When we look back at the 16th Century Reformation, it is plain to see that the main point of disagreement was the doctrine of justification. However, the reason for Luther's 95 theses was the doctrine of indulgences. Luther's problem with the Church in Rome was kindled when Pope Leo X devised a plan to raise the funds needed to finish St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The Church was running low on money, and it looked like St. Peter's Basilica might not be able to be completed. So, Pope Leo X decided that members of the Church could buy indulgences for themselves and their relatives in purgatory. Before this, one had to accomplish certain acts or pray certain prayers to receive an indulgence.
Both indulgences and purgatory were traditions of the Church. To put it in simple terms, indulgences took time off of your stay in purgatory, and purgatory purged you of your remaining sin, making you ready for heaven. According to the Church, most people, other than saints, spend time in purgatory, making indulgences a must-have. Now that Christians could buy indulgences, it was much easier to get out of purgatory, especially for the wealthy.
Pope Leo X set a Dominican friar by the name of Johann Tetzel in charge of collecting money in exchange for indulgences. He mainly targeted those whose loved ones had died using a simple jingle, "As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs." All this did not make sense to Luther in light of the Scriptures, so he decided to start a discussion concerning everything connected to the idea of indulgences. He could find nothing in Scripture that spoke of using wealth to gain passage into heaven. In fact, he found that Scripture taught the opposite.
The Dishonest Manager
One of Jesus' parables stands out from the rest when it comes to Luther's problem with the monetary acquisition of indulgences. The parable, found in the 16th chapter of Luke's gospel, reads as follows:
"He also said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, 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.’ And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings." (Luke 16:1-9 ESV)
At first glance, we see this parable praises a dishonest and unjust man. For Jesus to do so has caused many scholars to scratch their heads, uncertain of how to interpret it. However, when we spend some time dissecting it, we will find that it is a much needed rebuke for the Church in every generation.
John Calvin, another Reformer, gives us great insight into what is presented to us in this parable. Commenting on the whole of it, he writes, "The leading object of this parable is, to show that we ought to deal kindly and generously with our neighbors; that, when we come to the judgment seat of God, we may reap the fruit of our liberality." Any other conclusion, or any other lens by which we would view this parable, Calvin considered being "an absurd mode of philosophizing."
The key to unlocking this parable is found towards the end when Jesus says, "For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light." Simply stated, Jesus is rebuking Christians by displaying that the people of this world are far more concerned with securing for themselves a pleasant earthly future than Christians are of securing a pleasant heavenly future. He is rebuking Christians who are poor stewards with the things of earth in regards to the things of heaven. Calvin goes on in his comments: "It is certain that no man is so frugal, as not sometimes to waste the property which has been entrusted to him; and that even those who practice the most rigid economy are not entirely free from the charge of unfaithful stewardship." Although we may fail to be proper stewards and must be reminded in this life to steward our possessions in a way pleasing to God, we must press on, continuing to grow in our stewarding abilities.
Before we become too carried away with this parable, two things must be addressed. When Jesus teaches us that we are to use our money in order to secure eternal well-being, he is not advocating the idea of indulgences. He is not telling us that we can buy our way into heaven. Instead, this is a parable displaying the relation between obedience and blessing. Throughout the entire Scriptures, there runs a simple theme: obey, and God will bless you, disobey, and God will curse you. This parable is no different. Steward your possessions well, and God will bless you. Do not steward your possessions well, and God will not bless you.
The other thing we must not do with this parable, or any parable for that matter, is to try and find meaning in the minutest detail. When it says that the master commended the manager, we do not applaud the manager. His actions were not right, nor were they good. What we take away from it is what Christ says immediately after: the people of this world often put to shame the children of God in their attempts to secure their future.
What does it mean to be a good steward? I think Calvin was correct when he stated that we "ought to deal kindly and generously with our neighbors." Look to the Good Samaritan, and you will find one who is a good steward of the gifts God gave him. A good steward is one who lives their life in light of heaven. We ought to be motivated to live our life with greater care and passion for our eternal security when we see the people of this world working for their future earthly security. They are working for a life that fades; we are working for a life that never fades.
Far be it from our minds to conclude that our work saves us. Rather, let us press on to the good works which are in Christ, the work of faith. The Christian life is one of works and obedience, the difference from every other religion is that they are flowing out of the source which is Christ, and not ourselves. We must steward our possessions well, serving others and spending our lives for the good of our neighbor. By this, we secure for ourselves treasure in heaven.
The Reformer's Stewardship
For the Reformers and those who were taught by them, the truth of Scripture changed the way they used their possessions. Indulgences in exchange for money was a poor use of possessions, for it disregarded Christ's death as being sufficient for salvation. The Church was not teaching good stewardship by them. When the gospel changes a person’s heart, it inevitably produces a change of living. The change produced by the recovery of the gospel in the 16th Century was one of trusting Christ to be enough.
This was evident in the reformers lives. Before John Calvin committed to aiding the Reformation, he was headed to Strasbourg to live an academic life in solitude. He had no intention to join a movement but rather wanted to live in peace. When he did join the Reformation in Geneva, he gave his all to it. In preaching, teaching, writing, and caring for the members, he spent himself for the benefit of others. Since Calvin was proficient in matters of law, the Genevan government often sought his advice. His value to them was so great that they placed him under house arrest when a plague broke out. Against their orders, he would escape at night under a dark cloak so he could attend to the needs of his flock and care for those who were suffering. He also suffered much throughout his life. Towards the end of his life, Calvin was unable to walk, so he had others carry his bed to the church and continued to preach from there. When his good friend asked him why he would work himself to death, he responded by saying that he did not wish for the Lord to come back and find him idle. He did not wish to be the steward who took the talent and hid it.
Martin Luther constantly had people staying at his place. Since his home used to be a monastery, he had many rooms for many guests to occupy. He spent himself in writing for the encouragement of the churches abroad who had separated from the Catholic Church to form Reformed congregations, and against the heresies that prevailed at that time. He wrote at such a pace that many look back at his life and works, wondering how a man could accomplish so much in so little time. When he died, his writing hand was naturally formed in the shape of one holding a pen. He, too, did not wish to be a servant who hid his talent until the master returned.
William Tyndale, the English Reformer, was responsible for translating the majority of the Bible from the original languages into English. In a debate with a Catholic clergyman, Tyndale boldly stated, "I defy the pope and all his laws." Continuing, he added, "if God spares me life, ere many years I would cause a boy that drives the plow to know more of the Scripture than the pope." Tyndale set to translating the Bible. This was illegal at that time, so Tyndale translated on the run, moving from city to city, never able to settle down to write in peace. For this work, Tyndale was strangled to death with a chain, and if that were not enough, the authorities set him on fire. He had stewarded the gifts God had given him, not only for his own blessings, but for the blessings that would come through his work for generations to come.
Many others followed suit in conducting themselves as good stewards, interested more in the life to come than the present life. Some have said that to be too heavenly minded causes us to become of no earthly good. I beg to differ on account of the Scriptures and the example set by those who have gone before us. Those who are of the most earthly good are those who are most heavenly minded. This is Christian stewardship: using our possessions for the kingdom of God.
"If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? … You cannot serve God and money." Luke 16:11-13