Merciful Choice

Text: Luke 16:1-15
Date: Pentecost XVIII (Proper 20) + 9/22/13

Blessed is the King, the merciful King, who comes in the name of the Lord, the merciful Lord. “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” (Ex 34:6-7). A contradiction? By no means. This is the Gospel for sinners; the good news from a merciful God who forgives our disobedience and sin for the sake of His love demonstrated in His Son, Jesus Christ the Lord.

Today’s Gospel is famous (or is that infamous?) for being difficult to understand, to teach and to preach. Already during Luther’s time the chief Roman Catholic theologian Tomas Cajetan declared the parable of the Unjust Steward impossible to understand. Even today my classmate, Dr. Jeff Gibbs, a professor of exegesis at our St. Louis seminary, said, “when I first heard this parable as a child I thought, ‘what does that mean?’ And to be brutally honest I’m still not sure.”[1] The best commentary, I believe, was written by Kenneth E. Bailey in his book Poet & Peasant: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke.”[2] The key to understanding this otherwise confusing parable is “mercy,” the mercy of the rich owner shown toward his dishonest steward. Bailey summarizes:

God (the master) is a God of judgment and mercy. [The] man (the steward) is caught in the crisis of the coming of the kingdom. Excuses will avail the steward nothing. Man’s only option is to entrust everything to the unfailing mercy of his generous master who, he can be confident, will accept to pay the price for man’s salvation. [3]

Jesus is here describing the way of salvation from the judgment of God. He’s speaking to all sinners, to the disciples following Him and to His enemies, the scribes and Pharisees, who are silently listening in. The story is dramatic and, on the surface, easily understandable to anyone involved in the business world. Like the steward, God’s Law has brought charges against us, against you, and all people, “for wasting his possessions.” This is another parable about the danger of possessions. As St. Paul said in Romans 1, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom 1:18), for we take what God has provided for our life and call it our own, never acknowledging or giving thanks to God.

We would not be able to hear or endure God’s Law of judgment much less face up to and confess our sin unless we also knew that God has harnessed His just judgment and wrath with His mercy and love for His creation, that is, for you! In the parable the mercy of the rich man is detected already in the little detail that he only fires the steward but does not send him to jail or have him executed! The steward caught this mercy and it became the key to his response to his predicament.

Notice that the steward or manager doesn’t say a word back to the announced judgment of the rich man! He doesn’t argue. He doesn’t make excuses. He’s silent. He only considers in himself what this means for his immediate future. There is no Department of Labor Unemployment Insurance to be had and he wouldn’t qualify for it anyway because he was fired, his unemployment was his fault, his own fault, his own most grievous fault.

So before God’s judgment of our sin we do not argue. We do not make excuses. True repentance is inspired by the Holy Spirit through the judgment and word of God’s Law in the silence of our hearts. Therefore we pray in the Confiteor, the ancient confession of sins:

I confess to God Almighty, before the whole company of heaven and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned in thought, word, and deed [and then striking our breast three times we say] by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault. (LSB Compline, p. 254)

It was the manager’s utter dependence on the mercy of the rich man that was behind his plan of redemption. His silence and considerations only within himself is an important detail of this parable. For though he had been immediately fired and therefore stripped of his managerial duties and authority, no one else knew that yet! So he “quickly” calls in the master’s debtors. He calls them in “one by one” so that rumors don’t start that he no longer has authority for what he is doing before he can finish his plan of giving each debtor an immediate discount in what they owed the master.

Now, that the master “commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness” does not necessarily imply that the master agreed with him or that he got his job back. We’re not told anything more. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. The manager’s “shrewdness” was in his entrusting everything, any and all of only his hope to the unfailing mercy of his generous master. Ken Bailey says, “This clever rascal was wise enough to place his total trust in the quality of mercy experienced at the beginning of the story.”[4] And that’s the point of it all.

We have come here today as sinners. The Law of God still points out and reveals our disobedience and sin, still, each day anew. But we now hear that Law knowing it is the way God instills true repentance in our hearts, that is, contrition and faith—faith because we have also heard and believe the Gospel of God’s mercy and salvation, faith to put our total trust in the quality of God’s promised mercy. Better than the unanswered question of the parable we’ve been told and we believe that because of God’s shrewdness in punishing our sin and defeating the devil and even death itself in the blood of His righteous and holy Son incarnate and crucified for us and for our salvation, we are given and inherit eternal life in the kingdom of God.

The disciples who follow Jesus are those who experience true repentance and faith at the hearing of God’s Word. But as we said the scribes and Pharisees were also listening in. Clarence Jordan in his “Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts” translates verse 14, “Now the money-loving church members heard all this, and started booing him” (p. 64). But God’s mercy is extended also even to those who ridicule Him, who foolishly think they can justify themselves by arguing with God or blaming others or even God Himself and do not repent for their sin, their own sin, their own most grievous sin even though they’ve eavesdropped on His parables. Christ died for all sinners. Only those, however, who admit, confess and repent of their sin and throw all their trust on Jesus will be saved. “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever” (Psalms 125:1). Trust in the Lord.

[2] Kenneth E. Bailey, Poet & Peasant, Eerdmans © 1976.
[3] Bailey, Poet & Peasant, 107.
[4] Bailey, p. 107.