Saturday, August 20, 2011

Stewardship, Debt, and Forgiveness

Here is tomorrow's sermon on Luke 16:1-9, the one-year Gospel for Trinity 9, which I will be preaching the St. Louis city LCMS parish where I usually serve as organist. I also preached on this text last year. The other texts for this Sunday are 2 Samuel 22:26-34 and 1 Corinthians 10:6-13. Also referenced, without citation, are Luke 12:42-48 and Matthew 25:14ff.
People nowadays tend to be shocked and confused by the parable Jesus tells at the beginning of Luke 16. He tells about a rich man whose steward, or man of business, was caught embezzling from him. Instead of demanding that he turn over his accounts immediately, the rich man gives his steward a little time to set things in order. The crook takes advantage of this opportunity to do some last favors for the people who owed his master money. And what is the result? The master is pleased with his crooked steward, praising him for his sharp dealing. While we may be shocked and offended at this seemingly immoral outcome, Luke tells us that the Pharisees were merely amused. After Jesus goes on in the next few verses to say things like, “You cannot serve God and mammon,” Luke says: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided Him.”

They derided Him. That is to say, they held Him in derision; they mocked and ridiculed Him. They were not so much scandalized as titillated by Jesus’ backward ideas, His na├»ve outlook on life, and His persistently preaching a message that they considered out of date and out of touch. Theirs was much the same response that faithful Christians get from today’s secular world. It should come as no surprise. Jesus is hitting them where it really stings. He is attacking their god. And theirs is a god many of our generation also serve: Mammon, otherwise known as “the almighty dollar.”

So much for what the Pharisees made of today’s Gospel. But what shall we make of it? For today, we’ll have done well enough if we learn about three things from this Gospel. The first is STEWARDSHIP. The second is DEBT. And the third is FORGIVENESS.

STEWARDSHIP is the aspect of the parable where you and I are like the rich man’s business manager, or steward. The accounts in the steward’s book did not belong to the steward, but to the man he worked for. But all that property, money, and even debts, were in the steward’s hands to use in the rich man’s name. Some stewards had more freedom than others to do what they saw fit, and some of them abused their privileges—skimming a little for themselves, sometimes more than a little. But it wasn’t theirs. All the assets they controlled were really the property of their masters, as were they themselves. Yes, stewards were slaves. It could be a comfortable life, as slavery goes. They even had some authority over other slaves. But it was only delegated authority. They carried out their masters’ will in their masters’ name. All the deals they made to buy this or sell that, were valid only because of their master’s good word. It was as though their masters had made the deals themselves. In the eyes of the law, it was not the steward, but his master acting. It would be difficult for the master to renege on a deal made by his steward without damaging his own “credit score.”

How is this like the relationship between God and you? Name anything that you own. Is it yours? Who made it? Who gave it to you? Was it something you purchased from money that you earned? Well then, who provided you with the job that brought that money to you? Was it your hard work and study that earned that job? Well then, who gave you the physical and mental equipment to do it? Was it your parents who passed their abilities on to you and gave you the upbringing you needed? Well then, who gave you to them? Who opened the doors which, if kept shut, would have forced your life onto another path? Who created the raw materials? Who gave mankind the ability to use them? Who guides history? Who was there before it all came into being? Who will take it all away someday? God is permanent. In this world, you are temporary. So who really owns the place you call home, or your household gods, or the works of your hands? You may control them now, but after you are gone, you can’t even tell who will have them.

You think you own so many things, but none of them is really yours. Your home, your belongings, your family and friends, even your body and mind, are all the property of your Lord who made them. But He gives them to you as a stewardship. He delegates to you the right to carry out His will with them in His name. And what you do with them is really what He is doing through you. He lends you your spouse for a time, until death do you part. Even though you will still know each other, and even love each other in heaven, it will not be as man and wife, because you will both belong to the Bridegroom, who is Christ. He takes your children away when they are drowned in baptism, but gives them back as foster children to raise in His name. They are His children now. Everything else that He gives you is like the talents that the rich man in another parable gave his servants to invest while he was away. He will come back to claim it all from you, and you will account for it with interest, because it is not yours but His. And like the steward in today’s parable, we will face a particularly strict accounting if we have authority over other servants and debtors of our Lord. If we are found to be unfaithful, this stewardship may be taken from us, even if we somehow escape with our souls intact.

DEBT is the aspect of the parable where you and I are like the oil merchant and the corn broker who owed the rich man money. I can’t give you a precise figure in today’s dollars, but it was a lot of money. In an economy where most people lived on pennies a day, it was enough money to buy either hundreds of barrels of oil or thousands of bushels of wheat. It would be very risky to go into that kind of debt. There are so many ways it could become impossible to pay it back. And the option of not paying it back wouldn’t be taken lightly. Your lender could end up owning you. Literally. Like a slave. And selling off everything you called your own, including wife and children, house, furniture and clothing. And if you weren’t worth much as a slave, you could end up rotting in jail. Jails weren’t like today’s nice boarding houses with barred windows and outdoor recreation time. Back then, to be sent to prison was more like being thrown down a sewer, with a manhole in the ceiling instead of door or window. It meant spending the rest of your life in a dark, filthy hole. And unless someone sent you food at their own expense, it wouldn’t be long.

If you appreciate where the rich man’s debtors stood, perhaps you can begin to picture where you stand as debtors to God. Unless you are one of those people who have no conscience, who can commit any act without scruple or remorse, then you probably have at least some awareness that you are a sinner. Perhaps it doesn’t trouble you very much. Perhaps you have become so good at justifying your behavior that you can’t think of anything really wrong that you have done. Perhaps you have schooled yourself to get angry at any self-righteous hypocrite who mentions your faults, when they have faults of their own. Perhaps you have gotten so numb from always beating yourself up over the same sin that you no longer feel any guilt about it. Perhaps you are so tired of repenting of something you feel you can’t help, that you’ve decided it isn’t wrong anymore. Or perhaps you have fallen so low in your own esteem that you no longer expect better of yourself, so you don’t really care what you do. But apart from these possibilities, let’s suppose that you know you are a sinner.

You have a debt to God that you simply cannot repay. No matter how hard you work at it, you’re just getting deeper in debt all the time. Such is your sin—not just the bad things you do, but your very self, your whole nature polluted with evil desires, rebelling against God, poisoned and dying and in part already dead. You are over your head in debt, and not just to a creditor, but to your Creator. He made you, and He can unmake you. He gave you all things, and He can take them away again. And unless your debt is paid, a prison awaits you that makes the dark, filthy hole I described before look nice. And you will be there a very long time. We all by nature have such a debt toward God that, on our own, we cannot hope to repay it, or to escape a penalty worse than death.

FORGIVENESS is the dimension of the parable where the steward’s stewardship comes to bear on the debtors’ debts. And that is the part of the story that holds the highest importance for us. The steward forgave his master’s debtors. For the purposes of this story, he only forgave them a portion of their debts—enough to be helpful to them in their struggle to repay what they owed. In the reality of sinners before God, we must receive forgiveness of all our debts, since it is not in our power to repay them. This forgiveness is possible, and indeed it is real, because the righteous Son of God suffered the death of the unrighteous for us. The perfect obedience of that holy Person, who is both truly God and truly Man, makes His death the perfect sacrifice to cover all our sins. His holy resurrection from the dead bears witness that God has accepted it, that it is indeed finished, perfect, complete. And so forgiveness given in the name of Christ, and according to the command and promise of Christ, has the same power and validity as a receipt signed in Jesus’ blood, saying, “Paid in full.”

You are like the debtors in Jesus’ parable. You desperately need debt relief. And you should be grateful to whoever gives it to you. Such a man is your pastor, who stands between you and God in the same way that the steward in Luke 16 stood between the rich man and his debtors. Imperfect and unworthy though he may be as individual person, his office as a caretaker of his master’s treasures makes what he does valid, when he acts within the limits of his office, and when he acts in his master’s name. This is equally true of the steward’s position as it is true of the office of pastor. He carries out his Lord’s will in his Lord’s name.

So when your pastor tells you that your debt to the Lord is forgiven, you can rely on that as though the Lord forgave you in person. When your pastor baptizes you or your child in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you can trust that the Holy Spirit has been given together with rebirth, new life, and the forgiveness of all sins. It is just as though Jesus Himself poured the water, with all the signs of the Holy Spirit and the thundering voice saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” When your pastor gives you bread and wine to eat and drink, claiming that it is Christ’s true body and blood, you can accept that, on the strength of the promise Jesus made on the night He was betrayed. All that He gave for your salvation is in that food, and now He is coming into you, to fill your dead body with His life.

You are forgiven. Your debts are erased. Or rather, in Christ, they are paid in full. It is not just a historical fact that happened once, but that may or may not apply to you now. It is not just a spiritual treasure, for which you must wait until you get to heaven before you can collect it. It is not just one side of a covenant, as though God did His part, but now you must do yours. It is all yours, right now: forgiveness of all your sin from one end of your life to the other, and of the sins that are on your conscience now. And it is all on Christ Jesus. You need not wait for an angel to bring you the news. You need not wait for the sky to be darkened or for the earth to shake. Jesus has spoken, and it is so. Today, in this hour, and whenever a called and ordained steward opens God’s treasure to you, through the Word of absolution and the Gospel of peace, this forgiveness comes to you. You may cling to it with the same confidence that the rich man’s debtors had when they walked away with legal documents showing what he had forgiven them. In Baptism, in the Lord’s Supper, yes, even when you forgive one another as Christian brothers and sisters, God’s forgiveness is as certain as the promise behind those linen-paper notes that say “legal tender for all debts public and private.” Even more so, nowadays!

And this, when you think of it, is our most precious stewardship from God. Above all things, we must take care of this office of forgiving and retaining sins, preaching and teaching and administering the sacraments. Christ has given us His pastoral office so that through it, the fruits of His cross may be available to us in all our daily debts and failures. In Luke 12 Jesus warns His stewards, as picked servants who are tasked to feed and care for all their fellow servants: They must be found faithful when their Lord returns. In a similar way He also warns us not to lose this treasure, or bury it, or despise it, but to value the Office of the Keys as highly as you would value your salvation from sin, death, and hell. Where is this warning? It is in the words, “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light.”

If only we children of light were as wise in using the true spiritual treasures, as the children of this world are regarding the things they value! If only we guarded the Office of the Keys and the forgiveness of sins as jealously as they guard their filthy lucre. And so I beg you, do not be unforgiving toward each other; and do not let your hearts and ears be closed to the faithful steward your God has sent you. Rather forgive, and accept the forgiveness given in Jesus’ name, as your highest stewardship and worship of God.

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