In Luke 16:1-15, Jesus tells a parable about a manager who faces imminent termination by his wealthy master for mishandling his wealth. The manager finds himself in a “come-to-Jesus” moment. He doesn’t dispute his master’s words. He knows he’s messed up big time. As soon as his master sees the books, he’s toast. There will be no denying it.
So the manager runs through his options. He determines he’s too weak to do manual labor and too proud to beg. But then, the lightbulb goes off.
The manager realizes his salvation must come from outside himself. There’s nothing he can do, so he gambles on the grace of his master’s debtors. He drastically reduces their substantial debts in the hope of being welcomed into their homes when he loses his job.
But then something surprising happens. The manager receives the welcome he hoped for, only not from the ones he expected. When the rich man learned what his manager did, he commended him for his shrewdness. As Kenneth Bailey points out, the manager “is praised for his wisdom in knowing where his salvation lay, not for his dishonesty.”
Like the manager before his master, we are guilty as we stand before God. His law accuses us. In the poetic words of Chad Bird, “He who created the eye—has he not seen your every greedy gaze, your every lustful look? He who formed the ear—has he not listened to every lie and hateful word you’ve spoken? He who shaped the hands—do you think he is ignorant of thieving hands, lazy hands, hands bloody from violence and back-stabbing? He knows all—not only the sins you remember and are ashamed of, but also those you have forgotten. Even those you never knew you committed.”
There is nothing we can hide from God. He knows our hearts (Luke 16:15). And like the manager, we are left asking, “What shall I do now?”
Our first inclination is to justify ourselves before God to make him happy with us. But this is serving two masters. Jesus’ words rebuke us: “No servant can serve two masters. Either you will hate one and love the other, or you will be devoted to one and despise the other” (Luke 16:13). Instead of fearing, loving, and trusting in God above all things, we put our faith and hope in our thoughts, words, and deeds under the guise of “loving” God.
The answer, really, is that we do nothing. This is what Jesus commends to us in his parable. That our salvation—the forgiveness of our sins and our eternal life—lies outside of ourselves and our works. It does not lay with the strength of our faith. The goodness of the things we do. The sins we avoid. How well we’re thought of. The political party we’re associated with. The amount of money and possessions we have. Or how productive we are under “stay-at-home” orders.
There is nothing we can do that justifies us before God. Our salvation lies outside of us, with the “one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people” (1 Timothy 2:5-6).
What’s more, thanks to his master, the manager realizes his hope and salvation had to come from outside himself. At every turn, the master is merciful when he is not expected to be. When the rich man learns of his manager’s wastefulness, he doesn’t have him seized and thrown in jail, as was within his rights.
Instead, he calls the manager before him, tells him he’s as good as fired, and then sends the manager to go get the ledger. It doesn’t seem wise to let the man who’s as good as fired for wasting your possessions, continue to handle the books regarding those possessions. But this merciful master does.
And, he’s only going to fire the manager. He doesn’t demand that the manager pay back what he has cost by his wastefulness. Nor does he threaten to throw him in jail for his mismanagement.
On top of it all, the manager placed his wager with house money. He doesn’t use his own money, but the rich man’s possessions, to bet on the benevolence of his master’s debtors. He has nothing to bet with.
We are the manager in this parable. You and I too have nothing. All we have, we have received from God. As Luther explains in his Small Catechism, “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that he has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil.”
The good and gracious gifts that God gives includes the only chip we have to bet before him: Christ’s life, suffering, and death for us and for our salvation. In our baptism, he provides the faith we need to realize and believe that Jesus’ work is for us. In those waters, he connects us to Christ’s life-giving death and resurrection (Rom 6:3-11). He sustains that saving faith by giving us Christ’s body and blood under the bread and wine of holy communion, given and shed for us for the forgiveness of our sins.
All this he gives and does, as Luther puts it, “only out of fatherly, divine, goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in” us.