There are two things we have to get right in our own minds before today’s Gospel makes sense. First, we have to understand why Jesus commends the dishonest manager. He does not commend him for his dishonesty. The manager is stealing from the master. He is not obeying the Seventh Commandment by helping him to improve and protect his possessions and income. However, Jesus commends the manager for his shrewdness. What does it mean to be “shrewd?” As the dictionary defines it, to be shrewd is to have an insightful awareness and a realistic discernment. In other words, the manager knew himself well, he knew how desperate the situation was, and he knew how he could take a bad situation and make it work out for himself. He knew how all the moving parts had to come together for the best outcome.
The second thing we need to get right in our own mind is that not one of us are owners. Each of us are stewards, or managers, of the things God has given us. He has given us skills, intelligence, our bodies, and through them He gives us material possessions. So, all the things we have—from bank account to house and home and even our own bodies—are not our own. Rather, they are on loan to us from God and we are to make the best use of all of these things, not wasting or abusing them, instead recognizing that they all belong to Him. With those two things set straight, we can begin to unpack this parable.
The Law’s question in this parable is: What is the most important thing in your life? To understand the gravity of this question, Jesus gives us the last verse of today’s Gospel: “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.” However, don’t hear that last word just as money. You might be more familiar with hearing the word mammon in this parable. You just sang that word: “The world seeks after wealth and all that mammon offers.” Mammon is far more than just money. It’s all the trappings of this life—money, possessions, comfort, pleasure, and the like. You cannot serve God and the things of this world.
So, what is more important to you—God or your own comfort? We’re pious Christians sitting in church on a Sunday morning—one of the last Sundays of the summer nonetheless! So, I know what each of our answers would be: God is more important! But, of course, that is our deceptive answer. That’s our façade. We can say that with our mouths, but our actions speak louder than words. That was the problem for the dishonest manager in the parable. He said he had a good master, that he loved his master and wanted to be faithful to him. But his actions confessed a different truth. He wasted the master’s property. He was lazy. He didn’t do his job. He had been stealing from his master long before he told the debtors to reduce the amount they owed.
We say God is our only Master, that we gladly serve Him and put Him first in our lives. But what do our actions confess? What are our lives like once we leave this place? What does your giving to the Church reflect—joyful giving of the firstfruits or waiting to see what’s left over for God to put to use through His congregation? What does the giving of your time look like—is there time set aside for God, for His Word, for acts of charity toward your neighbor, or are there just not enough hours in the day to do those acts of Christian piety? Not one of us are as pious and faithful as we’d like to present ourselves to be. St. Paul’s words are apt words of warning for us: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” As he laid out for the Corinthians, the Israelites are our example—unholy living catches up to you and has consequences. That’s because we are stewards of everything we have. None of it is ours. Our bodies, our talents, our treasures, our world all belong to God, so He gets to set the rules for how they are used. And when we break those rules, when we act like the dishonest manager treating everything as if we own it and are the lord and master, the result is not pleasant. There are consequences.
So, how are we to use the things of this world? The dishonest manager was commended because he acted shrewdly, he realized what he needed to do to serve his ultimate goal and good. We as Christians are called to take a page from the world’s playbook. Not its greed and ungodliness, but its devotion to serving its ultimate goal. Think of the stereotypical big business CEO. The assumption is that he wants money and things, so he causes everything to work out so he increases in wealth and possessions. Every action he takes serves that end goal.
For Christians, the meaning of this is to order your life so that you serve God over self, choosing God as your master instead of mammon. This has all sorts of implications for how each of us orders our days and weeks. It has implications on how we talk and what friends we keep. This is part of our sanctification. And it’s not an easy thing. The more we try to reorder our lives to have God as our master, the more we realize that mammon has a stranglehold on us.
The solution is nothing new. It’s not an easy three-step plan for reordering your life and getting your best life now. The fix is what the Church has always preached: repentance. Only by repenting of love of self and love of mammon can there be any hope of overcoming them. That’s because when you repent, the one who comes to you to help you in living a life of true repentance, who helps you overcome this temptation that has overtaken you is the Holy Spirit. That’s what St. Paul meant when he said, “with the temptation [God] will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” You, the Baptized child of God, are given the Holy Spirit who takes up your cause and fights for you, who strengthens your arm for the fight, but also who reminds you of Who is victorious in those times when you lose the fight.
He reminds you that the things of this earth will fail. Thieves break in and steal. Moth and rust destroy. But the Holy Spirit has given to you the one treasure that cannot be taken from you. He has given you Christ’s victory over your sin. It may not look as flashy as all that mammon offers, but it is the one thing needful. It’s the one thing your new man, created by that washing of Holy Baptism, craves. That’s why you’re here this morning. Whether your flesh knew it or not, your new man, powered by the Holy Spirit, is shrewd. He has an insightful awareness and a realistic discernment, and he knew that this is where you need to be, that this is the richest food available, the only one that will satisfy your hunger, and that the only living water that will satisfy your thirst forever is what Christ gives you to drink in this place. By those things that are given to you so freely in the Divine Service you will be strengthened and preserved. When the unrighteous mammon of this world fails you, you will be received into the eternal dwelling which Christ has prepared for you, not because you were and excellent steward or because you were shrewd in your dealings, but because He is the good and gracious Master. He reduces the debt you owe, not just to zero, but He makes you the one who is paid. He has taken your sin and carried it Himself. Jesus has borne the punishment you deserved, paid the debt you owed, and made you an heir of eternal life. Because of Jesus, because you are in Him and He is in you, you can revel in that question, “What is the world to me?” By faith you can answer: “Nothing! I have been given heaven, I have been given eternal life. Compared to that, to Jesus my life and my joy, what is the world to me?”
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.