September 22, 2013 Series: Lectionary
Topic: Biblical Verse: Luke 16:1–16:15
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
There’s this stereotypical scene in Western movies and TV shows. Men in a saloon are sitting around a table playing cards. Before too long, one of them accuses another of cheating after an unexpected win – sometimes after a long string of losses. The winner was holding a card up his sleeve, waiting for just the right time to play it – and you in the audience probably saw it, too. All of a sudden, guns get drawn and/or fists start flying. The scene might be a stereotype, but there’s something in it that makes sense: nobody likes playing with a cheat.
The cheat throws everything off. They don’t respect the rules. They take advantage of others by doing what they shouldn’t, tricking and deceiving the world around them to work in their favor. Cheats wreck the game.
When was the last time that someone cheated you? What did they do to deceive you? How did that feel? Not good, probably. The cheat used your trust – used you – and left you without whatever it was that they’d cheated you out of. The next time that you’d have to deal with that person, you’re probably going to be wary, thinking that they might just do the same thing again. Because they might!
The cheat is short-sighted. It’s about looking for the quick gain, even when that gain might be another’s loss. The immediate return seems to outweigh the risk of getting caught, the win looks like it’s worth the lie. But the truth is that it’s really not a win at all. While the cheat might seem to get to the goal at first, the gain is ill-gotten and the victory is an illusion. Once discovered, it all falls apart, kind of like that scene in the saloon.
When was the last time that you cheated? Was it in a game, when you didn’t think it was all that big of a deal? Was it on a test, when you didn’t feel like you had enough time to study, or the subject just seemed too hard? Was it in a relationship, when you didn’t think that anyone else would get hurt – as long as they didn’t find out about it? Or did you, like household manager in Jesus’ story, use something that didn’t belong to you in an attempt to improve your own situation? Nobody likes playing with a cheat – except the one who’s doing the cheating.
We can be pretty short-sighted people, cheating even when we know what it’s like to be cheated. In our sin, we keep thinking that life is just about the near term, the immediate future. But in cheating others, we’re also showing that we don’t care about God. The way you treat the people around you says a lot about how you view the world and its Creator.
Let’s take a look at this first story Jesus tells his disciples in Luke 16. A rich man has a steward, a household manager who oversees the use of his lord’s wealth. It turns out that this steward hasn’t been very faithful at his job, and so the lord comes to the steward and tells him to surrender the ledgers, as he’s about to be unemployed. The manager – unfaithful as he might be – isn’t stupid. He knows that things are not going to work out well for him once he’s kicked out the door. He won’t have a job, and he won’t have a home, since he probably lived on his lord’s property. He’s too weak to do manual labor and too ashamed to become a beggar. So he comes up with a solution: he’s going to doctor the accounts of his lord’s debtors. By calling each and every one of the people who owe his employer and having them reduce their bills by a substantial amount, this steward manages an impressive feat: he wins favor with the debtors both for himself and his lord. These people who’ve come to the steward might have been farmers who leased land from the lord, owing him a return portion of their crops. They think that the steward is acting on behalf of the lord, never realizing his trick. He is the bearer of good news! And so, the debtors go away owing a good deal less than when they arrived, thinking well of both the steward and the lord. Looking ahead, the steward hopes that the people who’ve unknowingly benefited from his trickery will take him in. Trouble is, he might not have much of a future if he’s misjudged his lord.
The steward’s future relies on his lord’s mercy. We’ve already seen that the lord is merciful: when he found out that his steward had been mismanaging that which didn’t belong to him, he didn’t jail or otherwise punish the steward as he could have. The steward knew that he could not save himself from the consequences of his mismanagement, so he imitated his lord’s merciful nature by lowering the people’s debts. And knowing that his lord would look that much better to the debtors who experienced that mercy, he hoped that his lord would overlook this final deception. As it turns out, the steward’s faith was justified: the lord commended his servant’s astute response to the situation.
To be clear, Jesus isn’t telling his disciples to cheat people or to use trickery to gain favor with others! Another way of translating the phrase we read as “dishonest manager” in the ESV is “steward of unrighteousness.” That’s not saying that the steward is unrighteous – accurate as this may be – but that the steward manages things that are unrighteous. God gives people the gift of possessions. These worldly things can be good, but they are not God; yet people tend to love possessions above God. Because of this sin-confused attitude, they cheat and deceive to gain more worldly, unrighteous wealth and lose sight of the reality that worldly life will end. Like the manager in Jesus’ story, they get so caught up in the pursuit of material wealth that they work themselves out of the Lord’s household.
Jesus instructs his disciples to make prudent, astute use of their worldly possessions. Like the steward, what we have to manage isn’t really ours but our Lord’s. Back in the time of the prophet Amos, the people had also forgotten that truth. They cheated the poor and needy, exploiting them for ill-gotten gain, when they should have been treating them fairly and caring their fellow Hebrews with compassion. This temptation to cheat and misuse worldly wealth apparently isn’t limited to any one time or place, and Jesus knows it.
Speaking to his disciples, Jesus calls those who would follow him to use worldly wealth for the sake of God’s kingdom. We know that life isn’t all about what you’ve got in the bank or around your home – or yacht, as the case may be. Instead of worshiping the possessions with which the Lord has blessed us, we’re to use those gifts in service as faithful managers. The gifts are the Lord’s, and He gives us the wonderful opportunity to be stewards of His riches.
So what happens if you have not been a faithful manager? What will become of you if you’ve been a cheat in the service of worldly gain? Like the dishonest steward, our time will run out and we will have to surrender an account of our actions. We don’t know when that time will come. Earlier this week in the shootings at the Washington Navy Yard, our region received a sad reminder of how abruptly things can end. One person cheated others out of life with family members, friends, and coworkers in an act of violent evil. But even in this broken world, your future need not be uncertain.
Even more so than the unfaithful manager, you can rely on your Lord’s mercy. It’s been demonstrated in full measure in Jesus. He didn’t cheat his way towards his goal of winning your life back from sin and death, but paid the full, demanding price of his life’s blood for the forgiveness of your sin and my sin. He didn’t just reduce your debt: his blood wiped the ledger clean.
As Jesus’ disciple, look ahead and know that the he has a place for you in His service, in His house. You are his faithful steward, and he remains your merciful, loving Lord.