Proper 20, Year C
Luke 16:1-13 - link to NRSV text
I'm tremendously excited, and don't tell me you're not excited too. It's a very special day coming this Sunday -- like a holiday that only that only comes once in every three years.
It's ... "Unjust Steward Sunday"!
OK, so maybe you're not that excited. But I am. I did my master's thesis on the parable, often called "The Parable of the Unjust Steward," in this coming Sunday's gospel. I spent the better part of a year or two thinking about these thirteen verses. And this Sunday will be the first time I've ever had a chance to preach on them (unless you count the children's chapel I did to audition for my current job, in which I did this parable in biblical storytelling, using a few of the kids gathered as human puppets -- a story I'll be happy to tell if you're interested. I really ought to get around to putting up some kind of 'About Me' page, for those who want to know who the heck I am).
So woo-hoo! Go Unjust Steward!
I said in a previous blog that I have a strange attraction to what are called the "hard sayings" of Jesus, and that's how I ended up pouring so much energy into the parable of Luke 16. I did it because I read in an article (I can't remember off-hand which one, and am too lazy at the moment to dig up my old thesis to look it up) that this parable posed problems that are "insoluble." With the considerable hubris that a nineteen-year-old can muster, I decided to tackle it. Here's what I came up with. It's summarizing about 60 pages of writing, so I hope you can take my word for it on a lot of things and overlook gaps.
The parable is not as obscure as it might seem; we just need to get over our resistance to the most obvious interpretation. The biggest questions that commentators seem to be ask about the parable is "who is 'the master' or 'the lord' (kurios in verse 8 could mean either): the steward's employer, or Jesus?" and "Why did this person commend the steward?"
First, a summary of the plot of the parable (told with some contemporary terms to make it more readily apprehended):
A very, very rich man lives in a big city (like Jerusalem), with a lifestyle of luxury made possible from the income of the estate he owns in the countryside. He's hired a manager (steward) to run it while he parties in Jerusalem, and all of the work of planting and harvesting is done by peasants whose grandparents might have owned the land but lost it in payment to a debt. Now the peasants work the land as tenant farmers, buying what they need from the company store (at prices far above what their grandparents paid for the same goods), with whatever is left over after the exorbitant rent is paid to the landowner. The harvest is never quite enough to pay the rent plus what the family needs, so the family is slipping further and further into debt, working harder and harder to pay what can't be paid. The immediate face of this system is that of the steward -- someone who might have come from the same families as the people who now suffer under his management, but who managed somehow to get the education needed to keep records and to lose the backbone needed to refuse to participate in something so clearly unjust.
The landowner fires the steward because of rumors that the steward was squandering the landowner's resources (and "squandering" isn't necessarily a bad word here -- the sower in another of Jesus' parables squanders seed by tossing it on roads and in bird-feeding zones, and the shepherd in last week's parable potentially squanders the ninety-nine by running after one lost sheep). So the steward is no longer authorized to do anything at all in the master's name. The farmers from whom he probably came aren't about to take him in either, given that up until now he's allied himself with the landowner by taking a job that involves collecting exorbitant rents, running the company store, and generally dealing unjustly with the farmers. That's why the steward is called "the steward of unrighteousness" in verse 8.
So what does the steward do? Something extraordinarily clever. He gathers all of the farmers who owe him money, and he declares that their debts have been reduced from the rough equivalent of "a million bazillion kajillion dollars" to something that maybe could be repaid, (maybe) freeing the family to make choices about next steps. With quirks of how records were kept, this involves a few subtle strokes of the (forger's) pen -- much like what students do in changing a handwritten 'D' to a 'B' on a report card.
The steward doesn't tell the farmers that he was fired any more than he tells them that the landowner didn't authorize any of this generosity. The result is that the farmers believe the landowner is more generous than just about anyone else in his position would be. The landowner is now a hero in the farmers' eyes -- and the steward is also, by extension.
The landowner comes for his customary visit to pick up the wealth the steward has collected for him, and he gets a surprise that is both exhilarating and challenging:
The streets for miles before he reaches the estate are lined by cheering farmers. They're shouting his name, telling him he's a hero.
He finds out (probably when he arrives at the estate house) what the steward has done in telling the farmers that the landowner forgave their debts. Now he has a choice to make.
The landowner can go outside to the assembled crowd -- the people shouting blessings upon him and all his family -- and tell them that it was all a terrible mistake, that the steward's generosity was an act of crookedness (or unrighteousness, depending on your perspective) and won't hold water legally. The cheering will turn to boos, and I wouldn't want to be the landowner then.
Alternatively, the landowner can go outside and take in the cheering of the crowd. He can take credit for the steward's actions, in which case he'll continue to take in the acclaim of the farmers (who are honoring him -- you know how much I talk about how important honor is in the first-century Mediterranean world!), but he'll have to take the steward back. Mistreat the steward, who brought such good news of the lord's generous forgiveness (pun intended) in the future, and the crowd might turn on him. I don't doubt what a sane person in the landowner's situation would do in such circumstances, but either way, the steward goes from scab and scumbag to hero. When he retires, the farmers will gladly take him in, if the landowner won't.
Here's the big problem, for most commentators:
What the steward does is clearly dishonest. From a capitalist perspective, he's guilty of all charges, taking the landlord's property and squandering it -- even after he was fired, and therefore not authorized to do anything in the landowner's name.
Most commentators I read who were looking for the point of the parable came up with something like this:
"The steward is confronted with a crisis, and he acts decisively. Jesus is saying that the inbreaking of the kingdom of God calls upon us all to act decisively."
No offense to commentators, but that rings hollow for me. What's the crisis or decision? And what about the direction of the decisive decision is commendable? After all, if the story had gone something like, "There was a rich man who had a steward and fired him, so the steward decisively concluded that he should form a boy band and inaugurate a tour of Galilee and Judea," we probably wouldn't get quite the same point.
So here's the big question that I haven't seen commentators in print ask:
Q: What, precisely, is it that the steward does, albeit without authorization and with deception?
A: The steward forgives debts.
The steward forgives. He forgives things that he had no right to forgive. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and to compensate for past misconduct. But that's the decisive action that he undertakes to redeem himself from a position from which it seem he couldn't be reconciled, to the landowner any more than to the farmers.
So what's the moral of this story, one of the stories unique to Luke?
It's a moral of great emphasis for Luke: FORGIVE. Forgive it all. Forgive it now. Forgive it for any reason you want, or for no reason at all.
Remember, this (Luke) is the guy whose version of the "Lord's Prayer" includes the helpful category confusion, "forgive us our sins as we forgive (the monetary debts of -- it's clear in the Greek) our debtors" (Luke 11:4). I could point to at least a dozen moments off the cuff at which Luke raises this point: the arrival of the kingdom of God is no occasion for score-keeping of any kind, whether monetary or moral.
Why forgive the debts of debtor nations? In America, we could forgive other nations their debts for the reason Bono cited in his appearance on the O'Reilly Factor: to raise or maintain the value of the American brand, letting the rest of the world associate "USA" with health and freedom. Or we could do it because of what Jesus said about forgiving debts. Or we could do it because we think the leprechauns will then lead us to the land of eternal youth. To paraphrase Nike in a manner more worthy of Adbusters, just do it.
Why forgive someone who's sinned against us, or against our sense of what is obviously right? We don't have to do it out of love for the other person, if we're not there yet. We could forgive the other person because of that whole business of what we pray in Jesus' name every Sunday morning, and because we know we'd like forgiveness ourselves. We could forgive because we've experienced what we're like as unforgiving people, and so we know that refusing to forgive because we don't want the other person to benefit is, as the saying goes, like eating rat poison hoping it will hurt the rat. We could forgive because we are, or we want to be, deeply in touch with a sense of Jesus' power to forgive and free sinners like us. Or we could forgive because we think it will improve our odds of winning the lottery.
It boils down to the same thing: deluded or sane, selfish and/or unselfish, there is no bad reason to forgive. Extending the kind of grace God shows us in every possible arena -- financial and moral -- can only put us more deeply in touch with God's grace.
I cannot escape the kind of awareness that an Anglican has while awaiting the report of the Lambeth Commission on Communion (AKA the Eames Commission), or an employee has while working in a congregation experiencing some serious conflict. What's a good reason to remain in fellowship (or "in communion," if you want a more technical term)? What's a good reason to be gracious toward those on the winning (or the losing) side of a political debate? What's a good reason to give up any and all scorekeeping?
Pick one of the above, or none, or all. It doesn't matter. If a guy who was a scab and a scalywag can forgive to save his job or give himself a safety net if his firing proves final, we have who experienced real grace -- we who believe that "the earth is the Lord's, and all that is in it" (Psalm 24:1), and therefore forgiving debts is simply telling someone else that scorekeeping is up to the only one to whom anything of value belongs -- have better reason to forgive. We've got more important things than scorekeeping to think about and act on: the work God has given us to do, to love and serve Him, with gladness and singleness of heart, through Christ our Lord.
Amen, and thanks be to God!
Dylan ( or should I call you Sarah?),
I would love to read your thesis if it is available (published or in word, wordperfect or pdf formats). I too love the supposed "difficult" teachings of Jesus and find myself drwan to them and to other difficult passages in the Bible as a whole. Let me know if and how I might obtain a copy of your work.
Posted by: Will Humes | Sep 16, 2007 9:49:10 PM
Thanks for this, Dylan! Now it is making a TINY bit of sense to me...instead of none.
Posted by: Mary Beth | Sep 18, 2007 11:48:48 AM
Thanks for this take... I am curious how vs.9 fits.
As a pastor in a community where so many of our constituents are either homeless or looking at possible homelessness as in verse 3, this parable has a particular relevance for us...
Posted by: Kevin | Sep 18, 2007 1:20:49 PM
Thank you for unpacking this in such a helpful way. I have struggled all day how to get at this, finding no satisfactory options to combine this reading with the baptism I will do on Sunday. (For whom the Grandparents left my church for a more conservative church that says what they want to hear)...I appreciate the importance of radical forgiveness, the kind of forgiveness that God offers each of us all the time.
Posted by: mompriest | Sep 18, 2007 9:28:01 PM
Another answer to your big question: What is it the steward does? The steward squanders. Or, scatters generously. I think the people of Jesus' time would be as surprised as we are to hear the steward commended. But, if we are stewards of our master's property, if everything we control is really God's, then perhaps God will amaze us by commending us more for scattering generously than for careful accounting.
Posted by: Susan | Sep 19, 2007 1:55:45 AM
Flagrant forgiveness. Seventy times seven. Now whose wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove? It truly is a scattering of forgiveness! Now I need to write my children's sermon for this week!
Posted by: Evan Abla | Sep 19, 2007 3:45:28 PM
yup, the cloud over sunday is beginning to clear on this one. Thanks
Posted by: paul | Sep 20, 2007 10:01:46 AM
I like what you do with this parable. Your analysis certainly connects this story to the parable of the prodigal Father (Son). The struggle I have, though, is all the emphasis on money and dishonest wealth that follows the parable. The words from Jesus (Luke) seem much more connected to money than forgiveness (financial or otherwise). Richard Foster contends that we need to understand the Bible's natural suspicion of money to get at this parable. For him, money is, at least Biblically speaking, always unrighteous mammom. For him, the need is to discipline what is by nature problematic.
Posted by: Bill Uetricht | Sep 20, 2007 10:39:41 AM
Thanks for adding another dimension, Bill, to Dylan's helpful exegesis. I think the steward trafficks in what is, by definition, unrighteous currency -- money. We -- who are called to traffic in righteous currency -- must remember that the currency of God's kingdom is forgiveness (or "right relationship"), not judgment (which is left to God).
Posted by: Demi Prentiss | Sep 20, 2007 12:08:06 PM
I had forgotten you had written this until I went digging in desperation. I love the hard teachings of Jesus, too--much, much more interesting and I think much more fruitful contemplation in the long run.
Thanks for opening up this parable to me.
Posted by: Emily | Sep 20, 2007 12:25:17 PM
Great insights. I'm working on second part of verse 8 "it is true that the citizens of this world are more shrewd than the godly are." Why this divisive point?
Posted by: Sarah Ruth | Sep 20, 2007 8:35:01 PM
Damn! That's remarkably helpful. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Posted by: Marie | Sep 20, 2007 9:23:31 PM
ditto paul and marie
Posted by: juniper | Sep 21, 2007 2:17:20 PM
I really like what you've said here and I got all carried away with it, but something kept bugging me. Perhaps you cover this more in your dissertation, but how does your exegesis account for 16:8b-13?
I was persuaded by M. Dwaine Greene, "The Parable of the Unjust Steward As Question and Challenge" Expository Times 112, 2000, p 82.
He compares the steward and the prodigal to make the point that the parable's primary concern is "the treasured existence" of the steward as being a steward. In the parable he does everything he can do, including dishonest things, to maintain that status. Greene says that for the reader, "in the face of severe crisis, every reader is compelled to decide the type of existence worthy of being preserved." This appears to me to have meaning in the parable and in the explanation that follows. The steward wants to maintain his stewarding life and will be dishonest to do it. Presumably Christian readers (or the disciples), as children of light, who are not as shrewd as the children of this age, should honestly employ everything they have at their disposal in service to God, so as to serve God, not wealth/mammon.
I really wanted to agree with your radical forgiveness exegesis, and perhaps it fits elsewhere, but I couldn't match it with 8b-13. Maybe you have textual reasons to separate the two?
Thank you for your very thoughtful perspective and for serving as a good dialog partner.
Posted by: Michael Mumme | Sep 22, 2007 4:06:26 PM
Thank you for your insight and the contributions of other people. I wonder if a possible application to a USA congregation is that the money we have in this country was ill gotten from a macro-economic point of view and we will do well by forgiving debts even if that means to squander our wealth, which was not ours in the first place, otherwise forgives remains in the interpersonal dimension and somewhat introspective meanwhile missing the wider outlook. Incidentally I laugh at the expression less fortunates, like luck has something to do with it
Posted by: Juan Quevedo | Sep 22, 2007 4:40:22 PM
Thank you for challenging our presuppositions. We assume too much. We read too much into things - eisegesis - rather than allowing the text to talk to us without prejudice.
Posted by: Grant | Sep 14, 2010 7:37:53 PM
I think the parable's message uses the interpretative phrase "unrighteous mammon" with a note of irony. I do NOT think the parable is an allegory about forgiveness of sins solely. I think that the parable recognizes the injustice of the system that set the tenant-farmers in debt, and essentially says there's no wrong reason to forgive such debt, which -- given the economic system that multiplies it for those with control of land -- is "unrighteous mammon.
I once worked for Jet Propulsion Labs, which, among other things, produces technologies that guide and propel weapons and survey in ways that can be used oppressively. I just wrote technical manuals for collaboration software and helped people teach other people how to use it, but I felt guilty that money from the military-industrial complex was paying so well by the hour to cover my biblical studies education.
I later worked for a parish. Much holier work, right? But why could the parish afford a full-time Director of Christian Formation? In part because so many parishioners had positions in well-funded and exponentially-expanding defense industry.
Mammon wouldn't HAVE to be unrighteous if we in larger and larger communities and societies valued (i.e., paid for) the things we SAY we value -- e.g., the education of children -- at the level of the things we admit as a necessary evil if we recognize even that much.
I dare say that mammon is not necessarily unrighteous. But listen to the Sweet Honey in the Rock song asking, "Are your hands clean?"
So, given that our economies taint most wealth with unrighteousness, what do we do? I think the "Parable of the Unjust Steward" challenges us ALL -- as pretty much all of the monetary wealth of us wealthy people (and at $25K/yr salary, I'm wealthy compared to the rest of the world) -- to use every resource we have -- and in the steward's case, that's a position of influence -- to see that debts are forgiven and justice done for the poor.
Use money, if you've got it. Use your position, because if you're wealthy (and I am, and if you make even half as much as I do at $25K/yr, you are), you've got a position that gives you leverage. Find that leverage, and use it.
It's the opposite of most evangelical piety on the subject. Do not deceive yourself in thinking that our job is to do something, however ineffective, to express our warm and fuzzy feelings about the poor. Those feelings and their indulgence do nothing for the poor. Get their debt reduced. Get them in a position in which they can earn a living for their families with their honest work.
Do it to save your skin, if you like. Do it because you think that then Martians will then bless you with particular knowledge of where you can find the best views of the moon on any given night. Do it because it makes you feel warm and fuzzy, if it does -- just don't fool yourself into thinking that justice for the poor is whatever makes you feel not guilty or warm and fuzze.. Do it because Jesus said. Do it because Moses said.
Just do it.
That's my take, put a little crudely. I hope that helps.
Posted by: Sarah Dylan Breuer | Sep 14, 2010 8:24:08 PM
I wonder whether a further comment might be helpful to some.
I read the bible voraciously from childhood on. I'd read this parable. And when I was in my third year of high school I played a trick on a teacher inspired by this parable.
This was a VERY unpopular teacher. Students thought she was humorless and inflexible as well as very, very odd. A lot of teachers occasionally let the class order and chip in, one by one, for pizza to munch on during class, but not this one. A few friends and I decided to see what she was really made of.
We collected money from peers, sworn to secrecy, to buy pizzas for our whole class.
I ordered the pizzas in her name, but had the cash on hand to pay for it.
The pizzas arrived, with the deliverer proclaiming that "Mrs. ____" (the teacher) had ordered them. The teacher looked flummoxed and panicked.
But within a second, I sprang to my feet and said, "Mrs. _____, it's SO generous of you to buy pizza for the whole class. But I can't do that. Some friends already pooled some money for lunch, and we'll spring for it."
Our teacher had a choice to make in that moment. The whole class was applauding her for ordering pizza for all -- which she hadn't done. She looked at me with a raised eyebrow, accepted delivery, and then paid for the pizza.
She could have let the class eat pizza but let the class pay for it, but I think she's a good person, and she decided that since everything was disrupted anyway, she might as well accept the acclaim of the class for her generosity, even if it wasn't her idea.
She had an in-between choice not available to the landlord of the "Unjust Steward" parable: she could have accepted the applause of relaxing class discipline, but refused the cost of the pizza.
But things were already upset. She did what I probably would have done in her shoes, and took the applause and affection of the crowd. She was a little different from then on; I thought I saw a glint of mischief in her eye after that, and I like to think it was a glint that was always there, but was before suppressed. I suspect she wasn't so married to the order of a traditional "orderly classroom" as we all though, and she welcomed the freedom to do things differently.
Maybe the landlord in the parable felt the same. Maybe he felt freed to function in ways that would make him a "Bad Landlord," but a better human being.
Posted by: Sarah Dylan Breuer | Sep 14, 2010 9:05:00 PM
Thank you so much for the wonderful story!! I am deeply grateful for all the serious struggle and thought that has gone into this, and which helps me in the search for understanding. Blessings!
Posted by: Louise Robson | Sep 15, 2010 12:59:23 PM
Thanks Sarah! I love your take on this parable, and think you are right on target given its proximity to the parable of the forgiving father. Although it can certainly be taken to be literally about wealth, I don't think it is any less likely that could be about forgiveness, and since I get to visit wealth several times this fall anyway, I'm serving forgiveness this week!
Posted by: Alix Pridgen | Sep 18, 2010 5:29:37 PM
And here we are in 2013; it's that time again! I was searching for explanations of this parable for my RE classes next week. Thanks so much for your insight! This is an explanation that rings true and seems so obvious once the cultural details are explained. Thanks!
Posted by: Julie | Sep 15, 2013 5:04:45 PM
It was Bultmann who said it was "insoluble". Thank you for your insights and great blog! Blessings, Lon
Posted by: Lon Rycraft | Sep 18, 2013 11:15:11 AM
Good to read this again and I appreciated the story of the teacher and the pizza. Given the recent vote in the House it seems our society is moving toward a structure which is more immoral than the actions of individual participants, as in Jesus' time.
Posted by: John de Beer | Sep 21, 2013 11:29:47 AM
I think you have done more interpretation and contextualization than this really needs. If the parable is about forgiveness then why does Jesus say in verse 9 - "I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings"? This is not about forgiveness, but about being free with the possessions we have, which are actually God's anyway and which we are improperly using for ourselves. The subsequent verse about not serving two masters is clearly a development of the same theme.
As with the parable of the unjust judge, we are not supposed to look into the righteousness of the protagonists or to look for one-to-one equivalence, but rather to say, "If this is the case here, how much more is the parallel true in the Kingdom of God". They are wry looks at the world that teach us something deep about the Kingdom.
Making the point that we need to forgive others is good of course, but is not central to this story.
Posted by: Andrew | Nov 5, 2013 10:22:19 AM
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