Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The parable of the unjust steward has always been a little bit troubling. Preachers, writers, and teachers of the Bible often avoid it. Why have people struggled with this parable? On the surface, you may get the impression that it’s a story about a manager who cheats his master and is commended by Jesus for being a liar and a thief. A bit odd, isn’t it? Making a crook the hero of a parable? One Roman Emperor used this parable to claim that Jesus taught his followers to be liars and thieves and that they should be treated as such. But, there is an essential point to this parable that this Roman Emperor missed. And, since Jesus is the one who tells the parable, it must be important. The critical questions that will help us understand this parable are: What does the Parable of the Unjust Steward tell us about Rich Man? And what does this parable tell us about God?
I. The Generosity of the Landowner
The Master is a rich man who owns a lot of land. We know he is wealthy and has plenty of land from the amount of rent he is expecting. The debtors are the tenant farmers who rent that land from the landowner. They farm the land and pay their rent when the harvest comes by giving the landowner a pre-arranged portion of the harvest. The estate manager is in the middle between the landowner and the tenant farmers. He acts as the agent for the landowner. He does the day-to-day work of arranging the contracts and collecting the rent on behalf of the landowner. Those are the three characters in the parable: the landowner, the tenant farmers, and the estate manager.
But there is a significant problem. This estate manager has been wasteful and neglected to use the goods of the Master honestly. How does the Master find out the servant is being wasteful? The Master is given information from some reliable source. The landowner calls the manager into his office. At that point, the manager is sacked. He is fired on the spot. Both the landowner and the manager know this. He has lost his job. He is told to turn in the books. And yet, the manager still has possession of the books, at least for a bit longer.
As the manager goes to get his books, he contemplates his situation. He considers begging, which is simply not appealing to him – he would be too shamed to take up such a practice. He gives an honest reckoning of his physical limitations and realizes he cannot do manual labour. But then, in this desperate situation, the dishonest manager comes up with a master plan of self-preservation!
The manager summons the tenants. They believe he has a message from the Master. The manager has been fired. From this point, he is no longer legally authorized to conduct any business in the name of his master. Even if he does, it won’t be legally binding. Yet, the tenants don’t know that. In Jesus’ day, there was a little lag between the time he was fired and the time the word got out to the community. News travelled more slowly back then. The manager then reduces the rent of each tenant by the amount of eighteen months’ wages!
But did you notice that he has them change the amount? It happens in their handwriting, not his. This is an important detail. When he places the books on his master’s desk to review, the master slowly realizes two things: first, these rents have been lowered, and second, the tenants know about it because it’s in their handwriting. The tenants have no idea the manager was cheating the Master here. The manager likely gave the impression he had negotiated these reductions in rent with the landowner on their behalf. “I talked the old man into it.” So, the manager is their hero for arranging these discounts. At the same time the Master is celebrated as the most generous landowner anybody could have.
The landowner is now in a tricky spot. As a result of the rent decrease, the tenants now love the Master more. What will the Master do? Will he take back the generosity shown? If he does, though he may be right, he will lose respect with the community. They will be angry with him. This joy will be turned to disappointment, and the Master does not want this to happen. But amazingly, this master is not mad. He is thinking, “Well played, steward, well played.”
Do you know why? After being fired, the master had every right to have the dishonest manager thrown into prison, and his family sold into slavery to cover the cost of his losses. But he didn’t. The landowner’s character shines through here. And that’s the point: the manager’s entire scheme is built on his keen insight into the true nature of the master. He risks his survival on the master’s generosity.
At his heart, this master is gracious and generous. The manager had a relationship with the landowner and knew his character. Although he has abused that relationship by wasting the master’s goods, he still knows that the master will remain generous when it comes to reducing the rent of others. He gives away the master’s money with reckless abandon as he makes other people’s lives lighter and more bearable. He invests in friendships and builds community. And in doing so, he makes all the tenants appreciate not just him but also the master. The landowner, to them, seems to overflow with generosity in reducing their rent.
II. The Generosity of God
When the manager was in trouble, he risked everything on the landowner’s generosity. God is like the landowner. We are like the manager. Everything we have is on loan to us from God. So, we need to see ourselves as stewards of God’s possessions. Of course, Jesus is not condoning wastefulness and dishonesty. Jesus invites us to trust in God’s generosity and to abandon ourselves (and our wallets) to that generosity because, ultimately, it is not our money in the first place. Jesus is saying that we should likewise be just as shrewd and wise. We are stewards. God has given us all our money, and Jesus invites us to be good stewards of what God has given. Provide for yourself and your household, live within your means, and then share with reckless abandon because God promises to keep giving to us. Give it to others who need it: the poor and the debtors. Provide for your Church family. Give it to others to make friendships and build community. Jesus says that we should use our earthly means wisely for eternal purposes. He encourages us to be good stewards of what God has given us.
The problem that Jesus highlights here is that we forget about God and end up worshipping another god instead. Luther understood the idolatry of money when he wrote in the larger catechism:
Many a person thinks he has God and everything he needs when he has money and property; in them he trust and of them he boasts so stubbornly and securely that he cares for no one. Surely such a man also has a god- Mammon by name, that is, money and possessions – on which he fixes his whole heart. It is the most common idol on earth. He who has money and property feels secure, happy, fearless, as if he were sitting in the midst of paradise. On the other hand, he who has nothing doubts and despairs as if he never heard of God. Very few there are who are cheerful, who do not fret and complain, if they do not have Mammon. This desire for wealth clings and cleaves to our nature all the way to the grave.” (Large Catechism, 1.5-9)
Jesus says you cannot serve two masters. Either you’ll serve the Creator God, or you will serve Mammon. As the manager was commanded to turn in the books so his work could be critiqued, so one day, everyone will stand before the Judgment seat, and the books will one day be required from us. Everyone will be called to turn in the books. The “books” are the story of your life. All your deeds, thoughts, actions, and ideas will be examined. You will be judged as to whether you are a good steward or an unjust steward. Do you have a sense of self-preservation? Judgment day is coming. So what should we do? Even a dishonest manager could avoid his inevitable doom if he acted astutely. When judgment is imminent and unavoidable, the shrewd and wise person takes action and risks it all on God’s incredible generosity and mercy.
It’s not as though we serve a master who is brutal and cruel. Our Creator God is unusually generous. Even if we’ve been unfaithful in using his money, have squandered it, wasted it, or been selfish or greedy, our God is still merciful. The manager deserved to go to jail, and we deserve to go to hell. But Jesus says you will be saved if you cast your whole life on God’s mercy. We can be saved only because of the generosity of our God. This is Jesus Christ, our Master. He loves and forgives sinners. We don’t have to make back payments, make up for our sins, or try to impress anyone. We don’t have to do anything. He’s done it for us. Not only is your debt reduced, but it is also taken away! A hundred per cent! Erased, wiped out, down to zero, nada! Your debt has been paid in full! Jesus paid it all for you! He paid the price you could never pay. “Christ Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all.” Jesus willingly offered up his perfect, sinless life as payment for the entire debt of all our sins. He rescued you. Christ bought you. He redeemed you not with money – gold and silver- but with Blood, His holy precious Blood offered for you. He bought you out of slavery to Sin and Death and made you a steward of God, a priest offering your bodies, your time, your talents, and your treasures as living sacrifices of praise.
That Roman Emperor was wrong. This parable is not chiefly about a manager who swindled his master. The dishonest manager was smart enough to put his entire trust in the mercy of a generous master. Your God has been merciful and generous with you. God’s heart is full of boundless compassion for you. Dear Christian, risk everything on the generosity and mercy of God. He spared not His own begotten Son but gave Him into death to forgive all your sins and give you eternal life. He is generous. Be good stewards of what God has given you, and trust him.
May, the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.