Merciful Lord

Text: Luke 16:1-15
Date: Pentecost XVII (Proper 20) + 9/19/10
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

I “batted 1000” on vacation. The first Sunday, in Kingman, Arizona, I attended the Wisconsin Synod church. Though I could not attend communion I heard an absolutely marvelous sermon—textual, organized, clear, and though a little heavy on the Law to begin with, ended with a wonderful flourish of Gospel at the end. My second Sunday I attended our Grace congregation in San Diego, California—young pastor, lots of young couples with children, and they “put up with” an hour-and-a-half long service! While it had its “informal” moments, still it was a reverent and liturgically sensitive service with a magnificent sermon that, as the previous Sunday, began with a “practical” (read, “Law”) direction but ended with a joyous proclamation of pure Gospel.

I even had a dream about that sermon. Suddenly I was sitting in front of our former District President Bill Hoesman who was telling me I should preach more practical sermons, sermons based on the Epistle and not on the Gospel or Old Testament. I woke up feeling guilty. So, when I saw our readings for today I was tempted to clap my hands for joy and prepare a so-called “practical” sermon, either one based on the Epistle maybe called, “Leave the Praying to the Men,” or the Gospel entitled, “The Latest Stewardship Drive Gimmick.” You will be glad to hear that I repented of the temptation and have opted, rather, to prepare a thoroughly “impractical” sermon based on the Gospel; a sermon not about the dishonest steward or even the proper use of possessions and money, but upon our Merciful Lord and God.

That’s what this “parable” is really all about. As the “lord” or owner of the land operation was known to be merciful, so God is merciful and we can rely on His mercy even in the face of our failings. The “parable” Jesus told to His disciples involved a dishonest steward or manager and how he had done something in the past resulting in his impending firing and job loss. As such, so far, he represents not only the always-“surprising” number of new applicants for unemployment benefits but, spiritually, all of us, all of mankind, created by God and given the responsibility of loyalty to our Creator, yet because of sin we have broken our contract of loyalty and deserve to be “fired,” to be judged, condemned and punished as fallen, dishonest, failed stewards and residents of God’s creation. The parable then tells of the steward’s “wise” or “shrewd” operation by which he preserved the people’s favor both toward himself and the owner. The point is that he knew his employer, his “lord” to be a merciful guy, and so he operated on the basis of that mercy and hope. And this is how we are invited to operate in the face of our failings and sins and God’s reputation of mercy and love—not out of fear and raw despair but out of faith in the mercy of God. For, as you have heard, “God so loved the world….” (John 3:16).

You have failed God, you know. Haven’t you? A quick review of the Ten Commandments will reveal it. It’s not only those relatively “innocent” sins to which we more readily admit—the harsh word, the half-truth, the gossip, the evil thought—but also, as Psalm 90 says it,

For we are brought to an end by your anger;
by your wrath we are dismayed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence. (Ps. 90:7-9)

Never forget, the wrath of God is real. The Lord revealed Himself to Moses, saying, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Ex. 34:6-7).

Because we are sinners and cannot free ourselves from our sin nor God’s judgment, condemnation and wrath against our sin, and because God is both merciful and yet must punish sin, this is why it took nothing less than sending His Son into our sinful world, to become incarnate, that is, taking on our flesh, in order, ultimately, to be the only perfect sacrifice for the sin of the world. As the Passover Lamb every year predicted, Jesus became the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. As the angel of death passed over those dwellings where the blood of the lamb reddened the door posts of God’s people, so the judgment and wrath of God against our sin has been diverted by the blood of Jesus Christ shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. “The blood of Jesus [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:7-9).

Repentance and faith, then, is the way. We draw near God only when we believe He is not only righteous and  just but also merciful. The steward
in Jesus’ story came to repentance only as he realized there was no escape from his crisis humanly speaking. “I cannot dig and I am ashamed to beg.” Faith entered in only as he remembered his lord’s reputation for mercy. The answer came not from within himself but outside himself. This is the meaning behind the word “quickly,” as when he called in the master’s debtors and told them to take their bill “and sit down quickly” to revise it. This was not some sort of marketing plan he thought up. It was based solely and alone on the presumed mercy of the master. Jesus had taught us, his disciples, back in chapter 6, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

Now it sounds like Jesus is commending dishonesty when he says, “The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.” Of course, this is not so. For Jesus immediately says, “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” While He is not commending unrighteousness, He is urging His disciples to be prudent and wise with regard to spiritual, heavenly things and not to get caught up in worldly matters. This, admittedly, is difficult as we live our days in the world while not being of the world; saint and sinner at the same time. That is why repentance and faith is not just a one-time act but a daily routine, daily returning to the promise of our baptism and living in the forgiveness of our many sins. It is why we need to gather regularly in God’s Word and Sacraments, to keep receiving that stream of God’s mercy.

God is merciful. You can rely on Him to be merciful. He has clearly shown Himself, time and time again, to be full of mercy and steadfast love. In the various daily confusions of living the Christian faith and life, as long and as often as you remember God’s mercy you can be “batting 1000” by true and regular repentance and faith.