeting nature of earthly things. His story is a warning to lovers of money that money cannot by eternal things. Righteousness is not measured by earthly stuff.
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.’
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, everything changes. His entire way of life comes to an end. He can’t take his present life with him, and he is incapable to work to secure the life that lies ahead of him. It’s a stroke of genius that this unrighteous manager has that earns him, against all odds, a righteous commendation. But more on that in just a moment.
In the short commentary in the verses that follow this parable, Jesus expands on the meaning. He who is faithful in a little, in much is also faithful, and he who in a little is unjust, also in much is unjust. If then in unrighteous mammon you have not come to be faithful, who will entrust to you the true [riches]? And if in that which belongs to another you have not come to be faithful, who will give you that which is your own? No house servant is able to be a slave to two masters, for either he will despise the one and the other he will love, or to the one he will be loyal, and the other he will despise. You cannot be a slave to God and mammon.
This parable appears to be a parable about possessions, but it’s really a parable about faith. It’s not money or possessions that are evil in themselves, but it’s when they become the objects of faith. The Large Catechism teaches: Many a person thinks that he has God and everything in abundance when he has money and possessions. He trusts in them and boasts about them with such firmness and assurance as to care for no one. 6 Such a person has a god by the name of “Mammon” (i.e., money and possessions; [Matthew 6:24]), on which he sets all his heart. 7 This is the most common idol on earth. He who has money and possessions feels secure [Luke 12:16–21] and is joyful and undismayed as though he were sitting in the midst of Paradise. 8 On the other hand, he who has no money doubts and is despondent, as though he knew of no God. 9 For very few people can be found who are of good cheer and who neither mourn nor complain if they lack Mammon. This care and desire for money sticks and clings to our nature, right up to the grave.
And at the grave is where mammon stops. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, everything changes. You can’t take your present life with you, and you are incapable to work to secure the life that lies ahead of you. You need to find your righteousness elsewhere. And the unjust manager has just the solution.
The stroke of genius he has is not to rely on possessions, nor his own work, but on the good graces of others. And to do so, he turns to forgiveness. 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 manager finds a different kind of righteousness, a righteousness that is measured in forgiveness.
A former professor of mine offers an interesting take on this parable. He suggests that the master’s actions show him to be a man of mercy, well thought of in the community. The business transactions show that he was most likely a landlord, whose rent was a portion of the crops harvested. The unjust manager is quite different—he squandered the master’s possessions just as the prodigal son squandered his father’s possessions. He has a bad reputation, and someone brings charges of his unrighteousness to the master.
And here’s the stroke of genius. He catches the master up in his own merciful nature. By forgiving the master’s debtors, he’s magnifying the nature of the master. The master can’t go back on the word of the manager; if he were to go back and collect the extra fifty measures of oil or twenty measures of wheat, he would lose his reputation. And at the same time, the dishonest manager has arranged for mercy from the master’s debtors.
So here’s the point of comparison. Faith in money and possessions, the most common idol in the world, is a faith that will fail when God calls in your debt. This is the root of all unrighteousness. On the other hand, faith in mercy and forgiveness is a faith that endures beyond earthly things. This is a righteousness that actually earns something before God.
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. 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. It is to our shame that the sons of this age understand this more than we do. Imagine how the world would react if, instead of telling them how wrong they are, how forgiven they are. Imagine what they would say if instead of trying to fix earthly things, we amplified the mercy of our Master. Imagine if instead of being crusaders for our culture, we would preach Christ crucified.
The manager didn’t earn his righteousness from the wealth that he managed (or mismanaged). He didn’t earn it even from the goodwill of the people whose debts he forgave. In the end, he received his righteousness quite unexpectedly when his master commended him. His was a spoken righteousness—he was declared to be right in spite of everything he’d done wrong.
Dear Christians, sit down quickly and write, “Debt paid in full.” Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary so that He could bear the debt of your guilt and shame. He bore it to the cross. Here is where your righteousness is found. Not in earthly things, which are passing away. No, our sights are set on eternal mansions. So love mercy. Trust in the Father’s forgiveness for you in His Son. Your righteousness is not measured by earthly stuff, but in forgiveness.
In + Jesus’ name.
Jacob W Ehrhard