Dr. Anne M. Cameron
February 27, 2011
Lake Highlands Presbyterian Church
Third in a series on Christian Justice
1 Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 So he called him in and asked him, 'What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.'
3 “The manager said to himself, 'What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I'm not strong enough to dig, and I'm ashamed to beg- 4 I know what I'll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.'
5 “So he called in each one of his master's debtors. He asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?'
6 “'Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,' he replied.
“The manager told him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.'
7 “Then he asked the second, 'And how much do you owe?'
“'A thousand bushels of wheat,' he replied.
“He told him, 'Take your bill and make it eight hundred.'
8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
10 “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own?
13 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
In his book, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, Episcopal priest Robert Capon calls this parable "The Hardest Parable." Capon's book deals with nearly all of the dozens of parables of Jesus; Capon categorizes them into parables of kingdom, grace, or judgment.
What about this parable we just heard? If you had to choose, would you say this parable of the unjust steward is a parable of judgment? Or kingdom? Or grace? Hold that thought. You might even want to jot it down. Kingdom? Grace? Or Judgment? We'll come back to it.
We may well wonder why this parable was included in the sacred canon in the first place. What were those councils thinking? It leaves us scratching our collective heads. All week I have been wrestling with it, and with what scholars have to say about it. There is not much consensus out there. It may well be Jesus' 'hardest parable.'1
We already know that of the four gospel writers, Luke is the one most concerned with money. We overhear discussions of wealth and poverty in Luke time and again. On this particular topic Luke sounds a bit like a broken record. (I tried to think of a digital parallel but damaged CDs or DVDs just don't play over and over again like a broken record once did.)
Even though Luke feels strongly about it, Luke doesn't present a single, unified conclusion about money. Luke does not downplay the complexity of the issues. He understands that anxiety about money affects both rich and poor, and that generosity (releasing our grip on money) can free us and help others. He knows prosperity can cast a shadow over human life. The poor are objects of Christ's special concern.
All of chapter 16 touches on money. Only Luke tells this parable of this unjust steward. Only Luke tells the one about the rich man and Lazarus in the hereafter.
This parable, though, is a doozie. (Note how I am stalling).
We get it that this steward is in trouble because of money. That much is clear. As the story opens, we don't know whether he's been mismanaging his master's money (is he simply incompetent?) or whether he's been stealing it. Either way, this guy knows his pink slip is already signed, so he begins to build his own golden parachute. He will get in good with the Master's debtors. Hopefully he secures a deal so he doesn't have to beg once he's out of a job.
So he forgives part of the debts of two farmers. He literally has them erase part of the debt. He erases 450 gallons of olive oil and 200 bushels of wheat. Poof. This is no small sum, especially in the days before agribusiness. Pretty brazen, really. Some would say reckless. Foolish.
We can anticipate what the Master is going to do when he gets wind of this. Surely he'll call in the authorities. Maybe he'll ride the steward out of town on a rail. But this is not what happens. Exactly the opposite! The Master praises the dishonest steward, "for acting shrewdly." What's going on here?
Then the gospel takes a turn. Jesus is now done telling the story. He moves on to preaching: "And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings."
This verse is a bridge to what follows, which is essentially a message about trustworthiness in small things translating to trustworthiness in big things.
Jesus' sermon ends with a challenge: "No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth." This conclusion, while very Lukan, doesn't seem to fit the parable.
What if the message of this parable is at least in part a message about the ways of the world? The ways of the world demand we should be wise in the ways of money. We are fools to ignore this. Currency is the currency of the world, and we have to get by at least in part being wise about money. However.
Being wise in the ways of money does not mean money is our master. It means we master money. When we master money, we are not bound by its influence over us. We put it in perspective. When we master money, we hold it lightly. Our decisions are not clouded by the lure of money; we learn to use money to do good, to serve God's kingdom. When we master money, it is easy to release it back to God for the good of others.
When we do this, we are both wise and reckless.
And here is another 'what if.' What if this isn't about the steward acting shrewdly? Maybe the parable isn't about 'dishonesty pays off' so much as 'the Master is generous.' We discover the Master isn't all that concerned about money. The Master isn't mastered by his money, either.
The Master is concerned with what has been done. The steward forgives debts. Yes, the steward stands to benefit, but the steward also releases people. The Master applauds this wisdom, even at his own expense. The Master doesn't care about the bottom line. He sees this steward has something going for him---a kind of upside down wisdom, a wise recklessness---that stands to benefit everyone. And maybe this Master even cares about his debtors. Make friends by way of unrighteous wealth so that when it is gone you will have a welcome in an eternal home.
And, finally, one more thing to consider. We mustn't forget it was the steward's recklessness which triggered this change in the Master. It is the steward's throwing out convention, throwing caution to the wind, releasing debts hither and yon---big debts---not even his own debts to release! It is this recklessness which seems to turn the Master's chastisement into congratulation. It is this recklessness which turns a pink slip into a promotion! It is this reckless wisdom which turns loss into gain! You can almost picture this steward acting with wild abandon, with haste, telling people to let go! Let go! Be free! It is the simple steward who does this, and then the Master says, "Well done, my good and faithful steward." Well done.
It is a puzzling message Jesus gives, no doubt. Play the system, but don't become a slave to money. Money is only important in what it can do for people, how it can release people, how it can serve people.
This week I ran across an excerpt from "The Hole in the Gospel" by Richard Stearns, who is the head of World Vision. Mr. Stearns gave up a huge salary and an extremely affluent lifestyle to lead this mission giving to the world's neediest. He had been CEO of Lenox Corporation. He had a company car---aJaguar--- and a huge country home and five children in private schools. Now he spends time in grass huts in Africa talking to children and their parents.
Mr. Stearns is wise in the ways of the world, and he knows how to master money. He is gifted to use his wisdom now in reckless ways he never dreamed of earlier in his life.
He didn't want to do this. He ran from it. He did everything in his power to avoid taking on this job, to make that shift from "Money is my master" to "Money is my servant".
Richard Stearns understands American churchgoers also struggle with the same things he struggles with. American churchgoers, on average, give only ½ of 1 percent of their money to global humanitarian concerns. He issues a challenge: if every American churchgoer tithed, we could literally change the world. $168 billion could be released to eliminate poverty, provide universal primary education, bring clean water and basic health and nutrition for everyone in the world.
"Think about the statement it would make if American Christian ciitzens stepped up and gave more than all of the governments of the world combined because they took Jesus seriously when He said to love our neighbors as ourselves. Terrorists might have a harder time recruiting young men to attack a nation so compassionate. Other wealthy nations might be shamed---or inspired to follow our example. Adherents of other religions would surely wonder what motivates the Christians to be so loving and generous. The global social revolution brought forth by the body of Christ would be on the lips of every citizen of the world and in the pages of every newspaper---in a good way. The world would see the whole gospel---the good news of the kingdom of God---not just spoken but demonstrated, by people whose faith is not devoid of deeds but defined by love and back up with action. His Kingdom come, His will be done, in earth, as it is in heaven." 2
When we give recklessly, the world believes we are not wise. When we give with wild abandon, we are fools for Christ. Silly stewards who stand to gain something even beyond friends, something well beyond this world, something that is indeed eternal. Eternal not just in the hereafter, but eternal in the now. Eternal in how the world and the world's neediest might be saved.
So about this parable. It is Kingdom? Judgment? Or Grace?
What if? What if? What if we were all as wise and reckless as the unjust steward, the one who forgave debts not even his own to forgive, the one who changed his Master's mind, the one who changed the way things are from the bottom up, and the one who is, above all, wise in love and reckless in grace?