Saint Luke 16:1-13
Can you imagine the Lord Jesus commending you for being deceitful—for participating in shady business deals and even committing the crime of fraud? Like me, you probably cannot. It seems ridiculous to think that Jesus would condone such behaviour, let alone praise it. It may seem as though this is what He is doing in today’s Holy Gospel, but He is not. He is rather telling you how to be Salvation Shrewd.
At the beginning of the parable that Jesus tells, a man whom He calls a dishonest manager is accused of being wasteful. Charges against the man are brought to his master, that is, to his employer, accusing him of wasting his master’s possessions. It’s his job, you see, to look after the day-to-day workings of his master’s business dealings. For him to be wasting his master’s possessions means that he isn’t doing his job. And it’s not because he’s incapable of doing the work. He’s not in over his head because of a lack of skills or ability. It’s that he’s been lazy and negligent in his work. And, as we are given to understand the Seventh Commandment, his wasteful behaviour amounts to the same thing as stealing from his master. In the Large Catechism, Martin Luther says that workers who are intentionally lazy or careless, wasteful or negligent in their work are cheating their employers and are guilty of theft. So it is with the dishonest manager. In charging him with being wasteful, he is actually being accused of stealing from his master.
When the dishonest manager is called in before his master, we see that no proof of his crime is presented. The only evidence against him is what the master has heard from others. But that’s all that’s required to terminate the dishonest manager’s service, for back then, in that cultural setting, appearances are everything. Being shamed publicly is one of the worst things that can happen to a person. So, if word gets out, and what has happened becomes public knowledge—even if it isn’t true—then the master will have been made to look the fool. Therefore, to avoid this public humiliation, the master deals quietly with his dishonest manager. He tells him that after he’s turned in the account of his management, he’s out—or, as the American president might say, “You’re fired!”
For the dishonest manager, being fired is more than a difficult thing; it’s life threatening. Because of his sinful disregard of the Seventh Commandment, his very life is on the line. There’s no such thing as Employment Insurance back then. There’s no social safety nets such as we have now. And since it’s unlikely that he can find another managerial position, once word of what happened eventually leaks out, and because he’s not strong enough to do manual labour, like dig ditches, and he has too much pride to beg, the man knows that he will very likely end up starving to death. He’s in a pickle of epic proportions, and he has nothing in and of himself that will get him out of his trouble.
But then he realizes that, while he has nothing, his master has quite a lot. And, with his dismissal being kept quiet, those who do business with his master will still think that he continues to work for him. So, in the narrow window of time that he has—before he has to turn in the accounting to his master and leave—he enters upon a desperate plan to make friends for himself, with the hope that one of these friends might look upon him favourably and give him a job.
One by one, he calls in his master’s debtors and gives them a significant reduction in the amount they owe. The first one owes a hundred measures of oil; he cuts that debt in half. The next owes a hundred measures of wheat, which is reduced to eighty measures. The plan works well because being generous like this is something not out of character with his master. The debtors believe that the reductions are real because they know that this is something his master would actually do.
Now, not only does this plan work to make the debtors happy, it also makes the master happy when he learns about it. He commends the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. And why? Because his reputation of being a good and generous man has been made even better among the people of the community. His shrewd manager has now brought him great honour instead of shame.
With this parable, your Lord Jesus is not, in any way, suggesting that you should act dishonestly in your workplace or in any of your business dealings or in any part of your life, for that matter. The lesson that Jesus teaches and that He wants you to take to heart is all about your eternal salvation and what you must do to get it.
“Hold the phone, Pastor! What do you mean, ‘What I must do?’ Don’t we believe that salvation is a free gift from God that we receive solely because of His mercy and grace in Christ?” Well yes, you’re right. We do. Saint Paul testifies clearly to this in Ephesians, chapter two, saying, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Salvation must come to you as a gift from God because you can do absolutely nothing to earn it. For that to be possible, the entirety of God’s Law would have to be kept perfectly, and, as Saint James tells us, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” You may not be aware of all your sin—of the full extent of your sinfulness—but you don’t have to be. All that you need to know is that you are a sinner, deserving of nothing but death and everlasting damnation, and that there is nothing that you can do to get out of this epic pickle on your own. Your only hope is to look to God in faith, and trust in His mercy and grace. This, dear friends, is what you must do in order to be saved. This is being shrewd in the way that is commendable by our Lord Jesus.
And you know what? You are shrewd, because you are baptized. Shrewd is how the Holy Spirit has made you to be. You have been given faith that trusts solely for salvation and everlasting life in the mercy and grace of God, through His Son, our Lord. According to your baptismal life of faith you see without doubt that the only way to remain as a redeemed child of God is to cling tightly to the cross of Christ and be completely devoted, just as the believers immediately following the Day of Pentecost were devoted, to “the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” or, as you know it, to the Divine Service of Word and Sacrament. This blessed fellowship of faith, in which the Word of Christ is preached and the sacraments are administered, is where your Lord Jesus comes among us to bring you the forgiveness of sins that He earned for you on the cross of Calvary with His innocent suffering and death. Here, the Lord Jesus declares that you have life without end because, in Him, you are forgiven.
It sounds easy to be shrewd, doesn’t it? But, as we’ve talked about many times before, there’s another side to your baptismal life that complicates things immensely. It’s your sinful nature, which is not just about you continuing to sin and needing to be forgiven, but also about why you are so often apathetic about your faith, and not caring, as you should, about being forgiven and strengthened in the faith that has been given to you. While God the Holy Spirit has made you to be shrewd, your sinful nature works to negate that shrewdness and make you foolish.
Consider again that dishonest manager of the parable. Life was good for him before he foolishly wasted it all. He had a secure home and position with his generous master, who would have treated him very well. It doesn’t make sense that he would be so apathetic about that good life he had, and risk it all as he did. Nor does it make any sense for you to be apathetic and negligent in the life of faith that God has given to you. Your sinful nature, though, doesn’t care about it making sense. It does what it wants. It cares nothing about anything else—not even about eternity.
Which brings us back to our Lord’s purpose for telling the parable that’s before us today. Being shrewd about your eternal future means that you care about it—really care. It means that you care enough to do everything possible to ensure that you remain in the saving Christian faith. So, then, are you? Are you shrewd like this? Well, let’s find out. I’ve got five little, but very important questions to see if you are. And be honest about your answers.
- 1) Are you here, receiving God’s gifts of forgiveness and salvation as often as you can?
- 2) Are you contributing as fully as you can to the ministry of this congregation—to this place in which Christ, with the Holy Spirit, cares for you and sustains you in your faith with the Gospel?
- 3) Are you eager to study God’s Word with your brothers and sisters in the faith?
- 4) Do your sins concern you, as they should, or do you dismiss them as not being all that serious?
- 5) Is your confidence in Christ, or is it in you, and your perceived strength and goodness? In other words, is your faith in Christ, or is it in yourself?
Being shrewd about your faith, as God gives you to be, will have you seeking God’s help to amend your sinful ways. You will repent and earnestly plead for the Lord’s forgiveness. And you know what? The Lord is good; He is generous and loving and He will forgive you, and help you, so that, by His grace, you will always remain as His own dear child, in Christ Jesus, your Saviour and Redeemer. What the Psalmist proclaims is most certainly true for all of us, and we can join him in saying: “Behold, God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life.” Amen.