Proper 20, Year C
When I was interviewing for my last parish position, I was asked to give the homily at a children's chapel service. I was allowed to pick any texts I wanted for the service, and believe it or not, I elected to do a children's homily on the gospel for this Sunday, commonly known as "The Parable of the Unjust Steward." You can see the homily here, actually.
Was I crazy? Maybe. But I wanted to show that it's possible to get across insights from biblical scholarship that can illuminate difficult texts for people of all ages and backgrounds. And I think that this Sunday's gospel contains a timely and important word that's more than comprehensible when we read the text closely and are willing to set aside some of the presuppositions we tend to bring to the text.
The first presupposition that many people need to set aside is that Jesus' parables are all allegories in which every character represents someone or something -- God, the Christian, Jesus, Satan, or abstract qualities such as virtues. In my opinion, many if not most of Jesus' parables are NOT allegories, and this Sunday's gospel is best read NOT as an allegory.
For example, in what was is the God of Israel, the God whom Jesus proclaimed, like the landowner in the parable? The landowner in the parable is an absentee landlord, living in luxury in the city off the sweat of tenant farmers' brows. The landowner doesn't really know or care about what goes on at the farm as long as the rents come in. Such a view reminds me of the satirical one in the Michelle Shocked song:
God is a real estate developer
with offices 'round the nation
They say one day he'll liquidate his holdings up on high
I say it's all speculation
Is that what we think God is really like -- a distant, uncaring profiteer? Judging from the exorbitant amounts owed by the poor farmers, the landowner is charging obscene amounts for rent, such that the farmers on his land each owe between three and seven YEARS' wages.
Furthermore, the landowner of the parable is not at all like God whom Jesus proclaimed as Father because the landowner has no desire at all to forgive, but is tricked into it by his steward. I'm sorry to say that I've heard a great many sermons over the years in which the preacher suggested that God the Creator wanted not to forgive us but to punish us until Jesus intervened, but that's not an orthodox view. The barest Christian confession has to include that Jesus shares the character of the God of Israel, and if Jesus has to trick God into mercy, then Jesus is not God's servant, let alone God's Son; he is a rebel against God, as Jesus' enemies suggested.
I've also heard lately some other intriguing readings of the parable as allegory, the most intriguing of which had the landowner representing the Roman Empire and the steward the Christian, with the moral of the story being that Christians should live out values of justice and generosity even if the Empire labels those values as deviant. I have to admit I haven't found any of those other allegorical readings persuasive either. For example, if the landowner is the Roman Empire and the steward is a stand-in for any Christian, why do we get the detail at the beginning of the parable that the steward has been fired before he embarks on the emending of bills that results in the peasants' debts being reduced? In what sense are all Christians empowered to pronounce on behalf of the empire as a steward is empowered to pronounce on behalf of the landowner who employs him? And what sense in any case do these allegorical readings make of the sayings Luke places at the parable's close, that people are called to make friends with the poor by means of "mammon of unrighteousness" so that they may be welcomed into eternal homes?
I hope I'm not merely being stubborn in still finding most persuasive the reading of the parable for which I argued in my master's thesis over fifteen years ago (I was only nineteen then, so I'm not as old as that makes me sound):
The landowner is clearly depicted in the parable as someone who cares only about his own privilege and honor.
The steward is clearly depicted in the parable as someone who is concerned primarily with saving his own skin and with not having to do manual labor, such as the ordinary peons (e.g., the tenant farmers) do.
And yet, in this extraordinary story Jesus tells, the steward -- a man who has until this point gained a life of privilege and relative leisure by siding with the wealthy and uncaring absentee landlord -- realizes that in the end his own welfare depends on doing justice for the poor as a matter of urgency, regardless of how it gets done. The landowner, who cares only for his own honor and privilege, discovers that his desires are satisfied more fully and rather surprisingly by going along, however unwillingly, with the current of justice for and generosity toward the poor that his steward set in motion for his own selfish reasons.
The moral of the story stands in stark contrast to something I heard at a recent conference at which folks were discussing relief for the poor. One man said something that many others echoed with slightly different phrasing. He said something like this:
"It doesn't really matter what you do. Make sandwiches and give them to the first people you see. It doesn't have to be a huge thing; it's where your heart is that counts, and if you're trying to help the poor, that's what matters."
I said -- after gulping hard, because I knew saying it wouldn't make me popular in that gathering -- that I think that there are things other than what's in your heart that matter a very great deal.
If I were a mother afraid I would soon be burying my child because of hunger or preventable or curable disease, what was in your heart would bring me little solace -- or little solace compared to the joy I'd have if my child could live.
It matters what you DO.
It matters to those mothers. It matters to those children. What's in your heart as you embark on a well-meaning gesture that won't necessarily change the way the world is matters a great deal to you, and that's only natural. But if I am a mother whose child is in danger, I want you to use not just your heart, but also your brain and your voice and your ears.
I want you to find the very best counsel you can about what will change the world for my child, what will give my child access to good food and clean water, to basic medical care and an elementary education, so that my child has at least half the chance your children have to live to adulthood -- and so our world has a chance to receive the gifts my child has to offer for the building up of the Body of Christ and the fulfillment of God's mission.
And so Jesus, in this Sunday's gospel, sides with the mother so concerned for her child, and for the world in which that child will live or die. Jesus tells a story in which "the master" -- whether the landowner who's going along with justice for the poor because it generates cheering crowds, or the Lord of Life who was present at the moment of Creation, and who wants every child created to have a chance to live and love and engage God's mission in the world -- praises the forgiveness of debts, justice for the poor, however it happens and with whatever motives are involved.
It matters. What's in my heart and yours matters, to be sure. It matters to God. Our hearts are a gift from God, after all.
And it's also true that they weren't God's only gift to us. God gave us brains and voices as well as arms and legs. We privileged people have used them with tremendous effect for generations to place us in our positions of privilege and to consolidate the privilege we have.
And if we are at all uncomfortable with the idea that a politically shrewd and not particularly honest steward should be commended in a story from Jesus for doing more than what we're doing to bring real, tangible relief to the poorest among us, then let us be made uncomfortable. Let's recognize that even this not at all commendable steward can recognize that, interdependent as we are, saving the most vulnerable in this world is saving our own skin, our own heart, our own soul, our own life and what makes it precious, as well.
Please feel free to revisit what I've said before on these texts.
My blog entry on these texts from 2004 is here.
I've also posted sermon I preached on these texts on Proper 20 three years ago.
God, help me to be more effective in work empowered by passion for justice than the steward was in maneuvering to preserve his privilege. I've benefited so much from the unjust order in which I live; help me to undermine it, that all may live.
Thanks be to God!
We must remember that the steward was only reported to be squandering the master's wealth. Those doing the reporting probably had their own motives, most likely self promotion. At this point, the formerly spineless "just doing my job" steward had nothing to lose, so he could finally do what was right. He was finally free.
To the surprise of those doing the reporting, he was admired by both the master and those who needed his help the most.
Posted by: Terrence Taylor | Sep 22, 2007 10:56:48 PM
also, that forgiveness turned out to be "good business." to the surprise of the Master (but not to the surprise of God).
Posted by: diane | Sep 24, 2007 1:08:36 PM
So delighted to hear the great news…
God bless you!
Posted by: Kelly | Oct 11, 2007 3:07:22 AM
Thanks for the help with this text
Posted by: Ann | Sep 3, 2010 2:26:43 PM
I truly appreciated your reframing of the parable. In my retelling today, I used your framework and called the landowner Mr. RICHard MANson, and the steward, Joshua. People were challenged to think, "there is no good reason not to forgive." Thank you for the help with my proclamation!
Posted by: Bonnie Wilcox | Sep 22, 2013 2:24:24 PM