Pastor Hopkins preached this sermon on the ninth Sunday after Trinity 8/9/2020. The service was broadcast live on Facebook at 11am, and is now available on the FLC youtube channel. To follow along from home, the bulletin is available as a PDF: Trinity9 Bulletin
The text for the sermon was the day’s gospel lesson. To read the Bible texts for the ninth Sunday after Trinity, click here.
The Parable of the Unjust Steward, which you just heard, is widely regarded as one of the most difficult parables to preach; but I don’t think that’s because it is difficult to understand.
Luther thought that it was actually a very simple story. But by digging too deeply into the details we lose sight of it; and so, we can’t see the forest for the trees. But Luther saw the grace of God at work in this parable, and he wasn’t alone.
Victor Hugo may have had this parable in mind when he wrote the candlestick scene, a crucial moment in his famous novel about the miserable state of man. In this scene the main character, Jean Valjean, had just been released from prison. He was having trouble finding a place in the world and was invited to stay the night and enjoy a fine meal with a kindly old bishop. But in the morning, full of bitterness, Jean stole the silver plates and utensils as he left the house. He was caught that same morning by the police and dragged back to the church.
The police don’t believe Jean’s story. He claimed that the bishop gave him the silver as a gift… for free… just like that. Of course, these policemen, who deal strictly with the law, can barely imagine such mercy; all they see is lies and violence.
But at that moment, the bishop claims that this is exactly what happened; he says that he really had given Jean the silver as a gift. And then, as if that were not enough, he also gave to him a pair of matching silver candlesticks, claiming that this was part of the gift, and that he’d forgotten to take it with him.
It is a marvelous demonstration of mercy. And that happens to be what the word “miserable” meant in Old French: “in need of mercy.” That is also what we mean when we confess that we are poor, miserable sinners. We don’t mean that we walk around feeling terrible every moment of the day. We’re simply saying that we need mercy. In any case, the event is a rebirth for Jean Valjean, and it drives the whole story.
The Parable of the Unjust Steward has a similar surprise. The steward, or manager, had stolen from the rich man. He had wasted his property. But when he was caught and required to give an account, he chose to steal even more, in order that he might buy friends for himself. Naturally, we expect the rich man to be outraged and frustrated. Naturally, we expect him to take back what was taken from him.
Naturally, we expect him to feel some regret that he didn’t stop the steward sooner. But instead, quite unnaturally, he commends the steward for being so clever. But don’t get the wrong idea. The parables are not meant to show us how God is like us. They are meant to show us how God is distinct from us. So here’s what you need to hang on to: God wants to give away His Kingdom.
However it was that the steward was wasting the rich man’s property, it was rectified, it was made right, when the rich man’s debtors were forgiven. Again: It was not made right when the debts were collected, but when they were forgiven.
So, this is the point: God wants to give away His goods to the very people who tried to steal them. God wants as sons and daughters the same people who murdered His Beloved Son. God wants to bestow His Kingdom on rebels guilty of treason. We are not worthy of such mysteries and joys, but God bestows this Good News in His Word.
Jesus interprets the parable when He says:
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. verse 9
Here is the key. Who can receive anyone into an eternal dwelling? Only God can do this. This would mean that you should befriend God with unrighteous wealth! What unrighteous wealth could be used with God? Stolen wealth! Only that which belongs to another, which is not yours by right, that which you cannot buy or earn.
If that sounds bothersome, and it might, remember: It’s not exactly fair that the innocent die for the guilty, but it is good; and this is the very foundation of the Kingdom.
This is the shocking character of grace. God wants to give away His goods to the very people who sought to steal them. He wants as sons and daughters the very people who murdered His Beloved Son. He wants to bestow the Kingdom on rebels guilty of treason. The Father forsakes the innocent Son in order to have you. Likewise, He declares the guilty to be innocent. He accepts payment from Jesus for your debt. And then He goes so far as to say that you were never guilty and He has more to give you than you tried to steal. He adds silver candlesticks to plates and spoons.
So, in the end, it is not “Write down 80, even though you owe 100.” It is not even “Write down zero.” God takes the ledger and He writes a credit. So, you aren’t merely less in debt than you were before. Neither are you even with God. You now have a bag full of wealth.
Like Jean Valjean, it is as if your thievery has been rewarded. For Jesus pays more than justice demands. Our cups overflow.
That is the unrighteous wealth that makes God a friend of sinners. It is the Blood of Jesus Christ from the cross and in the Chalice. It welcomes sinners into eternal dwellings as God’s own friends when this creation fails.
Jesus also says we are to be faithful with unrighteous wealth. To be faithful in this is to want it, to honor it, to love it. To be faithful in this is to keep on taking it. The Blood of Jesus Christ, His death and resurrection, His innocent, substitutionary suffering, is the currency of heaven which is given in perfect generosity to thieving sinners.
“What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.” What shall I give to the Lord for His many gifts to me? “I will take more,” says the Psalmist. I will take more.
God wants to give away His Kingdom to the very people who tried to steal it. He wants as sons and daughters the very people who murdered His Beloved Son. He wants to bestow the Kingdom on rebels guilty of treason. He wants to give it to you. It is yours. Come take it.