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Shame and Mercy
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The steward’s scheme would never work in America. In our culture, the owner would simply have the manager arrested, and his insurance would likely cover any loss. The worst that would happen would be some mention on the evening news. In order for us to understand the genius of the manager and the point of the parable, we have to get into the mind of first century Judaism. In our Lord’s day, the culture was much more closely defined by shame than we are. Reputation was everything. This wasn’t simply a matter of worrying about what other people think. They were a more community-minded culture. That means they value rugged individuality quite like we do. They had a much stronger sense of the group, of those around them, and how each person shaped and defined their neighbors, and how they in turn were shaped and defined by their neighbors. Sadly, we have lost a great deal of this sense of honor and shame.
The shrewd steward is counting on this. He is sure that, though the master would be perfectly justified in throwing him into prison, he won’t do it. He won’t do it because it would shame the master. If the master throws him into prison, then he has to admit that his steward swindled him, and more importantly, now he has to demand higher prices from all of his clients. This would ruin his reputation as a kind and benevolent master. He would now be seen as stingy, vindictive, and cruel.
The steward banks everything on the reputation of the master. He is willing to risk his well-being, prison, and even his own life to be sure that his future is secure. This steward may have been dishonest, but he knew that the master was honest and honorable to a fault. And to be fair, in the eyes of the steward, it was no risk at all. He knew his boss. His boss could no more turn him in than he could change his own skin.
This is our lesson on the parable of the unjust or shrewd steward. But what’s the point? Where is Jesus and the Gospel in all of this? It is a great temptation to make this into a stewardship sermon. The Law would be pretty clear: nothing that we own is really ours, so we must be wise in using what God has given us to His glory. This is true, and such a sermon would not be a bad thing. God has given us His gracious gifts, and we should use them to His glory, for the good of our neighbor, and certainly to fill the offering plate at Church…but that’s not really the point of the parable.
The point is this: the mercy of God is everything, and everything else must be seen and understood in light of this mercy. Jesus, the very Mercy of God in the flesh, does not lower your debt to a manageable amount; He cancels it. The Father does not commend your sinful lifestyle; He forgives your sin. If a worldly master can commend his servant for selfishness, how much more will our Father show mercy and forgive our sin? Because the mercy of God is everything, you can bank your whole life on it. You can live freely, knowing that you emulate God by handing out His gifts to you.
Finally, because God’s mercy is everything for you, you know that God will feed you and clothe you with the very best of food and drink, even the body and blood of His Son. You won’t have to dig your own grave. And although we are all beggars, as Luther put it, God does not require your begging. You are sons and daughters of the King. He has lifted you up to His heavenly banquet table, so that you need not be ashamed to stand in His presence at the Last Day.
Trust in the mercy of God. His wisdom is beyond all understanding, and His mercy toward His children knows no limit. In the name of the Father and of the Son (†) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.