To be Shrewd or not to be Shrewd? That is the Question!
v.10-11 One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?
Dear friends in Christ, this morning we have before us one of the most difficult of all our Lord’s parables—and that’s saying something! However, if we keep to the good rule of Scriptural interpretation, which is to take passages in their context, then we find that we can make some sense of these troubling words of our Saviour. Context, context, context makes all the difference. You see, at this point in Jesus’ ministry He had many sinners coming to Him and there were many who were self-righteous (ie – Pharisees) who didn’t like this at all. Therefore, Jesus tells the assembled people four parables in a row.
Now, on the surface none of these parables make a whole lot of sense. And in each parable told there is a kind of escalating insanity—a man leaves 99 sheep in the open wilderness to go look for one that is lost—a woman burns a bunch of expensive oil to find a single lost coin—a father is so generous as to not even rebuke a son at all despite the son’s major sins and faults, to the point that his other son thinks his dad is crazy. And now this manager—this house overseer—this one who has the law of the house, is actually commended by his master for being shrewdly dishonest!
What has Jesus been doing in the three previous parables? He has been confronting the Pharisees over their self-righteous behaviour. However, just to make sure they get the point, this last parable is included to show them how truly lost they are—which is readily seen in how they view mammon or wealth. They incorrectly saw their wealth as a sure sign of God’s favour toward them—“Look at all the stuff that I have! God surely must love me!” This self-righteous attitude Jesus strictly condemns. And this condemnation hits us at home too, when we honestly examine how we use the blessings that God has given us—and how we have so often failed to act as good stewards of His gifts.
Jesus confronts us with our sin so that we may be brought to repentance by His Word and come to Him alone for salvation. For it is only by grace through faith in Jesus Christ that a person is saved.
Now the troubling part of this parable is the fact that the Master commends the dishonest manager—the guy who essentially stole from him. This man was bad—kept bad records—his books don’t add up and he knows he’ll be in trouble. So what does he do? He summons his master’s debtors and decreases their debts. The master then commends the manager because “the sons of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” Note that it isn’t the dishonesty of the manager that is commended, but rather his shrewdness. This is praiseworthy for two reasons: 1 – he knew and trusted the Master would be merciful—that he would honour the debts forgiven in the Master’s name. 2 – The steward used oil and wheat to provide for his earthly welfare.
The Master, in all of this, though at first he seems somewhat like a fool, is actually the most clever of all. For he recognizes that the servant he is about to fire knows how to make things right. Because of this he is willing to save this man and put him to work rather than firing him. For this man used mammon to make friends for himself in this life.
Beloved, we are to use the good gifts that God has given us: our time, talents, and treasures (yes, mammon) for holy purposes—to make friends for the eternal future—for the church in Christ. We are to use these resources to grow in fellowship with believers and to proclaim the saving message of Christ crucified in the place of sinners for sinners.
The main point of this parable is, however, that the manager, though shrewd, was still dishonest with little and so was found to be dishonest with much. Jesus is here foreshadowing what is about to happen between Him and the Pharisees. The Pharisees have been grossly dishonest with their stewarding of the mysteries of the faith and now Jesus is calling them to account and saying that what has been given to them will be taken away and given to someone else. They will now be so dishonest in much that they are going to overthrow the Master (Jesus Himself) and get rid of Him (by nailing Him to the cross).
Jesus, who is speaking the words of this parable to His disciples (knowing full well that the Pharisees are listening in), is calling His disciples to repentance, too. This parable also leads us to question ourselves and the purity of our hearts. For, “If you haven’t been faithful with unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you true riches?” These words condemn us all. For we must take to heart that all that we have is not our own. Yet, we take what we think is ours and use it to feed our flesh—pamper ourselves to make us feel good—we are greedy and selfish!
Think about it. We struggle to make ends meet in the church. We fail to reach our budget goals. Why? Is it because there isn’t enough money among the people here? By no means. It is because the people here are sinful and selfish and so misuse the mammon that God has blessed us with for our own personal gain and enjoyment, while neglecting the work of the Church—that which is truly the most important of all. We save for vacations, we save for our retirement years, we spend, spend, spend—and reserve little, if anything, of the leftovers for God’s holy church. At times, we pat ourselves on the back, thinking that the same $20, $40, or $100 a month that we have been giving for the past ten years is good enough, while church expenses skyrocket. And so projects are delayed and mission opportunities are missed because we think we don’t have the money.
The problem, dear friends, is as Jesus points out to us—you can’t serve two masters. You can’t serve both God and mammon (material wealth and our flesh). And this is true. Now the normal heart hears this condemnation and responds, “OK. I’ll start serving God now.” But do you see what this is? This is, once again, us trying to justify ourselves before God, yet again! For the focus is still upon us—something that WE do.
The disciples, later on in this discourse, respond, “O Lord, increase our faith!” They know that due to our sinful hearts we cannot BUT serve mammon—that we never serve God with our whole, heart, soul, body, and mind, but rather love ourselves first and foremost. Indeed, the Christian has two distinct natures—the Old and the New. The Old Adam always serves Mammon, while the New Adam in Christ always serves God. But we serve God only by grace in Christ who has worked to redeem us from all sin and death.
The apostle James writes that “Faith without works is dead.” This is because that is not true faith. No. The Christian fights against sin and strives to do God’s will, but only ever accomplishes the tiniest bit by God’s full and complete grace alone—His Work. You see, the Holy Spirit works within us to use wealth wisely for mercy (helping those in need), mission (proclaiming the saving work of Jesus Christ), and fellowship (building up of the body of Christ).
Jesus, beloved, has served God in place of Old humanity for the sake of everlasting New humanity, that He has redeemed with His own shed blood. He did this so well that even though you still serve money according to your flesh, yet by the power of His Holy Spirit you are forgiven, redeemed, sanctified, and are going to receive eternal life from God! Not because of what you have done or what you haven’t done—but purely by reason of what Jesus has done for you—taken your sins to the cross of Calvary and suffered and died for them—shedding His blood so that by believing in Him you might receive the mercy and forgiveness of God.
And THAT is the greatest service you can give to God—to simply receive what He gives. He gives eternal life in the body and blood of the crucified and risen Son, Jesus. For the Master has cancelled the whole debt—not just a percentage—but ALL of it—for the sake of His Son of Light. God knew that you and I could never repay the debt of sin that we owe to Him. He knew that He would have to condemn us all to hell for the sake of His justice. But God is more shrewd than you or I or the devil. He knew that by sending His Son into the world—into our flesh—He would redeem us from our sin—and buy us back for His heavenly kingdom.
Though we are sinful and selfish and deserve nothing but wrath, yet He shows love and faithfulness and mercy and generosity to His people. Leading them to faith and life through the shrewdness of His means of grace—Word and Sacrament. This is also foreshadowed in the parable by the earthly means by which the steward tries to provide for his earthly welfare: oil and wheat. So also, earthly elements are used by God to aid us when pressed into heavenly use.
Such as in the anointing of Holy Baptism and the wheat of the Lord’s Supper. By these sacred means that combine earthly water, bread, and wine with God’s Holy Word of mercy and promise—people are given and receive the full forgiveness of their sins and are given an eternal home when the earthly one fails. These blessings from God provide us aid in times of temptation and serve to give us the Lord who is our fortress and shield as we are led, by His grace, to trust in Him in all situations. For though you and I are dishonest in little (the earthly mammon the Lord God entrusts to us), yet He is honest and true in much—providing for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus His Son of Light to lead us to our heavenly home. Thanks be to God in Christ Jesus. Amen.
 Much of this sermon is indebted to Rev. Fisk of Worldview Everlasting’s Vlog, “Taming of the Shrewd.” September 14, 2010.