August 1, 2021 A+D
St. Luke 16:1-13
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The parable before us is perhaps the most shocking of all the parables. The steward is stealing from his master. The master discovers this and fires him. Then the steward steals more, but this time his stealing benefits others. He cancels the debts of his master’s debtors, buying their favor at his master’s expense. Then the master, and by extension Jesus Himself, commends the steward for his shrewdness when we were expecting him to to condemn the steward. There is something broken in us that expects leniency and understanding for ourselves but justice for all others.
Read at face value, the world can find zeal as the point of comparison. The unjust steward was zealous for his own well-being. He looked after himself and would do anything to stay alive and avoid the hard labor of digging or the shame of begging. He comes up with an unjust but clever way to do so. We who know better should be as zealous for our spiritual lives as the unjust steward was for his physical life.
That is true, but it is not the real point. This is not a fable of Aesop meant to give us a bit of practical advice or develop one of the cardinal virtues. This is an allegory of Jesus. It might convey something of ethics and applied knowledge. It might be built on the cardinal virtues, but ultimately, for those with ears to hear, for those who know the secret of God’s grace, the foolishness of the cross, and receive it by faith, the parables of Jesus reveal the heart of Jesus and His Kingdom. They are meant to proclaim the Gospel and bestow the theological virtues: faith, hope, and love.
In this regard, we find at least a few immediate revelations. First: unlike earthly masters and business owners, God wants to give away His Kingdom. He is happy that the steward forgave His debtors. In that line, the steward’s shrewdness wasn’t that he was looking after himself with great zeal and focus, but was that he recognized the character of his Master. He knew and trusted that the Master was merciful. The Master doesn’t reap where He did not sow. Instead He bestows rewards where they have not been earned and He refrains from punishing those who deserve it. He is not like us. Finally, though the steward is wicked, when he cancels debts owed to his Master and not to him, it is just as valid and certain as if the Master in heaven did it Himself. The Master honors the steward’s absolution.
All that is good and right, but Jesus adds one more thing at the end of the parable: the character of the Master is to be reflected in His stewards and debtors. We are to be generous and forgiving, merciful and hospitable. Money is not to be served, stored up in barns or consumed in excess. It is to be put to use for the good of the world in mercy. And to this principle, Jesus adds a bit of essential wisdom that shows the hardness of our hearts and also the way forward: He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much.
I doubt there is anyone here today over the age of 10 who hasn’t daydreamed about the great works of charity and philanthropy that he would do if only he had millions of dollars. If suddenly we were rich as Midas, we would share those riches not only with our loved ones, but also with our church and school and city. But, of course, we aren’t as rich as Midas. We don’t have millions. We only have a few dollars in our wallets and therefore we cling to them ferociously.
That is the rub. We think that if we had millions we would be faithful, but Jesus exposes our lie. If we aren’t faithful with little, if we take care of ourselves first, thinking first of our own bills and needs: food, shelter, health care, and entertainment, plenty of toys in the garage, a fat retirement, a fancy vacation, and then, only then, seeing if we have anything left to share, then we are serving mammon. We are in danger of losing our faith. We have not been faithful with little. You cannot serve God and mammon. Repent.
Repent, but do not despair. The Master gives away His Kingdom for free. He forgives debts. He, who died and rose for sinners, is still teaching us. He is quick and eager to forgive and restore. So examine your life. Consider how much time you spend on your phone and tablet and laptop and pc and Alexa, how much time you spend on Youtube and Facebook and Netflix, and compare it to how much time you spend with people, actually listening, paying attention, looking them in the eye, being present for them. Consider how much time and effort you spend on your career, chasing money and prestige, and how much energy you save for your family. Do you waste all your patience at work, being kind to everyone, only to come home and shut down and yell at the children? Count the hours you spend eating each day and compare it to how much time you spend in the Word and prayer. And look at your checkbook. See how it reveals what you value.
You don’t have a lot of time or money or energy, but you can still make sacrifices with them. You can give the widow’s mite. You can be faithful with the little you have. Something is better than nothing. The perfect is the enemy of the good. God has made you His steward. He has given you what little you have as a trust. Be faithful, generous, grateful.
This is where true zeal belongs. Jesus never teaches us to look after ourselves for the sake of ourselves anymore than He ever says that He wants us to maximize pleasure or to just be happy. The zeal God loves is zeal and shrewdness for His Kingdom, love of God and neighbor, and a willingness to put those above material gain or even bodily health. The shrewdness that Jesus commends is centered in and defined by His mercy and forgiveness.
Go and do likewise.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.