Our text is today’s Gospel (Luke 16:1–9), focusing on our Lord’s words: The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.: 1 [Jesus] also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. 2 And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ 3 And the manager said to himself, ‘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. 4 I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7 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.’ 8 The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. 9 And 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. (ESV)
If I were to ask you to make a list of ten people you most admire and would like to imitate, I am absolutely certain you would not pick someone who lost his job because he mismanaged funds! But in today’s Gospel, the master commended the dishonest manager. Seems strange, doesn’t it—Jesus holding up a dishonest manager as an example for His disciples to imitate. The dishonest manager is indeed a worthy example for all Christians to follow, but to understand how we are to imitate him, we have to study this parable in light of the Middle-Eastern culture of that day.
This parable has three classes of people that were common in first-century Israel: the master, the manager, and the tenants. The master was a wealthy landowner. The manager was in charge of running his master’s household. Because he handled all of his master’s financial affairs, he was treated not as a slave but as a trusted member of the master’s family. The tenants were farmers, not as wealthy as the landowner but not poor either. These tenants rented land from the master in exchange for an agreed-upon portion of the crop at the end of the harvest. Among these classes of people, there was a real sense of family. The master was not some absentee-landlord who allowed his manager to charge exorbitant rates. No, rather, the master cared for his tenants much as a father cares for his children.
One day, the master receives news that his manager is dishonest. He calls in the manager and says What is this that I hear about you? Turn in [your books], for you can no longer be manager. The manager is shocked, stunned. His dishonesty has been found out. Now he could have tried to argue with the master, protesting his innocence and giving excuses. But he knows that he cannot defend himself against his master’s accusations. He knows that the accusations are true. And so he remains silent. In first-century Israel, to remain silent in the face of accusations was to admit one’s guilt. So when the manager remains silent before the master, he is really saying “yes, what you say is true; I have been dishonest.” With this admission of guilt, the master had every right not only to fire the manager but also to put him in jail. But in mercy, the master allows the manager to keep his liberty.
At first, though, the manager thinks that the master’s gift of liberty is not much better than going to jail. It seems that his only two options are digging and begging. But then he realizes there is another way of surviving his predicament. But this other way requires him to rely completely upon his master’s mercy. Here is what he does. He calls the tenants, one at a time, into his office and lowers the debts that the tenants owe the master. Now, to our twentieth-first-century eyes, it looks like the tenants are joining the manager in fudging the books and thus, they too seem dishonest. But the tenants do not yet know that the manager has been fired. They think that he is acting in good faith as the master’s representative. And so when the manager lowers the tenants’ debts, they think that the master is being generous, much like how today, companies give Christmas bonuses. You can just imagine how happy the tenants are. That night, they probably all go home and open their best bottle of wine and praise the master’s generosity.
Meanwhile, the manager must return to his master in order to be dismissed. The time of reckoning has come; the manager must now surrender his books to the master. The master opens the books and soon discovers the manager’s scheme. But instead of throwing the manager into jail, he commends the manager for his shrewdness. You see, the master knows that he cannot undo what the manager has done. All of the tenants are in their homes praising the master’s generosity. Can you imagine what would happen if the master were to visit his tenants that night and explain that he had not authorized the bonuses given by the manager? No, the master treasures his role as a generous and wise father to his tenants, and so he does not expose the manager’s dishonesty. The manager still loses his job, but he leaves his post knowing that all the tenants will treat him with respect and will welcome him into their homes.
We now can understand the manager’s scheme, but the question remains, how are we to imitate the manager’s shrewdness? Well, the manager acted shrewdly in two ways. First of all, he did not try to give excuses for his dishonesty; rather, in his silence, he confessed his guilt. Secondly, he placed his total trust in his master’s mercy. When he saw that his master did not throw him in jail, he realized that his master was being merciful to him. And so he decided to risk everything on the belief that his master was merciful. The master had showed mercy even when the manager had misused funds for his own selfish gain. Now perhaps, the master would also show mercy when the manager fudged the accounts to benefit the tenants. Unless the master showed the manager mercy, the manager would be thrust out of the community as a despised outcast. And so the manager’s one hope of salvation was in the mercy and generosity of his master. The manager is commended, not for his dishonesty, but for his wisdom in knowing where his salvation was to be found. The dishonest manager came to his senses and realized that his only hope of salvation laid in the mercy of the master. The dishonest manager survived his life-crisis because the master was indeed as merciful as he had hoped.
We too are in a life-crisis. The day is coming when the accounting books in heaven will be opened and all people will be judged according to their deeds (Revelation 20:12). The day is coming when God will judge the secrets of our hearts (see Romans 2:16). Our sinful thoughts, our selfish motives, our unrighteous deeds—all of these are known to God. Like the dishonest manager, our sins have been found out. What are we to do? Our only hope of salvation is to imitate the manager’s repentance.
Repentance consists of two things. First, repentance requires us to confess our sins in true contrition, godly sorrow. The manager admitted his guilt by not trying to give excuses for his dishonesty. So we too must confess our sins and not make excuses for our sins. Remember the words of St. John: if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:8-9).
Repentance also requires us to cling completely to God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. The manager relied completely on the hope that he would receive from his master the forgiveness and the mercy which he did not deserve. So we too trust that God does truly forgive our sins for Jesus’ sake, who died on the cross and rose again so that we may receive the forgiveness and the mercy which we do not deserve. And so the mercy which the manager receives from his master represents the great and abundant compassion which we receive in Christ from our heavenly Father, for just as a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him (Psalm 103:13).
In the old King James Version bibles, today’s Gospel was often referred to as the parable of the unjust steward. But, really, in the end, Jesus Himself is the Unjust Steward, who is unjustly good to us. Accusations were brought against Jesus, too, that He was too free with His mercy, consorting with tax collectors and sinners, squandering God’s grace on such miserable wretches. But Jesus did not concern Himself with that. For it was His mission to bear every accusation, to take all that we are justly accused of and make full payment for our debts. Jesus made eternal friends of us, not by hoarding things for Himself, but by living as one with no home of his own, no place to lay his head. The material things of this world He used entirely in the service of others, having nothing but literally the clothes on His back. He became poor so that we might know and receive the riches of His mercy. He even gave away His own body into death, that through His atoning and all-sufficient sacrifice we might be cleansed from all unrighteousness. Jesus relied on His Father’s mercy. He trusted that the Father would honour His death in our place to cover what we owed.
And now Jesus has ordained stewards to stand in His place, to distribute the eternal blessings He has won by His death and resurrection. Jesus commends His stewards, His pastors, when they “squander” His possessions in the ministry of the Holy Gospel and cancel the debts you owe Him. That is the job of a pastor—to take the Master’s goods and give them away. Now the unjust steward in the parable forgave only a portion of the debt owed the master. But here, through His stewards, Christ forgives you all of the debt you owe Him. It is my privilege to declare to you that all of your sins are canceled and erased by His holy cross. What does your bill say? What impossible debt do you owe because of your sin? Sit down, take your bill, and write 0, paid in full.
At first glance, the dishonest manager seems to be the last person on earth we would want to imitate. But if we hope to receive God’s mercy, then we must imitate the manager. We must trust that, in spite of our sins, our only hope of salvation lies in the mercy of God. The dishonest manager survived his life-crisis by relying completely on his master’s mercy. So too, we survive sin, death, and the devil only by trusting totally in God’s generous mercy which is ours in Christ. We inherit eternal life by God’s mercy and grace, by which we proclaim Jesus as the Great Unjust Steward, who is unjustly good to us, giving us what we do not deserve. In most Bibles today, this parable is titled “the parable of the dishonest manager,” but it should really be called “the parable of the merciful master,” for the point of the parable is to encourage us to cling in faith to our merciful Father, who so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16). Amen.