He comes around to stun and trouble us every three years whether we want him to or not (and a part of me certainly does not want him around). He is the strangest protagonist in all of Jesus’ parables (and that term feels like a misnomer). He is a stand-in for many unbelievers who put me to shame (how humbling is that!).
Yes, I am referring to the shrewd steward of Sunday’s gospel (Luke 16:1-13). Here is a man clearly painted before us as unjust and deceitful. Yet his commendation unleashes an arrow that pierces the heart of every believer!
Picture that man standing before his master. His master has heard a report of this steward squandering his goods. The steward is ordered to give a final accounting before his firing becomes official. He pales as the career counselors only offer digging or begging as replacement vocations.
And he doesn’t have much time to consider his options! But then it dawns on him that his master’s goods are for that short time still in his hands. He hatches his plan about what some seriously focused effort could accomplish in that limited time.
With no time to lose, we find him next at his computer feverishly printing out the accounts of each of his master’s debtors while simultaneously texting them to come to his office immediately. As each arrives, he hands them the record of their debt, urges them in their own hand to amend what’s printed, and – presto! – his master’s debtors simultaneously become his debtors! He won’t be sweating in any ditches but sinking down in ease. He will have plenty of warm meals handed to him without need of any nasty eleison’s.
“The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” But just as those words reveal the amazing turnabout in this shrewd steward’s fortunes, Jesus stuns us, without warning, by piercing through the parable to signal that we better not be hissing at that man since the ones who deserve our hissing are…us! “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light” (8). Suddenly Jesus announces categorically that every believer finds themselves put to shame by this shameless man!
How so? How devoted the unbelievers are as they manipulate one another and their circumstances to serve their god, Mammon. They know their time is short. So, they shrewdly deal with their fellow unbelievers in this age to enable them to serve Mammon with earnest, zealous, and single-minded devotion.
And there we stand with nothing to say in our own defense: outed by a scoundrel! We – “the people of the light” no less! – prove ourselves so often far less earnest, zealous, and single-minded in our devotion to the true God (!) than unbelievers are to their god that is no god! Would not our Master, after watching us steward the riches of his gospel with all too frequent apathy and carelessness, be justified in saying to us long ago: “Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer” (2)?
Why does that happen? Could it be, as strange as it sounds, that unbelievers actually understand some of Jesus’ words in Sunday’s gospel better than we do? “No servant can serve two masters. 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 both God and Money.” The world gets that. No, not in a way that will benefit them in the long run, but in this way: other than some vague tweaks of conscience late at night, they are devoted to their god Mammon and not constrained or restrained by trying to serve the true God. Mammon has their single-minded devotion in the short time of this life! They agree with Jesus: no one can serve two masters!
But we believers often beg to differ with Jesus. Yes, we know by faith that Mammon is no god but only the earthy and temporary gifts of the true God. And yet again and again we try to have it both ways – a little service of God here, a little service of Mammon there. We allow ourselves to be drawn in by the allure of serving at the altar of what I can see and touch and taste and handle. This inevitably, Jesus notes, leads us in the direction of despising the God we cannot see, forgetting that this God and his unseen gifts are what are eternal!
And so instead of grabbing Mammon by the ears and compelling him in earnest devotion to serve the real God of our lives, we find ourselves having to confess this reality: we as God’s people find ourselves coming in a distant second in comparison to the devotion of Mammon’s people!
And as much as I hate to say it, this painful reality will continue as long as I have a sinful nature. Jesus’ parabolic warning will never cease to be needed! There will never be a day on this earth when I have put my sinful nature completely aside with his divided loyalties. Unless this parable breaks through to convince me of that reality, I am in danger of inviting that awful day when my Master summons me before him and proclaims that I cannot be his steward any longer…ever. And, unlike the parable, there will be no time left for me to connive my way out of that!
But, as much as there for me to learn from that shrewd steward, there is something I must not imitate. I don’t want to wait for my Master to call me to final account for having wasted his wealth. In fact, begging is entirely appropriate! I want to run to him and confess all the wastefulness of my half-hearted devotion! I want to confess to him how often I have arrogantly believed what even the world knows is a lie: I cannot serve both God and Mammon. “Lord,” we can say, “forgive us for half-hearted service in your kingdom that, if I tried that with a worldly employer, would have found me fired long ago!”
But right there we come to a second difference Jesus delights for us to find between ourselves and the shrewd steward! Unlike what the shrewd steward heard when he was first summoned into his master’s presence, what do I hear when I enter my Master’s throne room confessing that my divided heart has lead me to squander his goods?
I hear my Master cut me off to tell me with great delight about a very, very different report that has reached his ears. He’s heard a compelling report of the shrewdest steward who had or will ever live. It is the report about the steward who spoke this parable. It is the report about the steward who as he spoke this rightly sobering parable was in the process of continuing with his resolute trip to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). The report speaks of the shrewdest Servant of the Lord who knew that his time was short to complete the task the Father had given him to prepare dwellings in his heavenly kingdom for us all. The report goes on to tell of this shrewdest Steward marshaling all his resources – what little he had of Mammon as well as his time and energy and strength too – to accomplish that plan of his Father while it was still day!
In our Master’s ears, that report about that shrewdest Steward overwhelms anything we have confessed in our own report about our all-too-frequent vacillation between God and Mammon. And the result of this report about the shrewdest Steward winning the day? I am not fired from my Master’s employ (no digging or further begging…or conniving necessary).
Far from it! In patient grace beyond comprehension he sends me back out, wearing the record of the shrewdest Steward, so that I can strive this day anew to live in imitation of that shrewdest Steward. He sends me out with a prayer on my lips that I may marshal Mammon – along with my time and energy and strength – in a devotion that might this day just a bit more closely approximate the shrewdest Steward!
And why is that? There is a joy in our Master’s employ about which Mammon knows nothing, but to which Mammon can contribute! As we arrive at the heavenly tents prepared in advance for us by the shrewdest Steward, what a wonder of grace it will be to find ourselves welcomed into heavenly dwellings by those who benefited by our shrewd stewardship of our Master’s goods! How awesome is our Master!
So, yes, this is our strange prayer as this parable ends: “Lord, make me more like the unbelievers! Focused…determined…single minded…for you!”