The Unjust Steward
I spent the first part of this week at a gathering of ministers in the Eastern synod. Before I went I looked up the lectionary readings, hoping that while I was away I might be able to find some time to reflect on the readings, and so come home with a super-duper sermon for you all. My heart sank when I realized that it’s time for the parable of the unjust steward.
So I thought I would be clever and pick the brains of my colleagues. For a few meals I’d ask whoever I was sitting with ‘Are you preaching on the unjust steward this week? – what did you make of it?’. After a while I sensed that people were becoming strangely reluctant to sit with me at mealtimes.
In any list of ‘very hard sayings of Jesus’ – this parable has to be in the top 10 – if not No 1.
OK – so here’s a killer start to a sermon: this parable is really hard to understand and even a group of people with quite a lot of theological training between them would rather not have to say what they think it means. But let’s try to apply some basic principles. As it happens I’m very good friends with Susan Durber – and as it happens she is not only the principal of a theological college, but someone who did a doctorate on Luke’s parables. Also as it happens I quite recently heard her talk about parables in general: so let’s see what I’ve learnt about parables.
1. The idea of parables is to surprise, to shock, to say what is not immediately obvious. A parable is meant to be a bit cartoon-like, it’s meant to jar. If on first reading you’re left asking ‘What on earth is all this about??’ then a parable is doing its job. Even before I met Susan I remember reading C.H.Dodd on the parables, and going away looking for the surprise in every parable. What Dodd actually wrote, back in 1935 was: “A parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” .
This parable certainly gets us thinking. It is meant to tease, to baffle, to turn everyday common sense on its head.
If the owner had heard that his steward, his manager, was squandering the owner’s wealth – it is quite natural that he should want to see the books. And if when he sees the books he sees that the steward has quickly written off some of the debts to try to make friends for himself, then common sense tells us that the owner will use this as proof of the man’s dishonesty and will sack him on the spot. Even the steward himself expects this – that’s why he’s trying so hard to win friends in the first place. Jesus teases us – we think we can see what will happen.. but then the owner congratulates the steward on being so shrewd and clever. So the very thing that makes the story hard to swallow is the very point that Jesus is making. So far so good.
2. Second general principle of parables – don’t be fooled into thinking that the most powerful character in the story is always God. Now this one is very helpful here because at least it releases us from thinking that God (the owner) wants people to be dishonest – because that isn’t just jarring, it’s really counter to the Gospel and huge chunks of the Old Testament prophets.
3. Third general principle – try to focus on the parable as Jesus tells it (as far as we can recover that) and don’t get too sidetracked by any attempt of Luke or anyone else to add on ‘what the story means’. This is why I’m focusing on the core of the story and not the bits added afterwards. At least that simplifies our quest for understanding a little, and doesn’t get into this whole “what does Jesus mean by the children of this age, and the children of light” discussion. I’m happy to leave that part for another day – I have enough on my plate just with the story.
4. Fourthly – and the final general principle before we have to try to ask what we learn from this story – Susan suggests that we look at what else Luke tells us in this portion of his gospel – the wider context of the parable.
Right before this parable Jesus tells the story of the lost coin and the lost sheep – last week’s lectionary readings – and then he tells the story of the lost son – the prodigal son – another man who squandered what belonged to someone else – only ion that case it was his father. But the story doesn’t end with the prodigal being forgiven by his father, it ends with the older son refusing to join the party & getting the hump. Now what if this parable of the unjust steward is meant to go with the parable of the prodigal son & his unforgiving brother?
We all find the parable of the prodigal son easy to read – it tells us of the loving forgiveness of the father and reassures that however we get lost in life our heavenly father is always ready to welcome us home. But Jesus doesn’t want us then to sit back and rest on our laurels, he includes in the first parable the older son, and which of us hasn’t empathized with his cry of ‘it’s not fair!’ : he cannot forgive his brother.
So Jesus tells this shocking parable of the unjust steward to show that if in a crisis even a scoundrel like that can be forgiving, then surely all those older brothers out there and all those younger brothers who’ve been forgiven, and all their sisters for that matter too, can all listen to this parable, scratch their heads, and then get on with forgiving others their debts.
The unjust, deceitful steward is praised for forgiving debts – it’s not meant to make sense, it’s meant to make us more forgiving. In Jesus’ name. Amen.