Monday, September 20, 2010

Sermon on Luke 16:1-15, for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, "The Merciful Master"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today’s Gospel reading may strike us as very unusual, because Jesus commends the dishonest manager. We’re familiar with the Bible warning us not to “learn the way of the nations” (Jer. 10:2), or that we should not be “conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of [our] mind” (Rom. 12:2). We’re used to Jesus teaching us not to follow the sinful example of the world and it’s desires. So why does Jesus commend this man who mismanaged his master’s possessions, and what application to our Christian life is Jesus getting at? Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Before we can get to the application of the parable, we first need to understand what happened, why the master praised the manager, and what exactly he was praising the manger for. Because there is a big difference between the master commending the dishonest manager for acting cleverly, and the master commending the clever manager for acting dishonestly. In other words, it wasn’t his dishonesty and dishonest actions that were praised, but the cleverness of what he had done. But how was it that the manager achieved this praise?

If we look at the parable from the perspective of the rich master, we realize that he was actually quite merciful and generous to the manager in several ways. In the first matter of firing him because he was wasting the master’s possessions, the master could’ve taken much more extensive action against this wasteful scoundrel. He could’ve pursued him for the repayment of what was lost, could’ve had him imprisoned. But he only fired him, and demanded the return of the accounts he managed. He must have fired him privately, which is why the debtors didn’t know that he was acting illegally. They would never dream of making these arrangements if they knew the manager had been fired (Bailey, 338). Further, when the dishonest manager goes behind his back at the last moment to reduce those debts, the master would have had every right to inform the debtors that these arrangements were illegal and they owed the full debt, as well as to take strong action against this dishonest manager. The reductions in debt were huge amounts of money, equivalent to a year and a half’s wages for a farmer (Bailey, 339). Nevertheless, the master again showed great generosity and mercy, by allowing the reductions in debt to stand, and not destroying the reputation of the manager so that he couldn’t be hired elsewhere, or arresting him for fraud.

Why the dishonest manager was so clever is this. He saw his dilemma, knew that he was guilty and couldn’t plead to keep his job. He knew he’d be fired, and realistically knew that he was in no position or ability to do manual labor, or to beg for his food. If it became known that he was fired for corruption, no one else would hire him. He knew he had one last chance to show his cleverness and win popularity among the community, so that he could land on his feet (Bailey, 337). The gamble that he took was to stake everything on the mercy of his master, and that the master wouldn’t violate this core value of his identity (Bailey, 341). He lost no time to call up the master’s debtors and privately arrange to reduce their debts, while he still had the appearance of legitimacy. Reducing their debts was the clever part—because it took advantage of the master’s good reputation and generosity, and even enhanced it! His scheme made both himself and his master look good in the eyes of the community. So the debtor’s would’ve been exceptionally grateful to such a generous master who forgave a major portion of their debt—but they also would’ve been grateful to the dishonest manager for arranging this. So after he was fired, they would owe him a debt of gratitude.

If the dishonest manager hadn’t been certain of his master’s mercy and generosity, his gamble never could’ve worked. The master had every right to punish him and to demand full payment of the debts that had illegitimately been reduced. But the master’s reputation had been increased by this—the people would have been impressed by his generosity, and for him to undo the deals would sour the happy mood of the debtors and make him appear unreasonable and stingy. Instead, the master paid the price of this clever scoundrel’s scheme and refrained from demanding the debts or imprisoning the manager (Bailey, 340). The gamble had worked because the dishonest manager truly knew the good character and mercy of his master.

The master in Jesus’ parable praised him for this cleverness, but the following verses make it clear that it was not his dishonest actions themselves that are praised. While Jesus advises us as Christians to learn from the shrewdness of how the world handles money, he condemns the dishonest actions. We’re not told that we should misuse other people’s money, as long as we can be clever enough to get away with it. That is most certainly not the message of the parable. Rather, Jesus says, “One who is faithful in very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in very little is also dishonest in much.” The manager had lost his position because he’d been dishonest. He’s called one of the “sons of this world” who use unrighteous wealth to their gain. Had he used his cleverness in honest and fair dealings with him master, he could’ve been commended for his shrewdness, and kept his job and perhaps even be entrusted with more. But as Jesus said, if you cannot even be faithful with unrighteous wealth—namely to manage the earthly matters of money—who can trust you with true riches?

So also for us, the lesson is that if we’re dishonest in managing earthly affairs, or in being stewards of what God has given us, how will we be trusted with greater things? Jesus teaches that we shouldn’t store up our treasure in earthly things, but in heavenly treasure—which is the true riches that God can give to us. So how should we be faithful in the “little” things that God gives us? Probably the most important thing for anyone who works as a steward or a manager of someone else’s possessions is to realize just that—that it doesn’t belong to me! Jesus says, “If you haven’t been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?” All that we have in life, our cars, clothes, cash, bank accounts, land, home, even our very body and life are not our own. That is a huge statement to make, and a logical hurdle that many will never get over. Many will never accept the idea that what they have isn’t really theirs. We like to think that everything we have and we own belongs to us. Either we earned or it was given to us, and now we have exclusive rights to it. Isn’t this how we think, according to our sinful nature?

But to realize that none of it is ours—just like the example I gave some weeks ago about a man walking through an art museum with paintings stuffed under his arms—to realize that we can’t take it with us is a huge realization. Once we have realized that all that we have belongs to God, and not us, we’ll live completely differently. We cannot serve both God and money—we must choose between them. There is no 50-50 deal, we can’t divide our interest between God and the wealth of the world. We must be completely devoted to and love God rather than money. What was commendable about the dishonest manager’s actions was that he used his master’s possessions mercifully to forgive the debt (Just, 618-19). If we follow Jesus’ advice on how to manage and use our Lord and Master’s possessions, we’ll also use them mercifully toward others. We’ll practice charity by giving our help and support to the poor and the needy (Luke 12:31-34). In doing so, in being merciful and generous with money, just as our Lord Jesus is with us, we will make friends for ourselves through wealth. This is the other part of the lesson for what it is to be faithful in the little, earthly things we’ve been entrusted with.

Money can be hoarded greedily and kept to our own destruction, as in the example of the foolish rich man, or it can be used in openness and generosity to win friends and the respect and admiration of others. We can’t buy our way into heaven, and we can’t take what we “own” in this life to heaven either. But the one thing we can take to heaven is our friends. Think of all the people who are helped by the money that is given for missions or for charitable needs, and how thankful those people will be that we shared our Master’s goods with them. Giving our Master’s food, medicine, clothing, or money to those who are in need. Note Jesus’ words—“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.” So that when it fails. This is exactly why putting our trust and security in money and possessions is misguided. It will fail. It won’t last. But the love and appreciation of those who were helped will last forever. And while earthly wealth will fail, God won’t fail, and God will last.

A Christian who knows this will live like everything belongs to God, and it wouldn’t make one difference to them if they had to give it all back at any time, because it’s all His. They would use their possessions faithfully, knowing that the small things God entrusts us with in this life are but training for handling true riches in heaven. We don’t even fully know what that is, but we know that God has richly blessed us in Jesus Christ, and has a truly incredible inheritance in store for us in heaven. A Christian who knew that everything belongs to God would use wealth in the same way that God does, in mercy and generosity. And above all, that person would put their full trust in God’s mercy and kindness. Not because we were trying to swindle God or take advantage of His mercy to our own gain, but because we truly know that we can count on His mercy and faithfulness.

And it doesn’t matter how much we’ve been entrusted with—whether we’re rich or poor. If we’re faithful with a little we’ll be faithful with much. We don’t wish to be found to have squandered our master’s possessions when we’re called to “turn in the account of [our] management.” And truthfully, in the final analysis we all must admit that we haven’t managed what we’ve been given with perfect and unrelenting faithfulness. We have often been wasteful or irresponsible with what God, our Master has given us.

Then we must all the more cling to and put all our trust in the mercy and generosity of our God—confident of His grace. We’re confident in Jesus Christ who has been faithful over all of God’s house as a Son (Hebrews 3:6). Jesus, who was entrusted with much, who was entrusted with the fate of the whole world. He was given the management and care of our souls. He carried out His task so faithfully that He could truthfully answer to God that He kept all those people that God had given Him out of the world, and that He’d lost none of them except Judas, that the scripture might be fulfilled (John 17:12). We can be confident that Jesus is also able to guard and keep our souls, that He who was faithful in all God’s house, faithful even unto death, will be able to deliver our souls to His eternal kingdom. Jesus was the perfect manager of all God’s house because He poured out God’s generosity and forgiveness and the riches of God to all in need. And to plead on God’s mercy in Christ—to trust in His unshakeable reputation of forgiveness and mercy is no gamble—it is a sure thing. Jesus has taken account of all our debts, for all our guilt that we accumulated before God, and He cancelled that record of debt by nailing it to His cross (Col. 2:14). So be confident of God’s mercy, and live every day with the knowledge and trust that everything belongs to Him. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. How does the Bible warn against learning the ways of the world and adopting them? Jeremiah 10:2; Romans 12:2. Was the dishonest manager actually commended for his dishonesty, or what?

2. What kind of action might it have been reasonable and just for the master to take against the dishonest manager, 1) when he found out he wasted his possessions, and 2) when he found out the unauthorized reductions of debt he had made? What about the master’s character made him resist those actions? How is this a picture of our heavenly Father? Mt. 18:21ff

3. What was so clever about the dishonest manager’s action? What factor did the success of his plan depend on? What was the result for him? For the master? On the other hand, how does the parable show that while his cleverness was praised, his dishonest actions were condemned? See esp. verses 8, 10-13.

4. What are the greater things or the “true riches” we might be entrusted with? Luke 12:21; Matt. 6:19-24; 1 Peter 1:3-8. What is so difficult about accepting that what we “have” is not truly ours? Why doesn’t it work to be devoted to both God and money? Why must we be devoted only to God? Luke 16:13.

5. What will inevitably happen to money and material things? Luke 16:9; James 5:2-3. So in the meantime, what trait of God’s are we to imitate as we use our worldly wealth? Luke 12:31-34

6. Who is the perfectly faithful Son in whom we put our trust? Heb. 3:6. How well did He manage what was given to Him? John 17, esp. v. 12. In what can we trust for our accumulated debts to God? Col. 2:14

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