A Lesson for the Just from the Unjust Steward

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Sermon for Trinity 9

1 Chronicles 29:10-13  +  1 Corinthians 10:6-13  +  Luke 16:1-9

All things belong to God. We heard King David acknowledge that in the First Lesson: Yours, O LORD, is the greatness, The power and the glory, The victory and the majesty; For all that is in heaven and in earth is Yours;  Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, And You are exalted as head over all.

If all things in heaven and on earth belong to God, then we don’t actually own anything; we are stewards of God’s possessions, managers of God’s wealth. And if God is truly exalted as head over all, then it is God’s divine right to give His stewards directions as to how to use the possessions He has placed into our hands, and it is our solemn obligation to follow His directions.

We often think of stewardship in relation to offerings—the offerings God’s people are commanded to bring to support the ministers and the ministry of the Gospel. That’s part of it, but not all of it. God also commands us to use His possessions to provide for the needs of our families, and for the governing authorities in our land, and to help our neighbor in general.

Now, I ask you, how often do you open your wallet and pull out a dollar and think to yourself, “This is God’s dollar, and I must use it as God commands”? How often do you look at your bank statement and consider each deposit as a deposit of God’s money into your account, or each withdrawal as a withdrawal of God’s money? I don’t always think about that. I know you don’t always think about that, either, because, even as Christians, there is this idolatrous flesh that lives within you and worships at the altar of self and puts an offering on that altar called mammon—money, wealth, material possessions.

That’s what our Gospel today addresses. And let’s be clear whom it’s addressing. Jesus is speaking to believers, to Christians. Now, He says it loud enough for non-Christians to hear and to stand convicted before Him, even as the Pharisees were listening in our Gospel and grew angry at Jesus for His words. But Jesus is actually addressing the “sons of light,” as He calls Christians in His Gospel, sons of light who need to be called to repentance, first to a change of heart, and then, to a change of behavior. He uses the example of an unjust steward in order to teach the just.

That’s important, and I want to repeat it. Jesus is speaking to the just, those who are righteous by faith alone. Those who still do not acknowledge their utter depravity and lostness, those who still do not know the mercy of Christ or trust in Him for mercy and forgiveness—they can’t learn a thing from Jesus about how to do good or how to use money in a God-pleasing way. They are not God-pleasing people, due to their unbelief, and so nothing they do can please God. A person first has to be good, before he or she can do good. And Scripture reveals that the only way to be good is to receive the goodness of Christ by faith. So telling your unbelieving neighbor to be a good steward of God’s possessions is useless, and even harmful, because your unbelieving neighbor might get the idea that, by managing his money well, he is pleasing God. No, no, repentance and faith in Christ have to come first. A person has to be born again of water and the Spirit first. That’s what makes a person pleasing to God. Only then can we talk about doing the things that please God.

Jesus knows that His people need ongoing correction because of our sinful flesh, so He tells this parable. It’s a unique parable, because Jesus is intentionally using the example of an unjust person in order to teach the just, in this case, a steward who was in charge of managing the possessions of a rich man.

It’s a very simple parable, really. The steward was accused of squandering the wealth of the rich man—not managing it well. Not necessarily stealing it, but “wasting it,” not giving proper thought to where all the money was going, or letting too much go to certain things and not enough go to other things. He was called in to give an account. Then and only then did he become shrewd. Then and only then did he start to make intelligent calculations with his master’s wealth in the short time he had left. He started planning what to do with his master’s money. He decided to use it to buy the good favor of his fellow servants who owed money to their master, and he thought carefully about how much to reduce their debts, not too much, not too little, just the right amount for each one.

That is what his master praised. Certainly not his attitude or his heart. Certainly not his dishonesty or lack of integrity. But his shrewdness, the smart way he managed his master’s possessions to gain friends for himself.

Jesus then contrasts the shrewdness of that unjust steward with the laziness and haphazard use of money that often plagues His own people: For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light. Now, that doesn’t mean that the sons of this world are earning their way into God’s favor or into heaven by their shrewdness. Not at all. Nor is it to say that believers in Christ need to earn their way into God’s favor or into heaven by managing God’s possessions well. Only Christ earns a person’s way into heaven, and only by faith do we receive what He earned: best of all, the forgiveness of our sins.

But the believer is inspired by Jesus’ words to do better, to walk in daily repentance and in newness of life. The believer in Christ doesn’t rely on his good use of God’s possessions to get into heaven, nor does the believer in Christ despair because of his past sinful use of God’s possessions. The believer in Christ strives to walk in step with the Holy Spirit, to learn from bad examples of stewardship and to correct them. St. Paul referred to that in our Epistle today, how God has given us all those bad examples from the Old Testament to teach us, so that we don’t commit the same errors, fall into the same sins, and worse, fall away from faith, as so many of the Old Testament believers did.

So, what do the just learn from the unjust steward? First, to remember your vocation as a steward of God’s possessions, to not let Satan or your flesh drag you away to make yourself into your own god, so that you don’t listen to God’s instructions on how to use His possessions, because you’re too busy making your own plans to bother with His commands. The unjust steward had forgotten his place and his calling. We should not forget who and what we are.

Second, the just learn from the unjust steward to plan and make intelligent calculations with God’s possessions. You have God’s instructions, His general parameters for how to manage His possessions that are in your hands: to provide for your pastor’s needs and for the extension of the preaching of the Gospel, for your immediate family’s needs, for your extended family’s needs, for the compensation of your governors and government authorities, for your fellow believer’s needs and for your neighbor’s needs in general, roughly in that order. Notice, I said, “needs,” not “wants.” And if you still have something leftover, He allows you to use that for your enjoyment. And in order to make sure you’re not just thoughtlessly spending money, here and there, that almost certainly requires some sort of budget.

But how much exactly should you budget to each of the areas where God has commanded or allowed you to use His gifts? Ah, there God has not given specific commands. There God looks for shrewdness on your part, for sound judgment, like the shrewdness shown by the unjust steward.

And above all, God looks for you to plan your budget and to use His possessions with this overall guiding principle: to show generous love toward your neighbor. And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home. It’s not that you earn your way into heaven by being generous toward other people. Heaven is God’s gift to those who rely only on Christ and His grace and mercy. But faith is proved in the believer’s life, and faith is demonstrated to those around you by the love that flows from it, and that includes the love that uses money, not in the service of self, but in the service of your neighbor.

Faith alone makes you good before God; you are just, by faith. So look to Christ for mercy. Believe in Him and receive His generous love here in His Word and here in His Sacrament. And, since you are good before God by faith in Christ, you are now able to do works that God considers good. Let your shrewdness and your wise management of God’s possessions serve as a daily thank-offering to God for all His goodness to you. If the unjust steward could learn to manage his master’s wealth wisely, how much more you, who are just by faith in Christ! Amen.

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