"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

The Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-13)

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Sermon preached at St Margaret’s Edmonton, 22 Sep 13  Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, Luke 16:1-13 (the unjust steward)

Today’s Gospel reading, the unjust steward, is rightfully called the hardest parable in the Gospels. We’re certainly used to Jesus using images of reversal (the first shall be last), or shocking insults (you are like whitewashed tombs, white on the outside and full of death and corruption on the inside) to illustrate points about the kingdom of God. Today, however, this parable seems to outstrip anything we’ve encountered previously.

Now, the first thing to note about difficult teachings is that any approach which attempts to make the teaching go away is something we should reject outright. Our first option, when encountering a Christian teaching that personally challenges us, is always to somehow make that teaching go away. The group known as the Jesus Seminar was very skilled at this, and it’s not surprising that after they had voted on all of the Jesus sayings in Scripture all of the really challenging, life changing sorts of things ended up on the discards heap…by concluding Jesus didn’t really say those things.

Our second attempt to protect ourselves is to make the teaching go away by concluding it really doesn’t speak to us. So when Jesus calls the Pharisees whitewashed tombs, my first reaction is always to cheer – yeah Jesus! You give it to those evil men. If I allow myself to do that, I miss the point entirely…there is far more of the Pharisee in me than I ever want to admit, even to myself. In fact, if you look at the Pharisees in honest detail, you would likely conclude that most of the Pharisees would make pretty good Anglicans – they tithe, show up at all the parish events, follow the rules, dress well and sit on vestry.

The first caution about difficult teachings is not to allow yourself to escape by blunting the Word in a way that protects you. The second caution is not to miss the point by taking only a portion of the reading in isolation – Scripture is meant to be consumed as a complete meal, not a different side dish each week. Our lectionary is unfortunately very skilled at snipping out readings and leaving off both the hard parts and the most important parts. For example, it is important to note that the first sentence after the snip today is the reaction of the Pharisees to the parable –which gives us a clue about who the parable is talking about.

“The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and scoffed at him. He said to them, ‘You are the people who impress others with your righteousness; but God sees through you; for what is considered admirable in human eyes is detestable in the sight of God.”

And this rebuke is immediately followed by the story of the rich man and Lazarus, who you may recall is so poor that he lay in the rich man’s gate and the dogs came and licked his sores.

The second thing you miss in the sequence of readings is that the unjust steward comes right after the parable of the Prodigal Son, considered the king of the parables. Also in the immediate vicinity of these parables are the cleansing of the ten lepers, the unjust judge and the Pharisee and the Publican. The overall theme of this section of Luke’s Gospel is description of the Kingdom, and how it behaves nothing like this world.

Ok, into the text. The parable starts with the description of the problem – the master has become aware that his business manager is squandering his money. Now stop, before we go any further, I want to emphasize why you can only really understand these parables when you read them together. The two Greek words used here for squander (diaskorpicon) and money or possessions (hyparchonta) is the same word for what the prodigal son has done with his inheritance.

Immediately after the parable starts the master passes summary judgement on the steward, orders him to prepare the final accounts and fires him. So, like the prodigal son, we have an encounter with the death of the old life – for the son when he dies in a foreign country through poverty and starvation, and for the steward when he leaves his master’s office. At the start, we have the death of all that the unjust steward has known…and he immediately sets out to solve this problem, by cooking his master’s accounts so as to curry favour with his master’s debtors. If he builds favour with them, the steward hopes, he will be have a place to rest after being cast out of the master’s house.

This parable sounds somewhat quaint to us, but it expresses a profound truth about God’s economy which is this: God’s economic plan for His creation bears absolutely no relationship to anything that we might consider to be wise. This is one of the reasons why so many bible commentators spend their time, not trying to figure out why God has said things so outrageous and challenging, but rather explaining why God didn’t say what he really meant. In God’s economy, outrageous debts are forgiven without a second thought. This is outrageous, and an affront to anything that we capitalist westerners hold dear. Imagine going into your bank and being told, “You know your second (or third) mortgage on your home you took out to finance your small business? We’re going to forgive all the interest charges for the next 25 years.” What might you think of your banker after that encounter? Even though you would be happy, you would be left wondering how much longer your bank would be in business.

The thought is so out there, that we can’t even conceive it as a possible reality, and so we see this parable as quaint, and maybe not at all related to our real lives. So, we say, Jesus forgives debts. A nice thought, but having no real place in my real-world life.

That’s another way we work to misdirect a challenging message, to assume that it might have sounded good 2,000 years ago, but that it has no real application to us today. No – in fact, the one thing about the Bible that continues to amaze me is its ability, if we’re open and receptive, to continue to bring us to our knees even in this modern era.
When the unjust steward is confronted with the end of his life as he knew it, he does not first think of revenge against his master, but rather how he will survive. I’m too weak to dig and too proud to beg, he says to himself, so what shall I do? He decides to appear to his master’s debtors as both just and generous, and so forgives large amounts of owed money – it’s not a huge debt, maybe about 500 denarii in each case, about $25,000 in modern money, but in both cases amounts to a sizable fraction of what was owed.

The usual interpretations of this parable either make the steward a hero, or a villain, either one who is oppressed by the evil rich, or one who is a crook through and through. I’ll suggest that both interpretations are likely correct, depending on how you read the parable; however, I don’t think those types of interpretations really help you to understand God’s economy because they recreate the parable in capitalist, first-world terms…after all, we all know the rich are evil by any measure, even though, by any global standard of measurement, Canadians are among the wealthiest in the world. So before we feel too smug about the evil rich, we should recall that most of the world would count us as the rich man.

The more important understanding of this parable is not tied down in assigning 1st-world characters to the players, but rather in finding how God’s radical economy is being made manifest by every person in the parable. First, the master calls the unjust steward on what he has been doing – we don’t know what the crime is, but it likely has to do with something the steward is doing that will bring disrepute on his master. Honour was measured as more important than any other measure in this ancient world, and a steward’s actions were thought to reflect badly on the master…because a steward acted as the master. So the steward may have been charging unreasonable interest, a practice banned by Torah, and that action would have brought dishonour on the master – what is being squandered is the master’s standing in the community. At this point in the tale, neither the master nor the servant understand God’s economy.

As the steward considers the end of his life as a steward, he becomes very shrewd and decided to forgive these debts so as to demonstrate his honour in business. The debtors are delighted by this unexpected turn in their favour, an unexpected forgiveness of what was owed. The master, in turn, has his eyes opened to this new economy. Whereas before all he saw was dishonour which he could only address by firing the steward and cutting his losses, now he sees a new way out of his bind – unrighteous forgiveness of debts which will serve to put him in the most righteous and honourable light possible. Rather than ending up the laughing stock of the town, the master instead ends up the hero through the servant’s shrewd and questionable accounting.

Without trying to strain the parable, the path to the servant’s conversion to God’s unrighteous economy of forgiveness only comes about by the servant’s death – that is, the ending of the life that he had known up to that point. Likewise, the master’s conversion to God’s unrighteous economy only comes by the servant’s example: unexpected forgiveness of debts. That is, out of the master’s death of dishonour, he finds new life in the servant’s new life. Likewise, while we’re not told about the debtor’s response to this, we can expect a similar reaction from them – renewed new life at the relief from debt. God’s economy, when it breaks through, transforms everyone involved, bringing life out of the death of this world.

The first important lesson from this parable comes to us concerning times of great trial in our lives. When we are convinced that all that is left before us is death, through the illness of a loved one, the loss of employment, the death of a child, and nothing will ever be whole again. Remember the lesson of the unjust steward. It is only after he dies to this life, that he finds the radical new life that exists on the other side of death. In the reality of the life of a person of faith, it is often only when we have been emptied of all the things of this world that God can proceed to make us truly wealthy in His economy.

Looking back to the parable of the prodigal son, we see the same actions at work here. The surprising turn of heart of the master, is the same as the surprising response of the wronged father when the prodigal returns home. Both parables are also fundamentally about the honour of a father, or the honour of a master, concepts that would be far more shocking to an older middle-eastern audience than we hear today. The shocking thing in both parables is that the person in a position of power once dishonoured, responds not with anger or violence, but rather with radical forgiveness.

What the unjust steward tells us is that grace cannot come into this world by respectability, or by wealth, or by the number of invitations to the right social gatherings that we receive. Rather, grace comes into our lives through our death: our death to the world, to all the things which the world values. In fact, the outrageous economy of God will almost always be considered by this world to be closer to crime than to what the world would count as faith.

One of the best reads on this parable comes from Fr Robert Capon in his book, “Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus.”

“The unique contribution of this parable to our understanding of Jesus, is its insistence that grace cannot come to the world through respectability. Respectability regards only life, success, winning; it will have no truck with the grace that works by death and losing – which is the only kind of grace there is.” Jesus was, “…not respectable. He broke the sabbath. He consorted with crooks. And he dies as a criminal.” And he did all this to “…catch a world that respectability could only terrify and condemn. He became sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for us losers, and dead for us dead.”

The point is that worldlings like this – the sons of this world – cope with an emergency in their temporal affairs with a far-sighted realism and a resourceful acumen which religious folk – the sons of light – would do well to emulate in the pursuance of their spiritual calling.

At the end of the parable we have a master covered with honour, a servant with a new job, or a renewed lease on his old job, and a bunch of debtors infused with new life. It’s not hard to see this as a parallel of what God is performing in this world. The Son comes to humanity, and outrageously forgives debts. The Father delights in the son’s shrewdness – that’s exactly what I was thinking of but couldn’t figure out how to do it! Exclaims the master. And those touched by the Son receive forgiveness of debts, and find new life out of what they only thought was death.

The grace of God only works by death and losing, which is foolishness to this world. May God bring us all deeply into His foolishness. Amen.


Written by sameo416

September 22, 2013 at 2:37 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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