Saturday, August 8, 2015

Trinity 9 (Luke 16:1-9)

“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.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this evening is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, there are several principles that I teach the children of our congregation to consider when dealing with parables. You are to find out who the audience is, and what prompted the telling of the parable in the first place. It is of first importance to locate Jesus in the parable, then to look for yourself or Jesus’ opponents. But the most important key to understanding a parable is finding the ‘that’s crazy!’ moment. You know, the point in the parable where everyone who first heard it would be shaking their heads, saying, ‘Things don’t work that way in the real world, Jesus! Come on—that’s crazy!’ Like a shepherd leaving all his other sheep to find one that was lost, or a woman who finds a misplaced coin, then spends it in celebration, or a father who receives back his wasteful, rebellious son in joy. When you find the ‘that’s crazy!’ moment, you have probably found what Jesus wants to teach you about the Kingdom of God. Now, most people agree that the parable before us tonight is one of the most difficult in all of Scripture, but the key to understanding it comes from finding the ‘that’s crazy!’ moment. Have you found it yet? Let me give you a clue: What would you do with a wasteful servant?

Imagine if you were an employer (and some of you are, or have been) and you discovered that one of your employees had been wasting your money, cheating you out of your company’s profit, making you look bad through malice or incompetence. What would you do? What do wasteful managers deserve? A just master would see that such a servant received exactly what he deserved. At the very least, he deserves to lose his job, and depending on the extent of his transgressions, he may deserve jail. You don’t send him to get his books, you send someone else to get them, and when you see his sins in black and white, you prepare to give justice. If you are first-century landowner, you will ready your whip for a good flogging, sending him out the door with a painful reminder of his crimes. Wasteful managers should feel the whip, wasteful managers should be cast down from their high position, wasteful managers should dig and beg. That is all that they deserve, and that is what justice gives them. A just master sees that justice is done, and justice demands that the one who does the crime does the time.

It’s the same way that a just master deals with his renters. Imagine that you own rental property (and some of you do, or have in the past), and your renters owe you the agreed-upon price. What does justice demand? What do such renters deserve? They deserve no reductions, no grace periods; justice calls on them to pay what they owe, to uphold their obligations. Rent is due? It must be paid. The master is owed his portion of the crop? Bring it forth. Debtors must pay their debt—that is what justice demands. If people owe you money or goods, they should pay up. If managers are wasteful, they should be digging ditches or standing on street corners in rags. That is simply the way this world works, and if it didn’t, the consequences would be disastrous. Imagine if a master ran a business where debtors didn’t pay what they owe, where wasteful managers escaped punishment. The man who did that would soon find himself destitute. He would be called ridiculous—even crazy!—by those around him.
But that is exactly how this master operates. He hears of his manager’s sin and thunders forth the law, uttering a sentence of condemnation: “What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.” The manager stands condemned, and he knows it. He squirms under the law, seeing no way out on his own ability; he has been caught, he knows it, and he stands under the master’s justice. The day of reckoning has come; his last day, Judgment Day. “What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” He may not be strong enough to dig and he may be ashamed to beg, but that is the least he deserves. Then he realizes something about his master, another quality that is perhaps even more important than his master’s identity as a man of justice. He realizes that his master is also a man of mercy. The only solution for this manager, the only means of salvation, is to bank on that mercy, and indeed to show forth that mercy to others. “‘I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’”

In the eyes of the world, the manager has cheated his master again. Not only did he waste his property in the first place, now he has given the renters an unauthorized discount, robbing his master of even more money. A rich man who allows wasteful managers to give debtors discounts won’t remain a rich man for much longer. We expect justice, as the master looks at the books; this time swift and terrible. ‘String him up!’ we cry. But the response of the master catches us completely off guard. “The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.” He doesn’t cancel the discounts, he doesn’t give the manager a beating he will never forget. No, he commends the manager because he wisely acted in mercy. The manager had showed forth his master as a man of mercy in forgiving debt, and that is exactly how this master wants to be seen. He is a man of mercy, mercy that even overcomes his justice. So he will forgive the debts owed him, he will even forgive his unrighteous steward, no matter what it costs him. It is at this point that we protest, as Jesus’ disciples surely did: ‘That’s crazy, Jesus—ridiculous! No master would act this way!’
We’re right; no earthly master in his right mind would tolerate such a thing. But there is one Master who would, and does. What does God do with wasteful managers and delinquent debtors? The answer to this question is quite important to you and me, because we fit in both categories. Since when have you managed your material resources for the good of your neighbor and the Kingdom of God? Jesus Himself says, “The sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” The sons of this world are very shrewd in managing their money and other resources to turn a profit, to enrich their own bank account and investment portfolio, to buy bigger houses and faster cars. Christians should be just as shrewd, but for the good of the kingdom, using this corrosive and corruptive substance—money—for the good of our neighbor, to make friends with the poor and infirm, so that when this wealth fails, and it will, “they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” But are we as shrewd? No, we are wasteful managers, prodigal managers, who cook the books for our own advantage. And so we are debtors of our master, God Himself. We owe Him the penalty for our sin, all our sin.

And what does justice demand of us? It demands that we pay up. The wages of sin is death, eternal death, and it is only right, only just, that we pay what we owe. And God demands that justice be done; His justice must be satisfied, or He is not a holy and just God. But our God is also a God of mercy, and in His wisdom He appointed the speaker of this parable, Jesus Christ, to satisfy the demands of His justice by giving Himself into death upon the cross. There Jesus paid the debt we owed, there justice was done upon Him for us, there the innocent suffered and died under God’s wrath in place of the guilty. And to demonstrate that the debt was paid, that justice was satisfied, God raised Him up in victory over the grave, gaining for us eternal dwellings. Like the wasteful manager, we have no recourse to our own efforts to pay the debt we owe; we must depend, solely and completely, upon God’s rich mercy shown in the death and resurrection of Christ. And He shows forth His mercy in forgiving us, in not giving us what justice demands. He is a God of mercy, mercy shown to us for the sake of His crucified and risen Son.

And God delights in being shown to the world as a God of mercy; that is what we are doing when we make friends by using our material resources for the good of our neighbor. When we feed the homeless, provide for victims of disaster, or even pay for a roof over the heads of our children, we are showing to the world God’s mercy. And He delights to be praised as a God of mercy, for that is what He gives to this sinful world for the sake of Christ: mercy in place of justice, for justice was done upon His Son. Jesus received what we deserved, so that we would join all those who have been shown His mercy in the eternal dwellings. There we will have no need of unrighteous wealth, for we will have a treasure that will never end: perfect righteousness and eternal life in the very mansions of heaven. Thanks be to God that He does not give us what we deserve but what we need: mercy—mercy for the sake of His Son. In His Name, Amen.

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