Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Parable of the Unjust Steward. A Homily for 9.22.13 from Luke 16:1-13, the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for 9.22.13
LUKE 16:1-13
(see below)
25th Sunday in 
Ordinary Time
Year C




The Lectionary Gospel reading for today has the distinction to include one of Jesus' most difficult parables to interpret: The Parable of the Shrewd Manager, or as it is sometimes called, The Parable of the Unjust Steward. Strangely, this parable seems to have Jesus commending the dishonest steward for his dishonesty! And, because of this, there seems to have been an assembly of possible interpretations offered (e.g. go here), and a dearth of preaching possibilities.

THE PARABLE
Clearly, Jesus does not teach here the use of shady business practices. In the parable, Jesus has the owner of the enterprise finding out that he has been defrauded by a dishonest steward. The steward, having therefore been fired for these offenses, realizes he will be put in a very bad way:

"The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg...'"
So, he decides to make friends of those who are indebted to the owner of the enterprise:    
"He called in his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said,‘How much do you owe my master?’ He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note. Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’ Then to another the steward said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’ The steward said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note; write one for eighty.’"
Here, then, is where the story gets somewhat dicey, for, when the enterprise's owner finds out what the unjust steward has done, he commends him, saying:
And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently. “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.  I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth,so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
Professor Ken Bailey, in his books, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes and Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes, offers an interesting understanding of the parable, arguing that the parable has nothing to do with money. Rather, its understanding really follows from the previous three parables found in Luke 15 (here the chapter headings have gotten in the way), acting as a further way to illustrate the mercy of GOD, but this time by asking us to understand the mercy of the enterprise owner. 

Dr. Bailey writes concerning the comparison between the Lost Son and the Unjust Steward:
  • Each has a noble master who demonstrates extraordinary grace to a wayward underling
  • Both stories contain an ignoble son/steward who wastes the master's resources.
  • In each the wayward underling reaches a moment of truth regarding those losses.
  • In both cases the son/steward throws himself on the mercy of the noble master
  • Both parables deal with broken trust and the problem resulting from it. (from Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, pg. 332)

Dr. Bailey goes on to sum the situation by writing:
"It is our understanding of the parable that the steward's plan is to risk everything on the quality of mercy he as already experienced from his master." (Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes, pg. 98)
Simply put, Professor Bailey understands the ruse like this: By reducing the debt owed, the unjust steward makes the enterprise owner a hero in the community -- who wouldn't be happy with a creditor who forgave half of one’s debt? By doing this the unjust steward would also be able to eventually secure himself a new position with the community he helped. Thus, when the enterprise owner finally takes a look at the books and finds out what the unjust steward has done, what would be his response? Would he be willing to lose face in the community by asking for the debts to be put back on the books? Well, how does the text read?
"And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently." 
As you might expect, Professor N.T. Wright has a different take. He understands the parable to be based upon the prohibition of usury in the Old Testament. That is, the lending of money with interest charged for its use is forbidden (e.g. Ezekiel 18). But, to get around this, the interest would often be charged by paying the owner through in-kind materials. This would mean that the Master was not totally just here, either.

So, when the unjust steward forgives part of the debts owned, he is actually forgiving only the part of the debt that comprised the extra materials, which was the interest on the debt. What then would the master say? He could only squawk if he were willing to expose himself as a law breaker.

Noting that every detail in a parable is not part of the interpretation, Dr. Wright understands that the master in the story represents GOD and the unjust steward is the nation of Israel. The nation was given the status of GOD's people with the vocation to share the reality of GOD's presence with the watching world. This status and vocation was called covenant. Sadly, Israel failed at this enterprise. But now the promised Kingdom was becoming a reality. Now was the time of great decision. What should the Hebrews do?

The parable teaches that trouble would soon be bearing down hard on the chosen people, and they must not, therefore, alienate anyone. Instead, they must diligently build relationships that will help them through the coming times of trouble. This was simply the wise and prudent action to take.

Finally, Dr. Wright reminds the church in this regard:
“Obviously it [the parable] has nothing to do with commending sharp practice in business or personal finance. Rather it advises us to sit light to the extra regulations which we impose on one another, not least in the church, which are over and above the gospel itself. The church passes through turbulent times, and frequently needs to reassess what matters and what doesn't.”

WEALTH
The text concludes with a major teaching by Jesus on the wise and compassionate use of our accumulated wealth. 

In the preceding parable, if we use Dr. Wright’s interpretation of it, both the enterprise owner and the unjust steward are motivated by greed. Both are willing to defraud; both are willing to take advantage. These are good illustrations of Jesus’ teaching of what to avoid when facing the question of wealth.

Jesus teaches:
13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth." (New Revised Standard Version)
You cannot serve GOD and wealth,” words difficult for we Westerners to hear. Next week’s homily will bring this home to us in no uncertain terms. For now, let us close today’s homily by questioning ourselves concerning our discipleship, our faithfulness to the Christ who loves us and who gave himself for us, and especially in regards to how we use our resources, our time, our gifts, our wealth.

We must ask just what success really looks like.

We must decide whether our lives must be spent in the pursuit of the American dream, or if there are other values that are more lasting, more noble and more significant.

________________________

LUKE 16:1-13
Jesus said to his disciples,
“A rich man had a steward
who was reported to him for squandering his property. 
He summoned him and said,
‘What is this I hear about you? 
Prepare a full account of your stewardship,
because you can no longer be my steward.’
The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do,
now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? 
I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. 
I know what I shall do so that,
when I am removed from the stewardship,
they may welcome me into their homes.’
He called in his master’s debtors one by one. 
To the first he said,
‘How much do you owe my master?’
He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’
He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note. 
Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’
Then to another the steward said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’
He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’
The steward said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note;
write one for eighty.’
And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.
“For the children of this world
are more prudent in dealing with their own generation
than are the children of light. 
I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth,
so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
The person who is trustworthy in very small matters
is also trustworthy in great ones;
and the person who is dishonest in very small matters
is also dishonest in great ones. 
If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth,
who will trust you with true wealth? 
If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another,
who will give you what is yours? 
No servant can serve two masters. 
He will either hate one and love the other,
or be devoted to one and despise the other. 

You cannot serve both God and mammon.”