He 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.
I’ve told this story before, but some art is too excellent to ignore and so memorable one must share it often. I find that to be the case in Victor Hugo’s scene when the criminal Jean Valjean stole a bishop’s silver after the cleric had shown him great charity. The next morning the police captured the fleeing thief who claimed the bishop had gifted him with the silver. When the police returned to the bishop with Jean Valjean in tow they told the old man Jean’s story. The pastor responded, “Of course I gave the silver to him, but Jean you forgot the candlesticks. They are worth at least two thousand francs.” As the police released him Jean Valjean scared and confused asked the bishop why he was showing him mercy. The bishop answered, “Jean Valjean my brother, you no longer belong to evil, with this silver I bought your soul, I ransomed you from fear and hatred and now I give you back to God.”
It’s very likely that Victor Hugo had the parable from our Gospel lesson in mind when he wrote this scene. The dishonest manager was a thief. He’d been stealing from his gracious master ever since he was in his employ. Yet, by the end of the story the master has mercy on the manager’s misery just like the bishop in Hugo’s story.
This is a hard story to swallow. We want justice for the master and punishment for the steward. Would any businessman allow himself to be defrauded this way only to commend the thief for thieving more when he wrote off debts owed to his employer? If you heard of such a man you’d think him a fool and that is why this parable challenges us. We read it thinking it tells us about us and our world when it really tells us about God and his kingdom. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways. He does the unexpected and turns our world on its head.
Christ is teaching us that God’s kingdom has been defrauded. Our master, the Heavenly Father, expects obedience and is the rightful judge of our failures. He knows every place where we have wasted the gifts he has bestowed on us. He has given you life, breath, food, home, and health and how often have you taken them for granted and used them unfaithfully? You have stolen from the master every time you take his good gifts and use them for your selfish sins. He has given you life to give him glory and serve your neighbor, but you have often been more concerned with self-glory and serving your appetites. He has given you vocations to love and serve others, but how often have you done them half-heartedly and poorly? He has given you food and drink, house and home, spouse and children, but how often have you been ungrateful? You covet your neighbor’s possessions, their spouse, and home. You are dissatisfied with your circumstances and discontented with your daily bread. When we give an account and open the books when the master asks our response will be the same as the dishonest manager—silence—our mouths will be shut. Our silence itself is a confession of sin. As the Scripture says, “Whatever the Law says it says to those under the Law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” (Romans 3:19) We must repent!
But God does the unexpected and turns the world on its head. The dishonest manager should have been locked up and imprisoned for life for defrauding his master. Yet, the master doesn’t do this. The master does not condemn the steward or curse him. The dishonest manager does not see his master’s inaction as a weakness, but as mercy. The dishonest manager recognizes his miserable position. He cannot dig and his reputation is ruined! He must lay all his trust on his master’s mercy and he does so. In a compliment to the master the steward knew his master was generous and merciful. He risked everything on this aspect of his master’s character. He repented and by means of earthly wealth he endeared his employer to all his debtors by forgiving great portions of their debts. Because the master was indeed merciful and generous he willingly paid the full price for his sinful steward’s redemption. He was defrauded that he might show the lengths of his mercy.
The master of all, God in heaven, shows us the Kingdom in this parable. This parable teaches the unsearchable depths of God’s grace. The dishonest manager deserved nothing but condemnation and he receives inexplicable mercy instead. So, also you! Christ was defrauded upon the cross for you. Though he was guilty of no sin he took your crimes into himself. He willingly paid the full price for your redemption. As the dishonest manager found relief for his misery by relying on the mercy of the master, how much more will Christ help you in your misery as you trust his mercy! You are redeemed, not by means of silver or gold, the unrighteous wealth of this world, but the very blood of God.
The dishonest manager was never commended by his master for his thievery. In fact when the master calls him shrewd the Greek word means being “wise for preserving one’s life.” The master commends him for trusting that he would receive mercy instead of condemnation. The steward should have become the master’s enemy that day, but instead he gained a friend. So, you have made friends in heaven in the strangest way. You release to heaven your unrighteousness and heaven gives you mercy. You have a merciful friend in heaven, God the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit who will receive you into his eternal dwellings.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.
SDG—Rev. Eric M. Estes