Sermon for Trinity 9
Luke 16:1-9 + 2 Samuel 22:26-34 + 1 Corinthians 10:6-13
We hear all the time about how the people of this world are lost in their materialism, their greed, their thirst for more and more money. We know how people tend to make money and wealth and financial security into a god whom they serve like slaves. The world is presented in Scripture as foolish when it comes to God. But in one sense, in their dealings with one another, even unbelievers show a kind of wisdom, not true wisdom that comes from God, not wisdom that will serve them for eternity, but a very basic, common-sense kind of wisdom: The day will come when I need help from other people, so I’d better treat them well. What goes around comes around.
Jesus capitalizes on that bit of worldly wisdom as he teaches us today in the Gospel. We have before us this rather unique parable about the unjust steward or the shrewd manager, a real rascal, and yet that rascal, in the end, is praised for his shrewdness, his wisdom. Let’s follow Jesus through this parable of the shrewd manager and heed Jesus’ words: Learn a bit of wisdom from the wicked when it comes to wealth.
Jesus tells the story of a rich man who had an estate manager. The manager was being accused of wasting or squandering his master’s possessions. He wasn’t necessarily a thief or a cheat. But neither was a good steward. He spent his master’s money recklessly, uselessly, without gaining a profit for his master.
The manager knew the accusations were true. He was caught red-handed. His master called him in and fired him right there on the spot, and then ordered him to turn in his accounting records. Even though he already lost his job, the manager would still have to answer for all the bad decisions he made with someone else’s money. The day of reckoning was fast approaching.
But here’s where that wicked, wasteful manager finally began to become wise. He put two and two together. He knew he couldn’t justify any of his actions as an employee of the rich man. He didn’t try to make a case for himself or beg for a second chance to get it right. He knew he had messed everything up beyond repair with his master. He also knew that he needed someone to help him after he lost his job. There was no unemployment insurance back in those days. He would be out on the streets in just a little while. He had nothing saved up in the bank, and the only work available was hard manual labor, for which his cushy managerial job had left him completely unprepared.
I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses. For just a little while, he still had access to his master’s debtors – those who owed him a certain return on their farming endeavors. So he worked fast and hard with the little time he had left before the day of the reckoning of accounts occurred, giving his master’s debtors the bargain of a lifetime. One got a 50% reduction in the amount he owed. Another got a 20% reduction. The manager couldn’t buy his way back into his master’s good graces. But by doing these favors for his fellow man, by using the wealth that was at his disposal to help others, the wise manager was buying friends for himself who could help him get back on his feet after he lost his job.
And the real beauty of his scheme, was that it was a win-win situation for everyone. The debtors got a great deal, the manager would have friends to help him after he lost his job, and the rich man got the reputation for being the most generous landowner in the country, because his debtors thought the manager was giving them a break on the rich man’s orders. So instead of becoming angry, the rich man praised his manager for finally doing something intelligent with his money. Finally he had made a profit for the rich man – not a monetary profit, but a profit of friendship and loyalty, a non-traditional business transaction that would benefit everyone.
And so the manager acted shrewdly, wisely. He didn’t have an ounce of righteousness or personal goodness in him. But he was very smart in his final dealings with his master and with the people whom he made his friends by doing favors for them with the money he had at his disposal for that short time before the day of reckoning came.
And so it is, Jesus says, that the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. What goes around comes around, they say. Do unto others, because someday you may need them to do unto you. That’s worldly wisdom. Most people of this world know that the day will come when they need help from other people. So they give funds for cancer research, because they know they might benefit from that research someday. They do favors for their neighbors, because someday they may need to ask for a favor back. Parents set aside money for their children’s college fund, because they know they may depend on their children’s care someday. Politicians are famous for kicking back money to their constituents to win a favorable vote. And citizens are all too happy to contribute to campaigns in order to buy the friendship of their elected officials. It’s called self-preservation. There’s nothing righteous about it. There’s nothing God-pleasing about it. But at least it makes sense for life in this world.
We, however, the people of the light, don’t always act with such sense when it comes to our dealings with one another. We, like the manager in the parable, have totally mismanaged God’s riches that he has placed into our hands. You’ve been entrusted by the Rich One with everything you think you “own.” It’s his property. You are stewards of it, managers. Do you even consider that every penny that has been entrusted to you has been entrusted to you so that you might serve God with it – using it as he has commanded you to use it in his Word? What kind of profit have you made for God with his wealth? How often don’t you waste his possessions on things that won’t help anyone at all, not even yourself, much less anyone else, not even for this life, much less for eternity?
You stand accused before God of mismanagement of his funds. A Day of reckoning has been set. THE Day of reckoning – your death or judgment day, whichever comes first. Even knowing that, though, the people of the light still battle against this inner darkness that wants to spend our time and energy and money on self-serving things, things that don’t help anyone, that don’t serve anyone, as if, on the day of reckoning, we won’t have to give an account, as if, on the day of reckoning, we won’t need any friends to speak up for us. We’re people of the light, we think. God has to welcome us into his eternal dwellings. We don’t need to be concerned about helping other people. We don’t need them!
But, Jesus says, you do. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. What does he mean?
He means, learn a bit of wisdom from the wicked when it comes to wealth. Learn from the shrewd manager. He knew the day of reckoning was coming and that he was guilty and that he couldn’t possibly justify himself. You know the same thing. Your works condemn you and you can’t justify yourself before God, either. Don’t try. Don’t try to buy your way into heaven or bargain with God. Don’t try to make excuses for your sinful record.
How, then, will you stand on that day when you have to give an account before God? The rich man knew that he needed friends to help him on the day of reckoning. You know that, too. Repent! Admit your bad management and look to your Friend, Jesus, whose friendship you did not buy or earn, but who loved you with an everlasting love and gave himself for you as a sacrifice of atonement, who cancelled your debts with God by his death on the cross and settled the accounts for you with his heavenly Father. Christ has managed his Father’s estate perfectly. He has earned for you a gracious Father in heaven. You enter heaven on his merits, not on your own. Trust in him, because it’s by faith in him – faith alone! – that God forgives you all your sins, all your bad management, all your bad decisions. They are erased from his accounting records.
But if it is by faith alone in Christ that you will be able to stand on the day of reckoning, then be wise in the short time you have before that day arrives. Spend your time and energy devoted to those things that create and strengthen and nourish your faith. That God does in the Word and the Sacraments alone, where he gives you Christ, he gives you himself.
And it’s also through Word and Sacrament that God transforms you into people like him, people of the light who walk in the light, into generous people who see wealth not as a goal in this life, but as a means of serving, not God, but your neighbor, who needs your wealth, who needs your charity and your generosity. And as you use God’s wealth to help others, you, like the manager in the parable, will only be enhancing God’s reputation with others, because you act in his name. You act as a Christian.
And you’ll find that, as you use your wealth to help the poor or to help fellow Christians in need, to support pastors and teachers and missionaries and the people whom they serve all around the world – you’ll find that you are accumulating friends for yourselves who will welcome you into eternal dwellings on the Last Day. It’s not that you’re buying your way into heaven. Faith in Christ saves. But works of love testify to the presence of faith. Those who are helped by your faithful stewardship of God’s possessions will be witnesses for you on the Last Day, friends who will give thanks to God for your shrewd management of his wealth. This one took time for me. This one helped me. This one acted generously with me.
The world is not wise at all when it comes to God, but the wicked can be wise in how they treat one another. That’s a bit of wisdom you can learn from them. But here’s a bit of wisdom the world will never know: Live your life with an eye toward the Day of Reckoning, with daily sorrow over your sin but with even greater daily rejoicing, with confidence that your life with God depends on Christ alone, but living out your days on earth as if your neighbor’s well-being depended on you alone. Amen.