One of the most puzzling parables that our Lord Jesus told is the parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-8). Jesus begins the parable by saying, “There was a rich man who had a manger, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager’” (Luke 16:1-2 ESV). In preparation for being unemployed, the manager has those who owe the rich man reduce the amount they owe on their bill. In doing so he gains friends who will help him in the future. At the end of the parable, “The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness” (Luke 16:8 ESV).
While the exact point Jesus is making in the parable may not seem entirely clear, the circumstances of the manager are. The manager does not own the property and wealth that he is supervising. Instead, it all belongs to the rich man. The manager has the responsibility for supervising how it is used. He is to see to it that the rich man’s property and wealth are managed in ways that cause them to increase for the rich man. When it turns out that the manager has not been doing this – that he has been wasting the possessions – he is told to turn in the books because he can no longer serve as manager.
The word translated as “manager” in the parable can also be rendered as “steward.” The man in the parable is the steward over the rich man’s possessions. It is the same word that Paul applies to those who serve God in his Church. The apostle writes, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:1-2 ESV). He says of those who may become pastors, “For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach” (Titus 1:7 ESV).
While not everyone is called into the Office of the Holy Ministry as a steward of the mysteries of God, every Christian is in fact a steward of God. We are God’s stewards because he created us, and then through Holy Baptism he recreated us. In the Small Catechism’s explanation of the First Article of the Creed, we confess, “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.” God made us, and so we belong to him. We may talk about “our body” but the fact remains that if God does not continue to take care of our body it cannot live. Our body, mind and all that it can do is a gift from God, but it never ceases to belong to God. It is a gift that God puts into our management.
In the same way, we acknowledge in the Small Catechism that, “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.” God gives these things to us, but like our body they never cease to belong to God. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world” (1 Timothy 6:6-7 ESV). God gives us these things to manage during the time of our life. We are God’s stewards of these things while we live.
God creates us and provides in this way. And then he does something more. He recreates us as we are born again of water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism (John 3:5). He gives the gift of faith and joins us to the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Colossians 2:12). God gives us the first fruits of the Holy Spirit – the guarantee that we will share in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:23). He provides the assurance that when Christ returns in glory on the Last Day he “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21 ESV). He promises the day when our bodies will never again die (1 Corinthians 15:50-55) and the world itself will be very good once again (Romans 8:18-21).
These facts of creation and recreation guide how we think about our life and possessions. They lead us to recognize that we are God’s stewards in everything we do and have. We have been created and recreated by God’s grace and now “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10 ESV).
Our stewardship of all that God has given us is now a matter of faith active in love (Galatians 5:6) – love that serves God by serving those around us (Galatians 5:13-14). It is not hard to recognize where are to do this. We do it in the vocations – the callings in life where God has placed us. The Small Catechism lists these in its “eighth part,” the Table of Duties. There we learn that God has us serve as his stewards in relation to his Church and in relation to the government. We are stewards in our family and at work. As congregation members and citizens; as husband, wives, parents and children; as workers and employers, God has called us to use the talents, time, abilities and resources he has provided to us in order to serve him by serving others. He has called us to be stewards of the gifts that belong to him.
If we were only a new creation in Christ, we would never have to talk about this. Pastors would never have to write about this! But because the fallen, old man is still present in us we need to continue to be reminded about this – and even at times admonished. We need to continue to hear that our time is not our own; our talents are not our own; our money is not our own. Instead, they all belong to God and we are God’s stewards of these gifts. Where we have been unjust stewards, we find the assurance through our baptism that we are also forgiven stewards. And because we are forgiven stewards, we can joyfully seek new ways to be faithful stewards.