28. July 2013
The Sunday of the Unjust Steward
The parable of the Unjust Steward may be the most difficult of the parables of Jesus. Some have even question whether He actually spoke it. It comes immediately after the parable of the Prodigal Son that you heard preached a few weeks ago. In that parable, the son is wicked and the father is clearly merciful. But the son’s scandalous behavior is never commended. Yet, today, the wicked steward who wastes His Lord’s possessions is commended in this. How can these two parables stand side-by-side and be uttered by the same Jesus?
Parables are difficult because they don’t always attempt to do the same thing. Sometimes they provide the positive example. You are like the prodigal. Return to your heavenly Father and He will receive you with open hands. Sometimes they describe the work of God as in the parable of the Sower. Sometimes they describe the present reality of the church in the world as in the parable of the Good and Bad Trees.
Today’s is unique because it’s point of comparison is not positive but negative. In literature this is called an anti-type. So we are not like the character positively but in the opposite way. Thus, Jesus says at the conclusion, For the sons of this world are more shrewd [wise, prudent] in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. Sons of the world are not like sons of light, yet despite their differences, perhaps they should be more similar?
The sons of this world use the wealth God gave them—they are like the birds of the heavens and the lilies of the field, after all—not for righteous ends. But they don’t waste it, either. The parable commends the unjust/unrighteous steward because He scatters the master’s wealth to gain friends and a home when he is fired from his job. It’s smart, really. Everyone knows he should have a contingency plan if things don’t work out with the employer. Especially employees who are squandering the time, money, and assets of their employer should have backup plans.
But is the unjust steward a hero or a villain? How can we apply him as an example? Are we to squander the blessings of God? Should we waste our personal time on unimportant things? Should we abuse our jobs by “borrowing” paper and postage, checking Facebook, and pursing personal interests on employer time? Should we store brownie points with friends for a “rainy day”?
You see the confusion. If Jesus is giving us a hero example, then our instruction is to waste His possessions, to dishonestly manage God’s treasury. If you’re like me, something about this still doesn’t make sense. Why does it bother us that the Lord commends the unjust for wasting His possessions? Is the unjust steward a hero or is he really a villain? Yeah, it is smart for the steward but it makes no sense from the Lord’s perspective. Taking the Master’s possessions and wasting them, bad. Unjustly forgiving the debtors to gain friends, also bad, right?
We have been considering this whole parable from our perspective—by our standards or justice, or thoughts of stewardship, and in the way that we understand wealth. And since we’re reading this from our perspective, we are reading it for moral instruction and laws for living. When we read the parable this way, we can’t understand it’s commendation of unrighteousness, it’s squandering of possessions, it’s seeming indifference to wealth gathering by either steward or Lord, and it’s nonsensical morality. No wonder you and I are so confused.
I’d like to suggest to you today to consider the parable from God’s perspective. For the moment, let’s not read it for instruction on our own morality, or for lessons on how to spend money, or even as a “stewardship” sermon. Let’s read this as if it describes God himself. By the way of the anti-type—the opposite of the unjust steward—let us learn of the type, Christ himself. And then, we learn how radically different God is than we by nature and thus also how much different sons of this world are from the sons of light.
Our Father entrusted to His Son Jesus the stewardship of a great house, the heavenly kingdom. It is full of rich treasures of forgiveness, abundant mercy, and everlasting life. Those possessions are not to be squandered on the Son of God alone. Thus, the Son died to the Lord of the House, forsaken and humiliated. And upon His death, the great Steward Jesus takes those possessions heaven and gives them away freely to the poor, the needy, the sick, the unwise—all the unjust. He pours out great gifts from that deep treasure chest on those who do not deserve it.
For this work of Jesus, our heavenly Father commends him for His wisdom, shrewdness. By unjustly dying, rising, and giving the wealth of the Father to those who do not deserve forgiveness, He has won for the Father friends to dwell with Him in the eternal tabernacles. Indeed, while from our perspective we owe our God great debts, from His perspective He has forgiven them. And His forgiveness is far greater than the anti-type of the unjust steward. He has not forgiven only 20 percent or 50 percent of our debts to Him, by in utter worldly wastefulness (or Godly forgiveness) He has removed the entire wage for our sin. Balance owed? Zero. Merit needed? Nothing. Worthiness to work on? Zip.
Thus, the injustice of our world is the anti-type of God’s mercy. Mercy is shown the steward Jesus squandering all God’s love and even life upon you. He is so reckless in His mercy that to our mortal eyes we think Him unjust. We want to add to His mercy, to find a way to pay back some little portion into that treasury. But that’s not how it works. Grace is given when God forgives your trespasses freely, no merit or worth needed. Mercy is shown on sons of this world when that precious treasure of Jesus’ blood was washed over you in Holy Baptism. Jesus gave His life, His Father’s dearest treasure, to gain for Him a church, a body of believers and children of light, to dwell with Him in the eternal home. It’s almost criminal how generous He is towards us.
I think then, having been made children of light, Jesus would have us learn something about our life together. That final phrase— 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—explains what He means. We have been freed from our worldly wisdom. We no longer look at home, church, and money like this world. They are not treasures to store up or to waste on ourselves. The stuff of this life including our life has been redeemed, redeemed to be given.
Like people in this world “wisely” squander and waste their possessions and those of their masters to gain friends, we have been freed by Jesus’ reckless generosity to win friends for heaven in like manner. If we see someone in need do we question their motives or do we give with abandon? If our neighbor needs our strength do we consider the gain of wealth and charge or offer generously? If we know of their unbelief do we speak the truth in love or leave that effort to someone else?
Thanks be to God that the Son gave His life for sinners, gave up His strength to make us strong, spoke the truth even when it cost Him His life. Today’s parable shows us how great our Lord’s mercy is. It commends to us Jesus. And then, we show the mercy that He has given to us. With the merciful God shows Himself merciful. Mercy isn’t a secondary part of the work of the church. Mercy in forgiveness, mercy in charity, mercy in giving Jesus is what the church is entirely about. I’m relieved that in Jesus’ budget planning, mercy wasn’t a line item named “outside support” but the entire sum. This seemingly unjust stewardship of the Father’s wealth is just the thing we poor sinners, otherwise doomed to weakness and death, need.
Thus St. Paul writes: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:3-11) Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church