The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 18-19, 2010
Text: Luke 16:1-15
Dear Friends in Christ,
The history of the world’s navies is complicated. At no time is this more true than in the years after World War I. In those years naval goals became intertwined with diplomatic and economic goals. England the and the United States, in particular, did not want a naval arms race. This was sort of a foolish goal, but this was the thinking. Nations like Japan, however, were trying to gain ground. All the attention was focused on battleships. The U.S. was able apply enough pressure to force all the major powers to sign the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. This basically made it a rule that nobody could build any more battleships. A couple of countries were allowed to complete battleships that they had under construction. However, Japan, turned around and built heavy cruisers to the exact limits of the treaty. Secretly they were actually in violation. But this forced other nations to build cruisers that were also right to the limits. But in the end all this chicanery was meaningless. Battleships and cruisers were not nearly as important as another weapon that none of the major planners of the world’s navies had considered - aircraft. The next war would not be fought with battleships. The major naval weapon system was the aircraft carrier. So everybody was looking at the wrong thing.
This is what happens with this text. Everybody looks at the wrong thing. There is something that would have been obvious to Jesus’ hearers, that is not obvious to us today. Jesus tells a curious parable. He tells this right after the parable of the Prodigal Son. The context is a familiar one. The Pharisees are complaining that Jesus receives sinners.
The parable’s main character is owner. We tend to get bogged down on the manager and what he’s doing. But we need to be looking at what the owner does and says in the parable. That’s where the real action is.
A manager is dishonest. He has, as they say, sticky fingers. The owner gets wind of this and demands an accounting. The man fears that he will be caught. But he places his hope on the master. It looks like he’s placing his hope on his master’s debtors. But that is not the case. He calls the debtors in and forgives part of their debt. Now they must believe that this is the master’s orders. They would never go along with such a scheme if they didn’t. For if it wasn’t the masters orders, they would be caught and thrown into jail. Indeed, the manager himself ought to be thrown into jail. He’s a thief. But the manager knows his master. The master wants to be known as a generous man. He cannot renege on what the manager had done without looking greedy and mean. Nor can he throw the manager in jail or even fire him. For that too would look bad. The owner would not look gracious and generous. The parable doesn’t tell us what the manager did. But I could well picture him giving the manger a different job that looks like a promotion, but at the same time removes the temptation to steal.
Now you might say, but it says that the debtors would welcome them into their houses. Yes, but that does not mean that he would live with them. Rather it means he would continue to have fellowship with them. It would mean jail for someone to house the manager if the master had fired him. They would have no further dealings with him. Rather, they would continue to welcome him as a guest to their tables, because he would still be in favor with the master.
So what is the message that Jesus is trying to communicate with this seemingly strange parable? The owner, the master, is overwhelmingly generous. Anyone who bets on the grace of the master will be rewarded. They will not be disappointed. Only those who reject the master's grace will be disappointed. When we are in heaven we are not going to look over at hell and say, oh God should have saved that one. We’ll know that those in hell placed their trust in their own works and rejected the grace of the master, Jesus Christ. Another underlying point here is the nature of these who are saved. The saved are no more righteous than those who are condemned to hell. Rather they are like the dishonest manager, and place their trust in the grace of the master.
The reverse of this is the pharisees then and now, who place their trust in themselves. They believe that they are fulfilling the law. We must see that we do not fulfill the law. At most we can create an outward facade. And in fact the more we try to hide our sins, the more corrupt we become. In the modern nation of Israel it is said the more orthodox the rabbi, the more often he comes to the brothel. I was rather amused by appearance of such pietism in local politics. The village board decided to deny the new pool hall a beer license. We can’t have beer in there, they’re might be kids in there - as though a kid has never seen someone drink a beer. Which leads to the old joke about how much beer you need to bring when going fishing with a Baptist. If there three Baptists in the boat with you they won’t drink any beer - it against their religion. If there are two Baptists in the boat with you, they’ll each have one and agree to not tell anyone. If there’s only one Baptist in the boat with you, you’d better bring two cases of beer. This is what happens when you try to look righteous. It ends up being a sham.
What should we do instead? We should be like the dishonest manager and trust in the grace of God. We should live lives of true righteousness in the forgiveness of our sins. It’s like the sermon that Luther is depicted giving in the movie. “When the devil confronts you with your sins, you say, yes, I’ll admit I deserve death and hell, but what of it? I have One who advocates for me, Jesus Christ. Where He is, there I will be also.” We are sinners. We are thieves, murderers, adulterers. We are these things because this is what is in our hearts. But we have a gracious God who would save us from sin. He would give us eternal life at His banquet table. But not because we are so great. Rather because we trust in His grace. He saves us. We do not save ourselves.
When looking at the Bible, it is important to understand what we should be looking at. Most times it is obvious. But this text is a bit deceptive to the modern reader. Christ is not praising dishonesty. Rather Christ is telling us that sinners who trust in the grace of God will be saved. This parable is natural follow up to the Prodigal Son. In both cases the sinner in the story sees his own helplessness. He then places his hope in the grace of God. He is not disappointed. Nor will we be disappointed when our trust is in Christ alone.