Devil's Martyrs, Dancing Girls, and Birds of Prey
This is a tough parable named variously: The Unjust, The Dishonest, or the Unrighteous Steward. The NIV uses manager' for steward'. Maybe Julian the Apostate, 4th century Roman Emperor, was right when he used this parable as proof the old Roman religions were superior to Christianity (Poet and Peasant, 86). Can you blame him? The parable is about the Devil's martyrs, dancing girls, and birds of prey.
The Devil's martyrs put us to shame. That's what the 11th century monastic Bernard concluded from this text after noting Jesus's words comparing the 2 people's in the world. Jesus says, literally, "The sons of this age are more prudent than the sons of light in their own generation." Bernard said, "These are martyrs of the devil,' who put to shame the saints of Godrunning, as they do, with more alacrity to death than these to life" (Trench, 438). Yes, I find myself running for my life and very seldom running toward life. Unlike St. Paul, I don't forget the things that lie behind and reach forward to the things ahead heeding the upward call of God in Christ (Philippians 3:13-14). Oh, no I look over my shoulder at the guilts, the second guesses, the why's and why nots.
Not the dishonest manger. No, this guy has Dave Ramsey's "gazelle like intensity" on providing for himself in this life. With the zeal of a martyr he attended to the things the Devil always puts before us: This body and life. See how the unjust steward quickly considers his options. He doesn't reject manual labor as beneath him but because he hasn't the strength for it. He does reject begging because that would shame him. And then you can see the light bulb pop on above his head. "I know what I'll do." AT. Robertson translates, "I've got the point." It's too early for me to tell you what that point is, for now just note what his reasoning is focused on: "That when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses." He spends all his thoughts, all his everything to be welcomed into a house in this life which will be taken from him when he dies.
The devil's martyrs will risk all, give all, to have a place in a life that can only end in death. And they put us to shame. And Jesus points this out when He says our goal is not be welcomed into the homes of people on earth, but "into eternal dwellings." "Dwellings" is the word tabernacles. This is what Moses was commanded to build for the Old Testament Church which was only a shadow of the real one in heaven. The one that ever calls us upward for Jesus' sake. The one spoken of in Rev. 21: "Behold the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will tabernacle among them, and God Himself will be among them and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain" (3-4).
It's still not time to tell you what point the wicked manger got, but it is time for dancing girls. An Egyptian hermit happens to see a dancing girl and is moved to tears. Another hermit asks why? He replies, "'That she should be at such pains to please men in her sinful vocation; and we in our holy calling use so little diligence to please God'" (Trench, fn. 1, 438). Another saint was put to shame by Muslims' zeal at spreading their faith compared to his (Ibid.). This brought to mind being on UT campus 38 years ago, hearing the clock tower strike, and as if dropped by a shot a Muslim unrolled his prayer rug, went to his knees, face to the ground, and prayed to a god who didn't exist. My point is not that I didn't kneel right then and there and pray to the true God; my point is that the Muslim had no shame in clearly confessing his false god while I go out of my way not to be shamed by mine. How easily I will speak of God, proclaim trust in God, declare God's power and might. But Jesus? Jesus born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontus Pilate, crucified, dead, and buried? Not so fast.
But how does one gain friends using worldly wealth so that when it's gone you will be welcomed into eternal tabernacles? The only friend that gets anyone into heaven's tabernacle is Jesus. Jesus says in the upper room to His disciples, "No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends" (John 15:15). You can gain all the friends in this life using your worldly wealth and it doesn't mean anything in eternity. Unless you have a friend in Jesus, you're not going up to the Spirit in the sky or to heaven's tabernacle. But before you enter that one, there's one here on earth you must enter. John 1:14 says, "The Word became flesh and dwelled among us." Literally, The word became flesh and tabernacled among us." It's in Jesus' flesh and blood that we have forgiveness of our sins. It's in Jesus' blood and righteousness that we have sanctuary from the Devil. It's in Jesus' innocent life and guilty, damned death that we are delivered from death and a fate worse than that.
The Devil's martyrs put us to shame with the speed at which they run toward death compared to our slowness in running toward life in Jesus. The dancing girls shame us with how much energy they expend to please men and how little we expend to please the true God in Christ. And the secret is in what the unjust manger finally got, and we're almost there, but not quite. First, we have to address birds of prey. We're talking being eagles and not owls. Sons of the world are shrewder in worldly things than sons of light, but that's only saying the truism: owls see better than eagles in the dark because that is their element (Trench, 439).
We are sons of light. Christ Jesus gave Himself for our sins, says Paul in Galatians 1:4, "to rescue us from this present evil age" which in Ephesians 6:12 Paul calls "this present darkness." We're eagles not owls. The fact that we can't see clearly in the dark is no surprise. We're children of the light, meant to walk in the light, meant to mount up with the wings of eagles (Isaiah 40:31). But before we can soar like eagles we have to be rescued by One. In Exodus 19:4 the Lord says, "You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to Myself." Eagles push their young out of the nest to make them take their first flight, sometimes they falter. The eagle then swoops in and catches the eaglet on its back and takes it back to the nest.
On our own all we could do is plummet not just to the ground but to hell itself, so heavy our sins, so many our iniquities, so hopeless our cause. Try as we might to soar like an eagle we can only flop and fall. The wings that caught us, however, are not that of an eagle. The outstretched arms of Jesus nailed to the cross for our sins and sinfulness are what caught us and they are what shelter us. David says in Psalm 57:1, "God have mercy on me, for in You, I take refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of Your wings until these calamities pass by." And as Psalm 63:7 says, "In the shadow of Thy wings I sing for joy." Here's your first clue as to what the unjust steward got. By the time we're to the end of the Communion liturgy, you'll be wallowing in it. I will say, "O give thanks unto the Lord" and you will respond with what the dishonest manger realized and acted so boldly on.
See with eagle-eyed clarity that it is only possible to serve one master, and serving money will only get you so far. It will get you into earthly houses but not the heavenly tabernacle. In the end, the unrighteous manger didn't serve money, but his master's mercy. There's a lot going on in this parable in the very beginning that we overlook. The manger is only accused of wasting his master's possessions, but the master fires him on the spot. He doesn't even wait for him to give an account. He says, "You cannot be manger any longer." But then what? He doesn't have him hauled off to jail; the account books aren't taken from him. This is the over the top, out of this world, aspect to this parable. In our day if you're fired for any reason from a big company, security goes with you to your desk to make sure you take nothing but your personal property and you're escorted out. Well, no rich man who is convinced his money manager has been wasting his money is going to let him go to have free time with the books. But this Rich Man has mercy that endures forever, long, long past what makes any sense.
And that's what this dishonest owl sees in this present darkness. And he acts on that. He calls his master's debtors and tells them, in the 2 examples given, to cut their debt in half. A steward would have that authority and a rich man might do that because of bad growing conditions. If he bankrupted his debtors, it wouldn't do him any good. The debtors can't know the steward has been fired or they wouldn't come to him. Notice, like in our legal documents when we initial changes, the steward has them write the change in their own hands. This means it's is all legal. What joy would break out in the community! A 50% cut in what they owed meant more for families, for fun, for life. How the rich man would be praised for his mercy!
The rich man has 2 choices. He can declare the steward a criminal, rightly saying he was out of office, and had acted unjustly, or He can be known as merciful, forgiving, understanding, helpful? The unjust owl in this present darkness sees that to the Rich Man mercy was more important than money. What can you eagles see in the light of Christ? Can you see as we pray in the Collect today that the Lord has "perpetual mercy"? Can you see as we pray in the Post-Communion Collect that God's mercy by this Sacrament strengthens us in faith toward Him and love toward one another?
I think this parable can be redeemed by a name change. Just like the whole perspective of The Prodigal Son changes when we rebrand the parable The Waiting Father, so this one changes when we go from The Unjust Steward to The Merciful Master. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20191013); Luke 16: 1-13