GOSPEL OF LUKE 16.1-13
Couched in between two of Jesus’ most famous parables, The Prodigal Son and the Rich Man and Lazarus, we discover one of Jesus’ most unassuming and most difficult parables throughout the pages of the Gospel. I suppose this parable, the parable of the Unjust Steward…did you hear that…the parable of the UNJUST steward, not the good steward, but an UNJUST steward, gets squeezed from both sides of the text. This parable gets flattened beside its more famous friends.
Like the 3 three famous Kardashian sisters who constantly in the news: a famous one, a pretty one and an ugly one…this parable is the ugly sister that doesn’t get much attention. And rightfully so. It’s not a very helpful parable on our first reading.
Here Jesus’ 4 points in this parable:
1. Manage your money shrewdly like non-believers manager their money and Jesus will praise you for it. Jesus exact words, “the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light.”
2. Make friends with others by means of unrighteous wealth, dishonest wealth.
3. If you can’t use dishonest wealth, how can you use true riches?
4. You can’t serve two masters. You can’t live to make money and also live to serve God.
Talk about a confusing sermon. Jesus just outdid himself here.
As I come to this parable, the entire scene makes sense to me…at first.
The characters in this parable are not far removed from the characters and narratives I have encountered in the business world these past 7 years.
For a business to be successful it must have managers that manage resources. It must have supervisors to oversee their management of those resources. And it must have people that the managers can manage to procure the good or product that is consistent with the mission of the business. When the managers or supervisor doesn’t do their part of the job…the LORD, the master of the house, is quick to hold them accountable as we see in this parable. Businesses and estates exist to make money and to solidify their status as deposits of wealth. This must be carefully guarded and the Lord in this parable is simply looking out for what best for his own business or estate. When he knew he was being cheated he cannot continue to support this Stewards behavior. This parable is a reflection of how the steward responded to that act accountability.
Several years ago, in our own business, we experimented with whether or not to include Asst. Managers in our bonus program. As a business, we felt that it was in the best interest of our customers, our future growth and our profit margins, to give the Asst. manager position a greater sense of ownership in how well the business does. Up until this point, the General Managers of our stores had been the principal beneficiaries of the profit of our business through means of a bonus program that we had structured around various goals. But we wanted to give the General Managers of our stores the benefit of a manager that would work hard at helping them accomplish store goals and really function as a 2 person team inside each local store.
To this end, we experimented with involving Asst. Managers in the bonus program.
We pulled our lone asst manager into our office, disclosed to her our plans and she was excited about the opportunity. She thanked us for the job, the potential earnings, and the sense of appreciation we had for her. We thought we had made a smart move and encouraged good stewardship with our business by extended an added benefit that wouldn’t really require much additional work.
We were wrong.
The next morning as I was going through our old school paperwork, the kind of paper work that is produced by type key registers and detail tape, I noticed we were short $450 from the night before. I was shocked. More than half this money, as I could tell, was missing from the shift that was run by our asst manager, the same one whom we had just included into our manager bonus program for performance. After we had announced to her our plans, she drove to our store, shook our hands and thanked us again for the opportunity…then she drove to work and over saw a major shortage for which she had no explanation.
You see, she had intentionally cancelled orders from our registers and taken the money for her own personal use…so the store didn’t even look like it was short because those funds had already been deducted from the day’s totals. I wouldn’t have found this out if I hadn’t actually dug through register transaction tape and seen canceled orders without justification. I called other ownership, told him finding, and he said he’d get back to me.
Needless to say, we eventually called her into our office, shook her hand and congratulated her on trying to trick us out of money. We knew she had been hard up for cash and was really struggling and she had figured out a loophole that would almost allow her to steal money without getting caught…and we saw the genius in her attempt and commended her for this shrewdness, we actually promoted her to a store manager and she went on to make huge bonus checks.
And that makes absolutely no sense, Right?
Well something similar is what Jesus is asking us to believe about this parable.
Jesus commends a dishonest manager, who after he is caught stealing, continues to be shrewd and outwit the Lord of the house, or business, in order to secure to him his own future after he is officially fired for stealing. The master of the house learns of this plan also, and rather than demanding he be thrown in jail, he praises his shrewdness, perhaps the same type of shrewdness that put him in hot water to begin with, and he commends him for what he was just firing him for…and then Jesus goes on to say…
“His Master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly, for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. 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 eternal dwellings.”
So we get Jesus’ first two points: Be shrewd managers when handling money. Don’t be gullible. And use dishonest money to make friends for yourself so that you will inherent heaven or eternal dwelling places.
What is going on here?
This parable is utterly ridiculous. It makes us as hearers of it want to recoil and argue with Jesus. Jesus stands up in the midst of his disciples, after just having told to us the parable of the Prodigal son…a parable that is the epitome of bad stewardship, and then tells us some nonsense about how being unjust and using dishonest money can be to our benefit and should offer us an example how we should relate to money and wealth.
If it sounds ridiculous to us, we are in good company. The early church wasn’t sure how to handle it either. Even St. Augustine, one of the churches greatest preachers and theologians, didn’t want a real piece of this parable as he interpreted it in a purely allegorical fashion.
The ancient church wasn’t much clearer on what to do with this parable. If you’ll notice verses 9-13…these are all answers by Jesus, to account for this difficult parable originally told by Jesus, answers or interpretations that had been remembered in the church. Luke gives us answer after answer beginning in v9 and then he concludes with v13 to basically summarize that regardless of the tensions in this parable, the end game, is that we cannot serve two masters.
Luke picks up on Matthew 6.24 where this saying is the part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is busy teaching his disciples about how they should relate to wealth and things.
But Luke’s summary statement still doesn’t help us resolve the tensions of this parable. It doesn’t help us make sense of its dense content and seemingly contradictory advice. It is precisely the tension that Luke wants to evoke in us…Luke is intentional in placing this parable here, right before one of the parables that commands our imaginations about death and how it relates to our relationship to wealth.
He wants us to stand up after hearing this parable, those of us who are disciples, and say, “No, Jesus! That’s not right!” He wants those of us who have made our livings working for banks and owning our own businesses to react against this parable and say “no”! Us, the group of disciples, are many and different. We have come from many different backgrounds and made our livings in many different ways…we can relate to this usual set of circumstances. What we can’t relate to is Jesus’ handling of these circumstances and his lessons from them.
It’s like Mark Twain’s famous quote regarding scripture. “It’s not the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me; it’s the parts that I do understand.”
And here we almost see too clearly what Jesus is doing and what Luke is doing by crafting this vision of Jesus through these parables.
One of the themes that Luke has been working on in this Gospel is wealth. Not just a proper use of wealth, but understanding our relationship to wealth. Luke hammers the theme of wealth, its proper place, our use of it and he condemns on multiple occasions visions of wealth offered by the world that are not consistent with the kingdom of God.
In Luke, Jesus hammers wealth over and over…one is left asking the question, “Is Jesus really opposed to wealth, is it evil, or is Jesus warning of its dangers for some other reason?” And in this particular parable, “Is Jesus telling us to obtain wealth dishonestly and makes friends with ill gotten means to save our own skin?”
What this parable epitomizes is the breakdown of social barriers and the construal of wealth as an object to be used as a part of God’s sovereign kingdom…it is a means, not an ends. Notice, Jesus does not praise the unjust steward for his relationship with God; Jesus praises him for his use of money and shrewdness…his relationship with God and the Master (who may be the same in this parable) is withstanding.
For Luke’s Jesus, wealth is a problem (the very immediate context of this passage being the prodigal that uses wealth for pleasure, and the rich man after this parable that dresses and lives in comfort while the world and people Like Lazarus suffer immeasurably) because “it presents itself as a temptation to prestige and security apart from God and for this reason it is suspect” (NTT, Joel Green, 113).
And if we will look at our world and ourselves…and be honest, it is surely the case that wealth does tempt us and it does estrange us from God and one another. Who needs the Kingdom of God when you have your own perfect kingdom on your acre of land, money in the bank and closets overflowing with stuff?
Our wealth determines our social customs and interactions.
In the ancient world, giving and sharing to the poor is not the same as writing a check to a non-profit or doing good works through Nazarene Compassionate Ministry. When you shared your wealth you were very literally engaging with those to whom it was being given, bringing them into your active social sphere. To share with someone, or to relieve someone of debt, was to treat them as family or kin. They were no longer an object from which you extracted wealth, they were partakers in it.
Now if we understand this parable from this lens, then what the unjust steward is doing is extremely shrewd and to be emulated.
Think of this manager as the tax collector Levi, aka Matthew, that we find in this Gospel chapter 5. He was hated and despised because of his job. Jesus was accused of being a sinner because he had an entourage of people like this around him. Levi was in a position of authority as a Roman tax collector because of what he could extract and give to Rome. He was given the assignment of collecting polls for an occupying military force and then given the freedom to expend more for his own use.
Do you suppose Levi ate with people whom owed him taxes? Do you suppose Levi ever cut their bill in half or told them to take half of it off? Well, if he did, he was a rare tax collector and that certainly wasn’t the reputation of tax collectors. It would have been a shock to the system, a vision of a new kind of kingdom or authority, if Levi had ever acted that way prior to becoming a disciple of Jesus.
Returning to this parable, the manager was being reprimanded because he had already shown that he was squandering resources from his master. He was being unjust. He was taking advantage of his position. As a manager in charge of collecting debts, he most likely did not have those whom were indebted to his master within his inner circles. They were debtors…he was a collector. The two didn’t mix, yet when the master finds out his sin, he has to act shrewdly and act kindly toward those from whom he usually collected dues and he needed to do so quickly. There was no time to waste.
So he frantically devises a plan to extend forgiveness to them, yes, his wiping away of their debt before he was fired was his way of forgiving them. It’s reminiscent of the Lord’s Prayer, “Lord forgive us our trespasses , as we forgive those who trespass against us…”may also be translated “Lord forgive us our debts as we forgive those who are indebted to us.”
He has now brought himself into a new kind of relationship with these debtors through his shrewd and even sinful activity. He has created a relationship where there was originally no relationship and rather than taking their money and squandering it…he has finally done something good with money. He has decided to not squander it, but to restore people to a sense of wholeness by forgiving them of that which kept them bound to their toils. He uses his shrewdness to forgive debt rather than squander its abundances and usury charges.
Yes, he stands to benefit from the forgiveness (just like those who received his forgiveness), but in so doing he is changing the shape of the world, especially the world of those who find themselves receiving forgiveness.
This time of crisis in his life evoked a radical response from this once complacent and deceitful manager…and rather than use his deceit for selfishness he uses it for restorative purposes, both to restore himself and those that were beneficiaries of his act.
And here is where Luke really reinforces a proper understanding of wealth. Wealth has the reputation of creating boundaries and separating people, yet in this parable, boundaries are broken down as the manager creates a new social class with his debtors and even Jesus advises us based on his actions to make friends with wealth of the world, to use unrighteous wealth for the benefit of becoming friends with others, so that when we are dead, we will be able to find entrance into the dwelling place of God, essentially saying we can steal our way into heaven.
But what is the crisis, the imminent crisis that evokes our radical response to the way we use money as a means rather than an ends? It is a means whereby we are shown to be faithful to God and his creation, rather than becoming an end for which we strive to give ourselves more things…things that we see will later put us on the side of the Rich Man who stares at Lazarus in paradise.
What is this crisis moment and why does the parable take place in this context of suddenness and light footed expectation?
For the steward, the crisis was his pending job loss and he needed to prepare for the result of that final judgment.
Luke has couched this parable, this ugly sister of the three, in the middle of parables that capture our imaginations about the end of the world and the kingdom of God.
The crisis moment for Luke and for Jesus is the pending expectation and threats that they will have to handle courageously, wisely and resolutely to prepare for the future. The Christian mission has fell on deaf ears at the time of Luke’s Gospel and now the mission is pushing into pagan Greek areas as resistance makes itself known in Jerusalem and from the people of the original promise. The future is breaking into our present; the Master has found creation wanting in its squandering of love and goodness. The Kingdom of God is upon Jesus, Luke and their hearers.
Jesus is preparing us for living in the shadow of the crises that is the image of the risen Jesus overtaking creation as he emerges from his earthen tomb…a crises that requires prudent action and the extension of forgiveness to those who have done nothing to deserve it…even if forgiving them is also beneficial for us…in other words, even if we make friends…cause at the end of the day, when the money is spent, it is the relationships we have built that will last beyond our own lives.
The ministry, life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ is the crises moment that requires we not sit idly back, but that we act prudently as sons and daughters of this world and begin extending forgiveness to others who will soon stand in the shadow of Jesus the resurrected one.
And for this reason, Jesus can say, the sons of this world are more prudent than the sons of light.
You see, as sons and daughters of light…we are complacent. We don’t always act prudently and for the future. We expect God to be the one that shapes the future and we’re just along for the ride. We want to be like John the Baptist or the Essenes at Qumran and await God’s final vindication as we remove ourselves from the fray, from being shrewd, from making friends with the wealth of unrighteousness.
That’s one way to go about it.
The other is to see our mundane daily activities with Money and others…as caught in the constant expectation that God is busy about recreating the world through us and to act with the same sense of urgency and haste that even unjust stewards possess.
In the end, it may not be the sons of light that offer us examples on how to live, it may be the ones that we’ve often called sinner that can teach us the greatest lessons about the kingdom…cause it’s the sinner who usually find themselves most closely standing in the shadow of one that has become sin for us all.