Homily for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church and Oxford Lutheran Mission on 19 September 2010. (Audio from Oxford here)
Text: Luke 16:1-15
The Parable of the Shrewd, or Dishonest, Manager.
The teaching of Jesus before us is undoubtedly one that has caused more headache among students of God’s Word than almost any other. According to scholar, preachers have tended to avoid it like the plague, because they don’t know what to do with it. One of the most learned scholars of the New Testament in the twentieth century, the German professor Rudolf Bultmann, declared that it was impossible for modern people to recover the meaning of this parable. Jesus clearly meant something by it, but what that was, we don’t know and will never find out.
The one thing that is straightforward about the parable is why it has caused so much trouble: it tells of a dishonest manager who attempts to save his skin by engaging in even more dishonesty―and at the climax of the parable is praised for his actions by the rich man whose money he has just signed away. Is Jesus really setting up a thief as an example for Christians to follow? No wonder Julian the Apostate, a pagan emperor of Rome held up this parable as one of his arguments against Christianity: it promotes immorality and dishonesty!
However, we do well to keep reminding ourselves that the difficulty with difficult Bible passages is with our understanding, not with God’s Word. The same is true here as well. With careful attention to Jesus’ teaching what we discover is not a promotion of dishonesty, or even an incomprehensible teaching, but a profound exposition of Gospel comfort.
The problem we have with understanding this parable is neatly summed up in the name it has been given. It is usually called the parable of the dishonest manager, or the parable of the shrewd manager, depending on which version of the Bible you are reading. However, not for the first time in this part of Luke’s Gospel, the common name of the parable leads us astray. We already learned last week that the parable of the Lost Sheep is really the parable about the crazy shepherd; the parable of the Lost Coin is really about the extravagance of a woman who found a lost coin; and the parable of the Prodigal Son is really the parable of the Prodigal Father. In other words, these parables are not fundamentally about us or about our dealings toward God, but about someone other than us, about God’s dealings toward us. And so it is with the so-called parable of the shrewd manager.
* * * * *
So we have this manager, in charge of the financial affairs of a rich landowner. Not untypically, the manager had abused his position to squander his master’s possessions. That word had got to the master about the manager’s dishonesty tells us something important about the master: he was clearly a man with friends in the community. Someone cared enough about him to report his manager’s dishonesty to him. So the rich man of the parable was clearly a well-known and well-regarded member of the community, a man with friends and a reputation.
No doubt there were countless such landowners in ancient Palestine, men of importance and means who were at the centres of their communities. However, there is something else about the master that makes him stand out as an unusual member of his class: he is strikingly generous and magnanimous. When he is confronted with the charges against his manager, he has a number of options. He could have the man imprisoned on the spot, placed in a debtors’ prison until he has repaid what has been squandered. Or he could have him and his family sold as slaves to recover the lost possessions. But instead of either of these options that were in his best interests, he is contented merely to sack the man and to bear the losses himself. No wonder he was well regarded in the community!
This is the first thing Jesus wants to teach us this morning about God: about His gratuitous goodness and kindness. It is gratuitous because it is undeserved and unexpected. We all have received countless gifts from God. We confess in the Small Catechism that, through the gift of creation, God
has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them.
He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life.
He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil.
All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me. For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.
This is most certainly true.
What have you done to deserve any of this? What has any sinner done to receive anything good from our holy God? All we have deserved is judgement and condemnation; yet He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matt. 5:45). Because our God is by nature a giving God. He gives from Himself good things because He Himself is good. The created gifts of the Father are obscured by our sin and our abuse of those gifts; but that anything good exists at all is so remarkable that if we truly understood the incongruity of such good things happening to such bad people as us, we would not need reminding that it is our duty to thank and praise, serve and obey such a generously giving God.
* * * * *
Having lost his job, the manager has to do some quick thinking. How is he going to keep body and soul together without an income? Given the cause of his sacking, he is not likely to get another job as manager. He is unfit for physical work, and has too much self-respect to beg. Besides, lacking any disability, his begging wouldn’t be seen as acceptable by others but taken for scrounging. In other words, he recognises that if he is to come out of this disaster with any hope for the future, he will need help from outside himself. He cannot help himself.
His only hope lies in the character of his master―of making best use of his famous magnanimity. And so he springs into action, calling the master’s debtors in and slashes their debts before the word gets out that in fact he no longer has the authority to act on behalf of the master. And when he acts, he does it with some style. The debt reductions he dished out were vast, worth tens of thousands of pounds in today’s money.
You can imagine the reaction of the debtors, the word they spread round the village the moment they left the manager’s office: have you heard what that wonderful landowner has done for me? He has just forgiven me a vast amount of my debt, just like that!
By the time the word about this surprising news gets to the master, he has two choices. He can either spoil the party that’s erupted around him―and by so doing, have the villagers grumble at him rather than admire his generosity. This way he would keep his money, but his reputation and good name would suffer serious harm. Or he can let the debts go, write off large chunks of money but have his already good reputation grow even greater. In the end, there is no choice. And so the dishonest manager wins both ways: he has lost his job, but has just found plenty of people who owe him a debt of gratitude and will look after him. While the master, though badly out of pocket, has his reputation enhanced and cannot but praise the manager for his shrewdness―but not for his dishonesty.
* * * * *
And so it turns out that neither Rudolf Bultmann nor Julian the Apostate had the true measure of Jesus’ teaching. The meaning of this parable is not so obscure after all―but it is not a parable about a dishonest manager. The manager may be dishonest, but he is above all shrewd. And his shrewdness consists in this: he knows the character of his master so well as to turn it to his own advantage, and by doing so he overcomes the fact that he is in a hopeless situation of his own making, lacking the ability to make a new life for himself.
What better example could Jesus have set before us? We are exactly like the devious fellow: dishonest stewards of God’s gifts, daily squandering His good gifts for our bodies and souls in a life of sin and unbelief. We take advantage of His goodness and kindness in providing us with undeserved good things by continually abusing them―or grumbling or despairing when we don’t have them in the measure or form we would like.
But unlike the dishonest manager, we naturally lack both the self-awareness and the shrewdness to realise that there is nothing we can do to make the situation better. There is nothing more natural for sinful humans to do than to try to either dig or beg our way out of the dead-ends of our sin, back into favour with man and God. It sometimes works with man, but with God it’s a hopeless enterprise. It’s only by the grace of God, when His law strikes us smack in the face, that we are confronted by the reality: too weak to dig, and begging won’t work either―for what sympathy could we possibly hoped for from a Holy God on the strength of our pleading!
The only solution lies outside ourselves, in the character of God. If we are to survive the shipwreck of our sin, we can only do so by making best use of ― by manipulating ― God’s incredible grace and mercy. This is the heart of Jesus’ rebuke to His disciples: the dishonest manager ― or to render Jesus’ words literally, the manager of unrighteousness ― knew how to take selfish advantage of the good nature of his master. Yet when it comes to our dealings with God, we either doubt His goodness, or decide to manage without it. How obtuse, how utterly self-defeating! Surely, if the crook in the parable knew what to do, surely God’s children should know much better.
For God has given us His Word, and He has packed His Word full of promise after gracious promise. He hasn’t contented Himself with giving us perishing, earthly gifts to use and abuse. He has given us His Son, in order to wipe away our sin and to undo its effects―to take us back to where He placed us in the first place: in a perfect world in His presence. He invites us today to admit the facts: that in ourselves we are doomed, that we will neither dig nor beg our way out of sin and the effects of sin. We are without hope in ourselves. But He does something far more wonderful still: He invites us to stop trying, to give up on ourselves, and to cast ourselves on His goodness and mercy.
For God so loved the world that He gave― gave me body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, spouse and children, land, animals, all I have, and all that I need to support this body and life, protection against all danger and from all evil. But this is small change and a vanishing joy compared to His greatest gift: that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him―trusts in His promises, relies on what He has done for us despite ourselves―should not perish but have eternal life.
He gave His only Son to the world in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, and 30 years later on the cross outside Jerusalem, and then three days later out of the empty tomb. And he gave His Son to you in your baptism. He gives His only Son to you in the Word of the Gospel. And He gives His only Son to you in the Sacrament of the Son’s body and blood at this altar, in this church, this morning. He gives Him to you so that you may believe and, believing, should not perish but have eternal life.
I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord,
who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death,
that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness,
just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.
This is most certainly true.