Financial Planning or Soul Seeking?
Last week I started by quoting Luther's view of a parable because I agreed with him. This week I don't, but still I quote him. "'It is a sermon on good works, and especially against avarice, that men abuse not wealth, but therewith help poor and needy people.'" Weighty church fathers like Irenaeus, Augustine, and Athanasius agree with Luther (Trench, 441, fn. 1). I don't; neither did one of our theologians named Martin Scharlemann. He said this parable is a continuation of the theme of the Lost Sheep and the Prodigal Son. That's the question before you: is this about financial planning or soul seeking?
If you're a lover of money out to justify yourself, this is about financial planning. How can I say that? Because the 2 verses that follow our text do. "The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, "You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men." The Pharisees sneered at Jesus' words that it was impossible to serve God and money, that how they spent money here impacted the hereafter, that a parable about an "unrighteous" steward could teach them who prided themselves in being righteous anything.
But the unrighteous steward could teach them about not wasting their Lord's possessions and about wisely using them with a view to the future. The manger in the parable did the one but not the other. He was guilty of wasting his employer's possessions at the beginning but in the end he used them in regard to his future. He began by using his master's possessions separate from his master. He ended using them in view of not only the future but what he knew about his master.
I have criticized before what the insert says about the readings. This time I commend it. The last sentence says, "Anything we separate from God can separate us from God!" When we think our possessions really belong to us, we're separating them from God and don't consider ourselves accountable to Him for how we use them and so we don't use them in light of what we know about God. At the end of the day, the books will be opened and every penny will be accounted for and we'll see that our money wasn't really ours to do with as we please. Our money wasn't really separate from God but it might have separated us from God. The dishonest manger could have taught the Pharisees what to do about this dilemma but they could only hear this as being about money.
But even if all you can hear in this parable is a lesson about using earthly wealth, you can still be lead to repentance. You could be put to shame by the zeal with which the dishonest steward used earthly money for earthly gain. Yes, we could be shamed by all the Devil's martyrs even the dancing girls. The Devil's martyrs put to shame the saints of God because they run to death with more zeal than we to life (Ibid. 438). They aren't just shrewder in the things of this life they have more zeal pursuing the things of this life which ultimately lead to death than we have for the things of eternal life. Do you see how the cheating steward plotted and planned with such zeal just for a more comfortable life here that would end in the grave?
Okay I'm shamed by his zeal for earthly things compared to my lack of zeal for heavenly things, but dancing girls? A Christian hermit happened to see a dancing girl doing her act. He was moved to tears. When asked why, he replied, "'That she should be at such pains to please men in her sinful vocation, and we in our holy calling use so little diligence to please God'" (Ibid. fn. 1). She pursued her sin with more whole hearted devotion than we pursue our salvation.
Yup, we money-lovers who seek to justify ourselves can only hear in this parable all that we are not. An unrighteous, unjust, dishonest man of this world exceeds us in zealousness for financial planning that uses money with an eye toward the future. He used money as a means to an earthly end better and wiser than we use it toward a heavenly end. Now having been stung by this law we can either be like the Pharisees and sneer at our Lord or repent back to being His disciples.
If you are a disciple, be you weak, stumbling, straying, than this parable is about seeking your soul. Did you catch that this parable was specifically told to the disciples? In Greek it's stronger than English. "Jesus was saying face to face to the disciples." You might even say Jesus was getting in their face if you can see that done in a positive rather than a drill sergeant way. Last week the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Sons were all specifically addressed to the Pharisees and scribes who grumbled at Jesus for receiving and even eating with sinners. The disciples knew that; they also knew they were doing what the Pharisees and scribes weren't. So are you.
Can you see the danger? Our souls are never in greater danger than when we hear the Words of Jesus as applying to someone else. "Yeah, give it to them Jesus. Those Pharisees and scribes need to hear how wrong they are for grumbling about sinners and being too proud to eat with them." So after seeking the souls of His enemies, Jesus, with this parable, turns His attention to seeking the souls of His disciples, of us, of me, of you, and you too. And He does it with a shocking parable that shows we can't continue to be disciples of Jesus based on our faithfulness but only in His mercy.
Do you see how strange this parable is? The rich man decides right away that the accused cannot be his financial planner any longer. Ever been fired from a company? Right then and there you're done. You're accompanied back to you office to pack your things, and I guarantee you if you had charge of any financial accounts you're not given any chance to touch them. In our strange parable, the Lord doesn't immediately throw out and punish the dishonest, guilty steward for wasting His possessions.
Remember inside a parable things stand for other things, earthly things stand for heavenly things. The possessions of our Lord are not money, property, stocks, bonds. All of these belong to this world which is passing away; all of these things are destined to melt with fervent heat. Your Lord's possessions, the things you manage for Him are His grace, mercy, and peace; His forgiveness, life, and salvation.
That's what God the Father sent His Son into this world to purchase for sinners. God Almighty already owns all of us by virtue of creation, but because of the Fall, His own Law and Promise required that He disown us. God had commanded, "Don't eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil," and God had promised, "In the day you eat of it you shall surely die." God can't lie. God cannot renege on a promise. But God can purchase sinners; God can redeem sinners; God can fulfill His own Law and pay His own debt.
And that's what God did by sending His Son into our flesh and blood. He sent Him under the Law to keep it in your place. The temptations you feel; the lusts you give into, the commands you outright break, Jesus kept them every moment, of every day of His life. Then to keep His promise that the broken law would be paid for by the shedding of blood, God shed the blood of His only beloved Son. Enough had to be shed so that every sinful deed, word, or thought ever done or would be done by man would be paid for in the eyes of God. One drop of God' blood would do that, but to show His great love for sinners and how completely all sins were paid for, the Father shed blood from His Son's hands, feet, back, head, and side.
Jesus won the right for everyone to go heaven. He bought forgiveness, life, and salvation, grace, mercy and peace for all by His totally innocent life and very guilty death. He put these in Baptism, in Absolution, and in Communion. And these are what we have wasted. When we leave here without the forgiving Word ringing in our ears, we waste His forgiveness. When our sins assault us and we don't repent back to our Baptism, we waste His grace. When we stay away from this altar for weeks, months at a time we waste His Body and Blood. Yet He doesn't take these away from us even as the fired, dishonest steward was left with the rich man's books.
This great mercy taught the unrighteous money manager. He relied on his Lord wishing to be known more for His mercy than for His justice. Still having the books he could do what he did. He reduces what others owe his master by about 500 denarii each. When this became known in the community, there would be a great celebration and the rich man would be praised for his fantastic generosity. At that point, he could either say the dishonest steward had cheated him once again and so all reductions are canceled. Or he could accept the agreement to reduce the loans and receive all the praise that went with doing so. The dishonest manger banked on him doing the latter even though he knew it would cost him dearly.
What about you? Will you bank on your Lord's justice or His mercy? The Pharisees banked on justice, and so were offended by the parable about am unjust servant winning and so heard it as only law. But we who sing "Today His Mercy, not His Justice, Calls us," hear something else. We disciples hear that our Lord wants to be merciful in such an over the top way that it can only be illustrated by a parable of a rich man who wanted to be known more for extraordinary mercy than for exacting justice even though it cost him dearly.
The worldly wise dishonest manager used the possessions of a rich man banking on what he knew about his extraordinary mercy. Will you a disciple bank on the mercy of the Man who is God using the possessions of Him that you have been entrusted with: Baptism, Word, Communion? These are your true riches in this world. Spend them now to forgive your sins, to grace your fallenness, to mercy your weakness. This will lead to you being welcomed into eternal dwellings. Jesus is giving financial planning advice to lovers of money and those who would justify themselves. That's not disciples whose souls have been sought, found, and mercied. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20130922); Luke 16: 1-13