Shrewd Living

I have to tell you, our Gospel lesson today is a tough text. I don’t know how many pastors attempt to preach this strange parable of the dishonest manager. Of those who do, I’m pretty sure most of us mess it up along the way. It’s tough, it’s weird, it’s not like any other parable. The parables leading up to this one are soft pitches that are easy to hit out of the park. You have the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. These parables have clear images of the rejoicing in heaven over the one sinner who repents, images of the boundless love of our eternal Father. But then, you have this text. This strange parable is about a dishonest manager being commended for his shrewdness. He is commended not because of some great act of penance or kindness or justice, but because he acted decisively and wisely.

So let’s go through this parable and try to understand just what exactly is going on. We are told that a rich man has a manager in charge of his affairs. A manager like this would have executive authority, sort of like an ambassador who speaks on behalf of the one whom he represents. So when the manager attends to the affairs of his master amongst his business associates, they understand that they are dealing with the master himself. But charges are brought against this manager that he was dishonest. Now this is a serious charge. If word of this was to get out, it would ruin him. After all, his whole career rested on being honest at least in regard to his master’s things. Now upon learning about this charge, the master rightly brings in his manager. Apparently he has some corroborating evidence because the master immediately dismisses him from employment. “What is this I hear about you?” He says, “Turn in an account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.”

Now this manager may be dishonest, but he’s no fool. He quickly assesses the situation so that he might plot his next move. He first takes stock of himself. He says, “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” And then he sees what he must do; when he is finally removed from management he might be taken into the house of someone else – perhaps to be their manager. So he summons all those who are indebted to his master, and one by one he reduces what is owed. To the one who owes a hundred measures of oil he says, “Sit down quickly and make it fifty.” To the one who owes a hundred measures of wheat he says, “Write down eighty.” One by one he reduces a debt owed to his soon to be ex-master. And when the master finds out about it, does he throw the manager into prison? Does he beat him about the head? No, he commends him for his shrewdness.

Upon hearing this parable, we should all rightly ask, what does this mean? What is it we are to take away for a story like that? If we were looking for an example, a step by step plan on how to live a virtuous life, this is not it. If we were hoping to find some grand tale of faith moving mountains and overcoming incredible suffering and beating back hell itself, why this doesn’t seem to be it. This is about a dishonest man who uses unrighteous wealth to make friends for himself so that when he loses his job he has a backup plan. It isn’t our usual Sunday School story. It isn’t nice and clean and it doesn’t fit into our normal routine. No a parable like this challenges our preconceived notions, and calls for us to dig a little deeper.

The tendency is to move quickly from this parable on to the famous words of v. 13 where our Lord says, “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” In other words, instead of really dealing with the actions of this dishonest servant, we generalize it to be about possessions. We move to something that is a little easier to understand.

But let’s not quickly jump to that. We’ll get there; this does indeed deal with our possessions and where we place our trust. But we shouldn’t just forget the dishonest manager, for he proclaims something important. His shrewd actions display something that is truly commendable, something that is worthy not only of our attention but of our emulation as well. His actions are not about him at all; they are not about what he will do or what he will accomplish. Remember, even when the debtors are coming and receiving the forgiveness they still believe that he is representing his master. His shrewdness is his decisive action with what belongs to his master.

Now the only way that any of his schemes work, the only way that this doesn’t end very badly for him, is if his master is merciful. In fact, it seems that this is exactly what he was banking on. His shrewd decision was to trust in the mercy of the master. You see, he looked to himself for a way out. He looked and found that he was too proud to beg and too weak to dig. So he concludes that the solution to his problem must lay outside of himself: outside of his ability, outside of his possessions, outside of his gifts. In a bizarre way the solution that he comes to is to trust in the master who is about to fire him. He trusts in the character of one who has proven himself to be merciful. The earthy mammon comes to nothing compared to mercy. And it is this hope, this trust, this willingness to put all his eggs in the basket of the master’s mercy that brings forth commendation.

Here is why we can’t just skip over this. For such shrewd acts define your life of faith. And perhaps the most shrewd of all is the one that first claimed you as the Lord’s and welcomed you into the family of his saints. Today we gathered together to witness this shrewd act once again as a baby boy was brought forward to the baptismal font. The parents were given that most precious of gifts: a child, who will forever change their lives. Their hopes and dreams and even fears will be wrapped up in that beautiful little one. And today they played the part of the dishonest manager. In fact, not only did they do, it but you were all in on it. Together we engaged in a simple act, an ancient rite, by which the promises of God were washed over that child.  There in those waters all rescue was given from sin, death and the power of the Devil.

But who are you to do such things? By what right do you assume that this is permissible? For you have nothing of yourselves to make this promise sure. You don’t possess what is needed to create and sustain faith, to soothe the conscience and give assurance. No, when you look within yourselves, whether you are ready to admit it or not, there isn’t a whole lot of such righteous and holy things. There is a longing for sin, a powerful desire to put yourself first over others. There is lust and greed and selfishness. Like the dishonest manager the solution has to come from outside of ourselves; outside of our own hearts desires and dreams, outside of even our most pious understandings. And like the dishonest manager we bank it all on the mercy of the Master.

This is a shrewd act! And it reveals the promises, the mercy of your Father in heaven. We baptize not because of ourselves but because of his command and promise. You have confidence not because of what you can do, but what he has already done for you. He has proved his mercy by dying for you. He has established true love by declaring from the rooftops that you are forgiven of all your sins. He has demonstrated the depth of that love by raising his Son from the dead never to die again. And all of that was given to this little boy today, through a few splashes of water and some simple Words.

Our lives of faith are lives of shrewd living. Where like that manager in the parable we recklessly go around forgiving debts and banking it all on the Master’s mercy. You have no business holding tight to the things of this world, to the money you earn or things you accumulate in this life, for in the end you are living in the promises of eternal treasures. This means you live with a peculiar type of freedom in the Gospel. In being assured of your salvation you are also assured of the only true Master.

This past week I was at a great gathering of a bunch of our area pastors where we talked about many things, but as often happens we talked about the state of the church today. We spoke about the pressures facing it and the temptations, about stewardship and evangelism, and about how do we stop the tide of the shrinking church. I have to tell you, I think the answer lies in this shrewd living. Take what the Master has entrusted you with. Take his law and Gospel and use it. Stand upon that Word and speak it into the ears of one another. Be gracious, be loving, be forgiving. Be shrewd; for you are loved and forgiven this very day.