“There was once a rich man who had a manager”. So Jesus begins the parable of the dishonest steward. Now, we’ve all heard lots of Jesus’s parables, and they often begin, “There was once a man … Or a king … Or a father”. Usually, that character in the story turns out to stand for God. So, when we hear those words at the beginning of today’s Gospel, our minds might leap to an assumption that this rich man with the servant will turn out to be a good guy, a powerful figure exhibiting both justice and mercy.
But if we start with this assumption, this story is going to lead us into very murky waters indeed. How can God be portrayed by someone who commends his spendthrift steward for his malpractice? Commentators have tied themselves in knots, trying to figure out what Jesus is trying to say in this parable, because casting the rich man as a proxy for God doesn’t work.
So let’s start over. Let’s instead imagine the rich man as a business tycoon, someone who isn’t too concerned about honesty, someone who uses the law for his own profit rather than the common good, whose only priority is his own advancement and who, when one of his protegés shows ingenuity in getting himself out of a tight place, slaps him on the back and congratulates him for being a chip off the old block. I imagine we can all think of someone in our life or in the public eye who might fit this mold.
Now the story works: it’s a story about a couple of rascals, deeply enmeshed in a rotten system. In ancient Israel, the people were forbidden by Jewish law to charge interest on debt. Naturally, then as now, those who lacked scruples found ways around the law, perhaps in this case by charging interest in kind rather than coin. So a tenant farmer who owed 50 jugs of olive oil to his landlord might find himself owing a lot more if he had a bad harvest and couldn’t deliver. And of course, the middle man, the steward, had to take his piece of the action, even though he wasn’t strictly entitled to it, and so he might add another 10% for his margin.
Now, imagine a sort of sub-prime situation where tenants couldn’t pay their accumulated debts and the steward was facing ruin and disgrace. If he simply slashed the interest and his own cut off the tenant’s account, his boss could hardly object (since it was against the law), and the steward would be seen as a hero by his neighbors.
As I said, a rotten system then. We have our own rotten systems now, such as the deplorable practice in some municipalities of charging people compounding fees and additional fines if they can’t pay a traffic ticket or if they can’t make it to a court date, so that they end up owing thousands of dollars and being thrown in jail for a very minor infraction. Both are systems that prey on the poor and push them further into poverty.
So this isn’t a parable that describes the kingdom of heaven. It’s about the sleazy side of human nature, the sharp practice and skirting of the law that goes on all around us, that makes idols of profit and of outwitting the little guy. This isn’t how our world should operate, but all too often it does operate like this, and all too often we can get caught up in it. And Jesus tells his disciples that there is something to be learned even from crooks: just as you can use God’s gift of ingenuity to save your own skin, so you can use that same gift to share the good news of the Gospel.
It’s like exercising a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. When you start down a dishonest path you can easily slide deeper and deeper into the muck – the story of Walter White in the TV series Breaking Bad is a powerful example – but when you start down the path of faithfulness, of trustworthiness, you can develop that muscle and find that you can be faithful in the big things as well as the little things. This week a Methodist pastor in Flint, Michigan, confronted a presidential candidate visiting her church and told him that he was abusing her church’s hospitality by turning a learning opportunity into a political speech. I cannot imagine that Pastor Faith Green Timmons, who by the way is a fellow alumna of Yale Divinity School, found the courage to speak truth to power like this without having exercised that muscle of faithfulness in small and not so small ways throughout her ministry.
There is no consensus among Biblical scholars about how to interpret the parable of the dishonest steward. I choose to see it as Jesus describing the way things are, rather than the way things ought to be. The pairing of the parable with Jeremiah’s lament for the nation suggests that we should view the parable as a commentary on the contemporary culture.
Jeremiah contemplates a nation that is defeated and lost, sold out to foreign interests and false gods. In his time Israel had been invaded, her leaders sent into exile and slavery. Jesus too lived in Israel at a time when the nation was struggling under oppressive rulers, with draconian laws and even religious leaders who showed no compassion for those in need, who had forgotten what it meant to be faithful.
We might add our own voices to lament our nation’s lack of faithfulness: the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor, the crippling debt that burdens college grads, the thousands of families rendered bankrupt by medical bills, the diabetes, obesity, joint damage, and hypertension that result from an oversupply of cheap processed food produced by an industry that must grow at all costs, not to mention the xenophobia and racism and sexism and brazen lying that seems ever more a part of our daily discourse.
In many ways our own society is as corrupt as the one described in Luke’s Gospel, as doomed as the one Jeremiah mourns. And what are we going to do about it? Will we break free of our deadly obsessions with wealth and personal security and power, and instead live into God’s dream of abundance, of generosity, and of vulnerability? Because I think this is how Jesus wants us to live.
Love Christ, Serve Others, Welcome All.
The dishonest steward does have one valuable lesson to teach us. When the crisis hits, he shares the wealth. He forgives debt – even though it isn’t his debt – and he demonstrates generosity with the resources that the master has entrusted to his care. How might we, as St Paul’s Cathedral and as faithful individuals, demonstrate generosity with the resources God has placed in our hands?
One faithful response is to make full use of the gifts and possibilities around us. We can make the most of our land resource, with the Cathedral Campus Redevelopment Plan. We can invest in our future by building a strong program for our children and youth as well as supporting our elders. We can make use of the latest insights regarding evangelism and formation to grow disciples in this new century in partnership with St Luke’s. We can cherish the land and our natural resources: soil, wind, sunshine, water, even bees.
But what about the corruption and brokenness that we see in the world?
What is the faithful response to the hateful rhetoric and lies of those in the political process?
What is the faithful response to a world where children are bombed out of their homes, where the mentally ill are left on the streets, where guns are touted as the answer to every threat?
We ourselves must be the faithful response. We are to give ourselves away, to speak truth to power, to decline to be part of the web of sharp practice. We are to demonstrate that the fullness of life is found, not in material wealth or cheap tricks, but in the practice of integrity and kindness, and in the joy of serving our neighbors.
On Thursday I attended a luncheon hosted by the local Rotary clubs, honoring two San Diegans who, throughout their long lives, have exemplified the virtues of integrity and service. It was inspiring to hear of the courage and determination of Leon Williams and our own Lucy Killea, who have influenced generations of younger community leaders and helped to change our city for the better. Both Lucy and Leon have made good use of their God-given intelligence, ingenuity and shrewdness over the decades. They could have made use of their gifts to accumulate great wealth, but they chose to turn away from that idol to instead serve their neighbors.They have been faithful in much. As we dedicate ourselves on this Homecoming Sunday to the many ministries to which God has called us, may we also be faithful in much.
September 18 2016
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges