The Rev. Dianne O’Connell

First Congregational Church

September 18, 2010

1,859 words

Psalm 79:1-9

Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1

I Timothy 2:107

Luke 16:1-13

Unfair!

The Tale of the Sneaky Steward

Wow.  This morning’s scripture lessons are dismal!  The Prophet Jeremiah is bemoaning that Israel has been totally destroyed, the crops have failed, the people are crushed and “there is no balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.”  The Psalmist notes that things are so bad that there is no one left to bury the dead.  War, famine, and death.  Life can be very challenging. And learning how to live in this world is difficult as well.  One of the first lessons we learn is that life is not fair.  But somehow we think at least our families should be fair, and even if they aren’t, God should be fair. 

But moving to the Gospel lesson, Jesus’ parable of the Dishonest or the Shrewd Steward seems downright unfair.  We are expected to follow the law and obey the rules, yet Jesus seems to be offering praise for this sneaky steward who has cooked the books and cost his employer half of his accounts receivable. All, it would seem, to save his own neck. Could this be right?  Maybe there is another way of interpreting this story.

A parable is a story designed to make a point.  Our job is to find the point of why Jesus would offer such a story.

Let’s review the story again. A steward or business manager has been in charge of his master’s estate.  He has made loans to the neighbors and kept the books.  The master has heard rumors that the steward has been wasteful – not stealing, mind you, but “wasteful” – and fires him.  Again, the steward has been fired, not for stealing, but for wasting that which had been entrusted to him --  much like the fellow who buried his talent and did not make it work for him or his master.

After he is fired, the steward is devastated and scared.  He is probably middle-aged by now.  He is not a strong man and can no longer get a job requiring physical labor.  He has no desire to beg – or even file for unemployment.  He’s not made a lot of friends up until this point, perhaps has no family, and he is afraid that no one will take him in when his savings run out.  There was no social security system in ancient Palestine, so folks had to rely on the good will of family and friends should they fall on hard times. What can the steward do for people to encourage them to like him, or at least feel some compassion for him, before it is too late?

Now, our steward here has been in a position of authority; he has had the power to sell eight hundred gallons of olive oil, for instance, on credit – at some level of interest.  You don’t suppose he has been over-charging all along?  Charging too much for the oil in the first place and charging too high an interest rate in the second? This is not a good way to make lasting friendships – and not even a good way to make lasting customers for your boss.  Maybe, our steward thinks, there is time to make amends.  In the end, it’s not the accumulated total on the ledger that counts; that’s just a number.  It’s how a person has used the resources entrusted to her or him, and whom they have assisted along the way.  Maybe money can’t buy the steward love, but he might be able to raise his positive ratings in the polls just a little bit before he punches out for the last time.

So our man calls in each debtor and reduces their debts by as much as fifty percent.  Remember an earlier story where God has forgiven the debt of a servant, but the servant turns around and refuses to extend the same favor to those who work for him?  The Lord God was quite displeased.  Well, our wasteful steward pays attention.  He not only hears the warning but he seems to understand it. If he helps someone else, someone might eventually help him.  No guarantees, but it’s worth a try.  The Master looks on, and we can almost feel him smile.

But what? This wasn’t the steward’s money to give away.  It was money that belonged to the Master.  That’s fraud, if nothing else.  But the story says, the Master was pleased. The steward had been smart and shrewd and used the resources to both his own and his neighbors’ advantage.  Jesus tells his disciples that:

“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.  I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

I checked with some of my sermon consultants and found that just about all of them were hard on the main character in the story, calling the steward a swindler, a flim-flam man, or worse. What we are forgetting is that Jesus seemed to like the guy, even approve of him.  We must be missing something in this story.

First, I do not think that the Master or God is concerned about the money He has presumably just lost through the steward’s questionable accounting practices. He is concerned that the steward use the Gifts of God shrewdly, planning for both his physical and spiritual future.  He is also concerned about the people the steward has defrauded in the past. The parable is not promoting dishonesty; it’s promoting intelligent use of resources, which works fine as long as Master and steward agree on the ultimate goal.

Remember the Parable of the Talents?  Here we have a landowner, this one about to go on a long journey. He calls his servants together, entrusting them each with either five, two or one talent.  When he returns, the first two servants return his money with interest.  The third servant has buried his talent to keep it safe, but has not made it work for him.  The landowner in this case is furious, takes away even that talent, and throws the man out into the darkness.  God definitely wants us to use our talents and not bury them.

My second thought arising from this passage is that God is pleased when we help others, even when part of our motivation is the hope that someone in return may help us.  The sneaky steward had been punished; he has lost his job.  But now the steward seems to be expressing remorse, even if that remorse is really fear, in this case.  The sneaky steward develops a plan of restitution.  Everybody benefits – a little bit.  The debtors, whom he may have cheated in the past, are able to discharge their debts at fifty cents on the dollar – which is a good thing for them; the Master gets his fifty percent and the good will of his customers, and the steward just may have earned a little compassion.  Furthermore, we should remember that Jesus’s followers tended to include more people deeply in debt than rich farmers.  These followers would appreciate the actions of the sneaky steward, and perhaps understand Jesus’s point of view better than we do.

The third thought I would offer on our story is that God gets to make the rules.  We often want to tie God down to some kind of presumptive sentencing grid, where all our sins and all the possible punishments are laid out on a big chart, allowing us to accurately predict the level of God’s wrath for any given offense or repeat offense. When God doesn’t respond as we think the justice grid requires, we call Unfair!  God does what God wants and the Grace of God is both unpredictable and unfathomable.

Sometimes, I would also venture, we think there ought to be some sort of predetermined system of dispensing God’s mercy – so that God doesn’t spread it around too extravagantly.  Let’s face it, we have a tendency to call Unfair when we perceive someone has received more mercy than we have or we think that person deserves. 

Remember the story in Matthew where the Kingdom of God is compared to a landowner who hires some men to work in his vineyard?  He hires some in the morning, some midday, and some just shortly before closing time.  At the end of the day, he pays each worker one denarius.  “That’s not fair!” said those workers who had been there all day.  “But,” responded the landowner, “You agreed to work for one denarius.  Why are you envious?  Do I not have the right to do what I want with my own money?” The conflict came, not because God had been unfair, but rather because he seemed to have been more fair to someone else.

We should also note that this parable comes right after the parable of the Prodigal Son.  This son is also a wastrel.  He comes home with nothing.  But his father joyfully celebrates his return nonetheless.  How much more joyful would this Father/rich man be to see that his son actually learned something and helped a few others along the way?

We might also take a look at this word “shrewd”.  What does it really mean?  It seems negative, but couldn’t it also mean “smart”, “wise”, “careful”, “creative”?

So I’ve grown to like this parable, for the most part.  I think there is some serious Good News to be found here.  Here’s what I have concluded, at least for today.

1.   God is more concerned about the steward than he is the money. God encourages him/us to use the Gifts of God shrewdly, and certainly not waste them. We are to plan for both our physical and spiritual futures -- and if we do well in managing these small things, we will be entrusted with even more valuable gifts later.

2.  God is pleased when we help others, even when part of our motivation is the hope that someone in return may help us. The steward’s actions were an effort to make restitution to those persons he had harmed in the past, albeit to gain their favor for when he might need them in the future. The Master is pleased with even this much spiritual development.

3.  God is not tied to a presumptive sentencing system. God does what God wants and the Grace of God is both unpredictable and unfathomable. God's grace can appear unfair. Compare the parable of the Landowner who paid everyone one denarius no matter how long they worked that day.

4.  God does love all humanity, but seems to take special joy in the on-going spiritual development of a prodigal child, even and including the wasteful steward, and even and including you and me.

This is all good news which is even better than fair.  God bless us all with a deepening understanding of the world around us. May we seek to serve God through careful, creative stewardship of the gifts and talents entrusted to us.  And may the Grace of God be with us all. Amen.

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