A Perplexing Parable of Possessions and Prudence
Text: Luke 16:1-15
Proper 20, C
The parable of the shrewd manager, is a tough and daunting story for many Christians. Not so much for the rest of the world. Everyone knows that you've got to use possessions and wealth prudently – to secure your future comfort. We see it in one commercial after another. But this same story is one of those sections of scripture that seems to mess everything up for us Christians. We just get comfortable with the idea that money is bad and God is good, and then we hear that (8) “The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.” With one little story about a man caught in his negligent ways ... who extricates himself by means of fraudulent dealings ... (and is commended for it!) all our tidy little ideas of how God feels towards money seem fit to be thrown out the window.
Consider just these words of Jesus in our text: (8-9) “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And 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.” Is our Lord actually saying that we are to manipulate money like Wall Street barons, always looking for the greatest return, or our best advantage? Is He implying that we can somehow buy our little piece of heavenly security? Does Jesus really commend dishonesty and hold it up as a valid course of action for we His disciples?
Not at all. We just need to look a little closer. The steward in our parable is most certainly guilty, He knows it, and apparently so does his Master. Yet the Master does not immediately toss him out in the streets. The steward picks up on this moment of mercy and runs with it. Indeed, he banks his whole future on his Lord's mercy. First he looks at his situation in human terms. What can he do to get himself out of the pickle he has got himself into? The only options available are beyond him and he knows it. Like the prodigal son, he is a man at rock bottom who knows that there is no way to get himself out again.
The steward's shrewdness, his prudence, is in recognizing that his Lord is an honourable man (even though he himself isn't) who will respond in mercy, as He has done in the past. Without hesitation he gets down to cancelling debts, and relieving loans so that the community, still unaware of all that is happening, will see it as the generous and merciful actions of the Master. What will the Master do when he discovers it? Why the only thing He can ... he will be merciful even as He always has been and honour the accounting.
In the end this parable of possessions and prudence is not about the dishonesty of the steward, but rather the mercy of the Lord. The steward is commended because he chose to serve his Lord, by helping others (even if there were selfish motives of self-preservation it turned out for the greater glory of the Master). He used unrighteous mammon to achieve this goal, though he didn't trust in it, but rather trusted in his merciful master.
Despite what some Christians might think, money is not bad. Money, like every other possession we have, is a gift from God. It is given to be used. Money and possessions are just things – tools. What makes a difference is how we use them. How we view them. An anonymous writer once declared: “The trouble is that too many people are spending money they don't have for things they don't need to impress people they don't like.”
How do we avoid the opposite pitfalls of shying away from any talk of money (cause no good can come of it), or allowing money to be master over us? What we need to remember is that all of our money is really someone else’s. It is God's and it is given to us a trust. And a temporary one at that! The day is coming when no more money will come your way, and even if it did you wouldn't be able to spend it. Money is a tool to be used NOW. Used in serving our neighbour, and bringing glory to Him through whom all blessings flow. It is not to be avoided, but put to good use – God's use. Neither is it to be horded or wasted on selfish gain, but in service of others.
For in the end, what this parable also clearly shows is that riches mean nothing to God! Imagine if the steward had given away all your money. Would you have reacted as nicely? Would you have congratulated him? Yet the master does. What use does He have for gold and silver? What is a great value to Him is how we give Him glory and how we serve the needs of our fellow man.
God doesn't care about your money as much as he cares about you. But that is precisely why we must be prudent with our money. As Jesus says: (10-12) “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?”
All our money, all our possessions, are in the end only very little gifts. Gifts that cannot save us or grant us life. Gifts that are only on loan. But He has very big gifts to give out. Gifts that are true riches indeed. Gifts of life and salvation. Gifts that are your very own to keep forever and ever. These heavenly treasures are all those things that entrust our lives to Christ's life and mercy: Reading and meditating on the Bible, Holy Baptism, the Lord's Supper.
It is no coincidence that those congregations which do not give these gifts the highest priority are also the congregations most often struggling with money issues. Yet where these gifts are received as the true treasures of heaven. Where they are received with joy, and held up before the world and one another as the most important part of our lives. Where Christian brothers and sisters hold each other accountable for how they use them. Where that Merciful Lord who died and rose again for the forgiveness of sins is the object of our faith and trust ... there money may not be abundant, but it will never be a recurring issue.
(13) “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” Thanks be to God that we have a Master who has freed us from slavery to our possessions. Praise be to Christ that we have a Lord who came to serve us by His blood of atonement ... who comes still to serve us in the washing of regeneration, by His Holy Word, and in the feast of His Holy Supper. All glory and honour be to the Holy Spirit who by faith gives us the prudence to know that our real future and security lies not in the stuff we hold, or the money we have made, but rather in the mercies of the one who holds all things in his gracious and nail-scarred hands.