Tomorrow's sermon, coming to a St. Louis LCMS pulpit, is based more or less equally on all three lessons for Ninth Sunday after Trinity: 2 Samuel 22:26-34; 1 Corinthians 10:6-13; and Luke 16:1-9. My prayer, as always when I preach, is: "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O LORD, my rock and my Redeemer" (Psalm 19:14).Today’s first lesson was a portion of the song of David, thanking God for delivering him from his enemies. In this song, David describes God in a way many of us might find troubling. God appears merciful only to the merciful; He appears blameless only to the blameless; He appears pure only to those who are pure; while to the twisted, God appears to be twisted (2 Samuel 22:26–27). On David’s lips, this somehow comes across as praise. But we are troubled to hear that God chooses to appear evil in the eyes of evil men. In a similar way, we are disturbed to hear Christ compare God to a rich man who praised the shrewdness of his dishonest servant. In today’s Gospel, Jesus makes this shocking and confusing statement: “The master commended the unrighteous steward because he had acted shrewdly. For the sons of this age are shrewder in regard to their own kind than are the sons of light. And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an eternal home.”
Isn’t that weird! Jesus said some strange-sounding things in His time, things that can only be understood after careful study and reflection, and even then only in part. In Matthew 11, Jesus said: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.” What does that mean? In John 6, Jesus said things like: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” As a result of this speech, many of his followers said: “This is a hard saying; who can understand it?” and they stopped following him. In John 8, Jesus declared: “Before Abraham was, I am”—with the result that his audience picked up stones to throw at Him. And that’s because they understood what He meant! So as we wrestle with this strange parable in Luke 16, we must remember where it came from.
Let’s start by shaking off a misconception. We think of parables as “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning,” illustrations from human experience that help us understand the mysteries of God. But there’s more to them than that. Some parables are more like ingenious riddles that can lead to enlightenment, but can also lead to confusion and misunderstanding. In Luke 8, Jesus gave His disciples this explanation for why He taught in parables: “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables, that ‘Seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’” Here Jesus is quoting Isaiah 6:9, where God announces a terrible judgment against His people. Not to be able to understand God’s Word is a dire punishment for unbelief, compounding it, hardening it, ensuring that one will not be saved from it. So when Christ speaks in parables, He isn’t just using picture language to make the meaning clear. At least sometimes, He speaks in a strange and puzzling way, so that those outside the faith will not understand.
As we approach this parable, we need to start with the humbling realization that we are not entitled to be enlightened by it. The temptation to take the wrong meaning away from it lies before us, no less than anyone else. Consider the children of Israel, as Paul described them in our lesson from 1 Corinthians 10. They were God’s chosen people. God had visited ten plagues on Egypt, sparing only the Israelites, in order to deliver them from cruel bondage. God killed the Pharaoh’s firstborn son, drowned his army, and led the Israelites dry-shod across the Red Sea. God led them by a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night to Mount Sinai. He even revealed Himself to 70 elders of Israel, enthroned on a pavement of sapphire. Yet as soon as Moses went up into the cloud that concealed the mountain, the Israelites turned away from God and began to worship the golden calf. This is what it means that “the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” At Moses’ command, three thousand Israelites were put to death that day. On another day, twenty-three thousand fell because of sexual immorality (Numbers 25). When they tempted God, they were destroyed by serpents (Numbers 21). When they grumbled against God, they were destroyed by the destroyer (Numbers 16).
Paul concludes: “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” This is to say, do not think you have attained to a clearer revelation than the Israelites did. You have not achieved a closer walk with God than they had. Your heart is not more pure, your works are not more excellent, your faith is not more praiseworthy than theirs. We have no privilege or advantage over them. On the contrary, we have it in ourselves to be just as twisted and perverse as they were. We grumble when we don’t get our way. We hold our faith hostage by waiting for visible, countable blessings, though if we won’t listen to God’s counsel or do what He asks, we are merely tempting God. We sin in our hearts and minds, with our mouths and with our bodies, not just sins of sexual uncleanness but every kind of immorality. And while we find it hard to forgive others, we have learned to forgive ourselves so easily that we no longer seriously fear God or seek His forgiveness.
Stubborn, stiff-necked, fickle, we set more stock on how we want to worship than how God wants to be worshiped. We take such delight in our possessions, our lifestyle, our food and drink and entertainment, they could easily become our idols. Even in church, we may have our own manner of golden calf: perhaps our beautiful building and sanctuary, perhaps our synod and the programs we take part in, perhaps our structure and governance, rules and procedures, offices and officers…could these become a stumbling block to hearing and believing what God gives us in His Word? The bottom line, says Paul, is this: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”
There is comfort in this, but it is not the Gospel. For even bearing Paul’s words in mind, we must still admit that we don’t always escape temptation. God may not allow us to be tempted beyond what we can resist, yet often enough we don’t resist. Sometimes temptation does overtake us. And the result is sin. You have sinned. I have sinned. We have sinned together. We have sinned against each other. Each and every one of us has run up more debt than we can possibly repay. There are secret sins only you know about. There are sins that poison your relationships with others. There are sins they have committed against you, which you cannot forgive. There is so much shame within us. There is so much bitterness between us. And the worst of it is that we are all hopelessly in debt to God—who has the right to hand us over to torture and imprisonment until the last penny is repaid. That is to say, forever!
In Jesus’ parable of the unrighteous steward, the rich man’s debtors are in this very predicament. They owed the rich man a lot of money. Have you ever been in debt up to your eyeballs? I have. At one point I was trying to make car payments, mortgage payments, school loan payments, and payments on two maxed-out credit cards at the same time. My interest rates were so high that, even when I paid twice the minimum payment and didn’t spend anything, my balances went up. Earning a good salary, and spending just enough to keep food on my table and fuel in my car, I kept falling further behind. And that was before I lost my job and had to take a pay cut to keep working. I was the miller who owed 1,500 bushels of wheat. I was the oil merchant who owed 600 gallons of olive oil. I needed help. I needed mercy and forbearance. I needed to hear that I could make smaller payments, or fewer payments, or pay less interest. Eventually I had to sell my house and use the equity to pay off the other debts. God was very kind to me, because the house sold in no time and everything worked out. But sometimes you get in debt so deep you don’t even dare ask for help.
The miller and the oil merchant were like that. They didn’t come to the rich man, or even to his steward, asking for help. It was, at last, the steward who went to them. He was in enough trouble of his own. He was about to lose his stewardship, his authority to manage his master’s assets, over charges that he had misappropriated them. He was given only a little time to get his books in order. So he took his books to his master’s debtors. He used his authority to make deals in his master’s name—deals the rich man could not back out on without damaging his good name. And so the miller and the oil merchant got the help they needed to relieve some of the pressure of their debt. And the steward got himself into their good graces, knowing that he would soon need their help in return. It worked out for everyone except the rich man. He lost money on the deal. And yet, what does the rich man do? He praises the dishonest steward for acting sensibly.
Perhaps you see where this is going. Perhaps now you can almost glimpse the reason this parable does not paint a disturbing picture of God. In fact, it’s a comforting picture. It’s a picture of the God to whom you and I and everyone in world are so deeply, hopelessly in debt. This picture does not show God carrying a legal notice and a locksmith’s kit in his hands, coming to foreclose on us and change the locks. Nor does it show Him wearing a loupe in His eye, opening our books to examine the accounts. Rather, this parable shows a merciful Lord who throws his head back with a bark of laughter when He hears how His most unworthy servant used the power of forgiveness to secure his future. He does not begrudge the debts we forgive on His behalf. In fact, He so delights in forgiveness that He particularly promises to forgive us when we forgive each other! He praises us for using the authority to forgive sins on earth, even though we ourselves need forgiveness.
He allows us to forgive sins in His name, and stands by His Word. So when a servant of God declares you forgiven in the stead and by the name of Jesus, you can take that forgiveness to the bank. You need not doubt this even if God’s servant is unrighteous. For all of us fall short of perfection. Any of us may lie, cheat, steal, or sin in even more twisted ways. Yet God does not lie. His promise is His promise. His name is His name. His Word is His Word; and once pledged to you, it can never be withdrawn.
When the dishonest steward traded on his master’s mercy, the two debtors took that mercy to the bank. The steward was legally empowered to carry out business transactions with his master’s property and in his master’s name. So the two debtors innocently relied on the blameless honor of the rich man’s name. He could not go back on his steward’s agreement to forgive their debts and still keep his good reputation; so, in order to remain blameless, he had to hold his steward and his debtors blameless. God is like this rich man. We are like the debtors and the steward in this parable.
This shines a new light on David’s words about God. For if we are twisted by unbelief and sin, we can see God as only twisted and unjust. But if we are pure in heart by faith, we will see His purity. If we are justified by faith, we will recognize that He is both blameless and the one who declares sinners blameless. If we know His forgiving mercy, we will also mercifully forgive. Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall see mercy; blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:7–8). Jesus was merciful and pure. He showed us God’s mercy and purity of heart by His blameless death on the cross. He died to erase our debts and forgive our sins. He said as much on the night before his death, declaring that His blood is poured out for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28). He said as much when He begged forgiveness for the people who nailed Him to the cross, when He promised Paradise to the robber crucified nearby, and when He spoke compassionately to Mary and John in the midst of mortal agony.
Jesus was merciful, blameless, and pure in heart to the bitter end. Therefore God shows Himself merciful, blameless, and pure of heart to you. He considers you to be all these things. By the power of His Spirit at work in Word and Sacrament, God is fashioning you more and more in the likeness of His merciful, pure, and blameless Son. The more you know Him as He is, the more you will be like Him—and not just in a hidden way, deep down in your heart, but out in the open where you have debts to forgive and to be forgiven for. If you know His merciful forgiveness, little children, be merciful and forgive one another. If you know His blameless honor, then when His servant declares your debts forgiven, give that pledge all the credit due to His holy name and Word. If you know your Lord’s purity of heart, particularly as revealed in Christ, then learn to look past the illusion that God is crooked or cruel or corrupt, and let your heart and mind be fashioned anew in the pure image of His Son.
Receive His forgiveness, little children. Forgive one another. And be purified by the operation of His Spirit through Word and Sacrament. In this way you will grow in the likeness of Christ. It may be a painful process, like being scrubbed by a rough brush, like metal being tested by fire, like muscle being strengthened by hard exercise, like a child being disciplined by its father. It may mean risking the idols we cling to, the mammon we hoard. It may mean making friends with people we don’t want to see. But the outcome is eternal life, where we will join David in singing: “You are my lamp, O Lord; the Lord shall enlighten my darkness. For by You I can run against a troop; by my God I can leap over a wall… God is my strength and power; He makes my way perfect… and he sets me on my high places.”