There are so many clear and uplifting Gospel readings throughout the year, which speak beautifully of the gift of salvation, and the promise of forgiveness to all those who repent of their sins and believe on the name of Jesus. There are some Gospel readings that serve as stern warnings against sin, and against thinking our works somehow earn us something before God. There is one Gospel reading that is obscure, hard to understand. It is today’s. Looking through the fathers of the church, most of the time you find a pretty good consensus about the meaning of any Gospel reading. And then there’s today’s reading. No consensus. Each explanation seems less likely than the last. This raises two questions. The first – why, among all the other possible Gospel readings in the church year, did this one get included in the lectionary? What were the fathers of the church thinking? And second, why did our Lord speak these words in the first place? God is not a God of confusion, but of order. The Law and the Gospel are not uncertain, they are the more sure testimony of God, given in the person of Jesus Christ, and recorded by the apostles who were witnesses of his glory, and who wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who gave them the very words they were to write – each word absolutely correct in every way. The goal of the Scriptures is to lay out salvation history for us in clear terms. And then we have today’s Gospel. What is going on?
The first question – why did this get included in the lectionary – is actually a mystery. The lectionary – the series of readings over the course of the year – actually predates committee meeting minutes. We have no record of how or why the historic lectionary was formed. We know it goes back past Luther by almost 1,000 years, and that it developed over many centuries. Changes occur slowly. In Luther’s Say, transfiguration was in August – this week actually. Now, it’s moved to the end of Epiphany usually in February. Today’s readings go back before records about why. We can only speculate – perhaps so pastors have to get up once a year and admit they are stumped. It’s a good thing for pastors to remain humble. And this is a humbling Gospel reading. Because a close reading of the text is puzzling. Looking at the sermons of the great preachers throughout history, you don’t get solid answers. So what do you do? You could say “It must be this new thing that I’ve discovered”. That’s pretty arrogant – claiming that Luther, Augustine, Chrysostom, Walther were all lesser theologians who got it wrong.
But the bigger question – why did God speak these words in the first place? What was he doing? A servant who is dishonest, yet commended by the master? Obviously Jesus isn’t recommending dishonesty and theft. So what do we have here? There are some common themes that come up in various sermons on this reading throughout the history of the church – some basic truths that we can find in the details, that can guide us through. That’s unusual – most of the time you look at a parable and find the main point, and then look at the details to see how they fit in. This time we have to look at the details and try to work through that to the main point.
The first thing to understand is this – God is smarter than we are. Have you ever had a little child – 3 or maybe 4 – ask how something works. “Why do we put things in the oven?” Now is not the time for detailed discussions of how heat and chemistry work together, with charts and graphs about the chemical compositions of carbon and hydrogen. “To cook it” is sufficient. “How does the car go?” You don’t need compression ratios and valve timing. “The gas goes in the engine, and the engine goes.” They may follow up with more questions. But you won’t be having conversations about different fuel mixtures. You keep it simple, to match the person asking the question.
God created the heavens and the earth. He created physics – made it so planets go in orbits around the sun, so time and space and gravity work together in this world, he created chemistry, the elements that make up the world around us, and their various parts. He created the rules for oxygen – how we need it to breathe, and fires need it to burn – he did that thousands of years before it was discovered. How much more does he know, that we have not yet discovered – and perhaps never will? His understanding is so far beyond ours. He condescends to teach us. He gives his Word to us, in simple thoughts that we can understand. It isn’t a mistake that we have this strange parable, as if God forgot we wouldn’t quite get it. He gave it to us intentionally, knowing we wouldn’t get it. And that’s ok. The Blessed Reformer Martin Luther said that if there is a passage of scripture you don’t understand, don’t trouble yourself over it. Give thanks to God, and move on. He is smarter than you. That’s a good thing. He’s got the whole world in the palm of his hand. The hairs on your head are numbered – you don’t even know that much about yourself. And nothing gets by him. So, if he gave us this parable and we don’t understand it, it does not need to become a stumbling block for us. We give thanks to him, we get what we can from it, and we move on.
Today, Jesus is finishing up a series of parables. We heard the first two a few weeks back – the lost sheep and lost coin. Then there was the prodigal Son. And now this. Lost sheep & Coin and the Prodigal Son are all about forgiveness for sinners – it is given freely by God who loves us, and rejoices when one sinner repents of his sins. “My son who was lost is now found, he was dead but is now alive!” The prodigal son ends with Jesus talking about the faithful son, who was angry about the prodigal son getting a feast. He wasn’t happy that the sinner had repented of his sin. And he thought the Father was wasting that feast. Just as the Pharisees did when they saw Jesus hanging out with sinners.
This is the final parable in that series. And Jesus is criticizing the Pharisees because they are about status and the things of this world. They are endlessly looking to see who is in front, how can they get there? Are they good enough? Have they done enough? One of the ways they would try and see if God was pleased with them was this – am I doing well in the world? Do people respect me? Is my bank account doing well? Is my retirement plan in order? Now, these were the leaders of the people, so most of them qualified. Others – those who weren’t Pharisees – didn’t do so well. Which they took as proof that they were pleasing God with all of their works, and others were not.
Jesus has made clear that their works get them nothing. God is happier about a single sinner that repents than about 99 who don’t need to repent. Of course – if we look at the 10 commandments honestly, we all need to repent. The Pharisees were sheep who needed to repent, but didn’t because they thought their works earned them something. God forgives freely for Jesus sake. We don’t earn it. And now, having made that point crystal clear, He gives them a parable about how they should use their works. Not to cheat their employer. That’s not the point. But look at what Jesus says at the end – “Make for yourselves friends by unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails, they may receive you into eternal dwellings.”
We’ve been talking a lot about showing love to neighbor – that’s what the Christian does with his time when he isn’t worshipping God. Jesus here says – use that wealth you’ve been given for other people’s good. When he says unrighteous mammon, he doesn’t mean ill gotten gains. Those you must return to the one you stole it from. He means riches in this world. Because this world’s riches are not righteous. Riches in this world are not a sign God is pleased with you. They can be a blessing – but they can also be a curse, leading to greed and ambition. Instead, we are to use all the things God gives us in this world for those around us in need. That’s what he says over and over. It doesn’t earn you anything. The dishonest manager is relying on charity – the charity and kindness of his master, that he won’t be put in prison over this, and the charity of those he helped once upon a time. They don’t owe him. They aren’t in debt to him because of what he did with their bill. But he trusts that they will respond with kindness.
The master is very just – he honors the word of his disgraced steward. He doesn’t try to weasel out. “That’s not how debt reduction works!” He honors the word of the steward, even though everyone pretty much knows it’s a fraud. That’s how honest and righteous he is. So our Lord will hold himself to his promises. And he promises grace and every blessing to those who love him and keep his commandments. He promises forgiveness to those who go astray and repent of their sin, turning to Jesus and his work on their behalf.
Jesus is basically saying, “Don’t think that possessions are anything, or lack of them are anything. Love your neighbor, as God has given you to do, whether you have much or little. Don’t get caught up with the mammon of unrighteousness.”
Right after our reading, we’re told that the Pharisees understood that all of these parables were about them – that Jesus was speaking against them. So we know that he is speaking against the Pharisees. They understood exactly what he was saying to them – even if we maybe get confused on the way. They know that he was calling them out for hypocrisy for their lack of love, for their lack of faith in God to save them. Those are recurring themes throughout the scriptures, and despite differing interpretations of this parable, all the interpretations revolve around those things – Jesus saving us and forgiving us in love without any work on our part, and we respond with love to our neighbor. Those are the themes of this parable because that is what is spoken of everywhere else, and we know that this parable fits in, however strangely, with the word given elsewhere.
Jesus reminds us – in ways that make us uncomfortable – of our responsibility toward God and our neighbor. We are to use our treasures in this world to help proclaim the Gospel, to help our neighbor in his need. That’s our task. We do that whether times are good or bad, whether we have a boom or a bust, health or pandemic. We continue to do the things of God.
That’s another thing about this parable. The steward was a wasteful thief. And when he was called on it, he just got more wasteful, and more thievey. The master was righteous, and when the time came, he was even more righteous. Those who are about the things of this world, when the time comes, will turn to the things of this world. Those who are about their own works, when the time comes, will turn to their own works to try to save themselves – a great tragedy, because your works will fail you, and if you trust them, you will be condemned.
But those who look to Christ in good times, when times of trouble come will look even harder and more intently at him. Those who, in love toward God show love to their neighbor, in times of trouble in times of strife, they will love their neighbor even more. And Jesus, who came into the world to save sinners, will be about his Father’s business – even shedding his blood for them, and giving himself to us in the Holy Sacraments, reassuring us of salvation through Baptism and the Supper. And in faith, we turn to those things even more in times of trouble.
The Lord will not forsake us. Let us cling to him. And then, let us cling even more, to our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.