September 19, 2004
"Unjustly Forgiven" - September 19, 2004
Sarah Dylan Breuer, Director of Christian Formation
St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Episcopal Church, Severna Park, Maryland
September 19, 2004; Proper 20, Year C
Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 138; Luke 16:1-13
The parable in today’s gospel has a reputation for being one of the most difficult to understand in Jesus’ ministry. But after spending the better part of two years studying it for my master’s thesis, I came to the conclusion that it’s not as obscure as it might seem, once we get over our resistance to the most obvious interpretation. I’m convinced that the most obvious interpretation comes from looking at precisely what it is that the steward in the parable does, shocking as it is.
In fairly straightforward terms, here’s the plot of the parable:
A very, very rich man lives in a big city (a 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 (ot 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, had they not lost it in payment on a debt. So 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 they pay their exorbitant rent to the landowner. The harvest is never quite enough to pay the rent plus what each family needs, so the family is slipping further and further into debt, working harder and harder to pay what can't be paid – there’s just no way to pay the kind of large debts that accrued under that system of tenant farming. 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.
At the very beginning of the parable, 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 sheep by running after one lost sheep). So, having been fired, the steward is no longer authorized to do anything at all in the master’s name. The farmers from whom the steward 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 kind of behavior is 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 the landowner money, and he tells them 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, the steward’s creative accounting 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, or in a crooked accountant’s deletion of a zero or two from the records.
The farmers think that the steward is still acting with the master’s authority in all of this; 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, by extension, is also.
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.
One of his loyal servants at the estate house breaks the news to him that his ex-steward has told 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 – but remember that the steward was the bearer of that good news. If the landowner wants to keep the crowd’s favor, he’ll have to take the steward back. Mistreat the steward, who brought such good news of the lord’s generous forgiveness, and the crowd might turn on him.
That’s quite a bind the steward has put the landowner in. 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 the steward retires, the farmers who formerly resented him will gladly take him in, if the landowner won’t.
So we know why the steward does what he did, and we know why the landowner did what he did. Here’s the big problem, for most commentators:
Why is Jesus telling this story? Commentators can argue about who exactly is commending the steward in verse 8, when Luke says, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly.” The Greek is ambiguous. It says <i>ho kurios</i>, “the lord” or “the master,” commended him, and that could mean either Jesus or the landowner. But even if you say it was the landowner in the story who commended the steward, you still have to wonder why Jesus told this story, unless Jesus meant to suggest that the dishonest steward in some way had something to teach us.
And make no mistake: What the steward does is clearly dishonest. From a capitalist perspective, he’s guilty of all charges, of taking the landlord’s property and squandering it. It was the reason he was fired in the first place, and it’s what he does after he’s fired and therefore is no longer authorized to do anything, let alone alter bills, in the landowner’s name.
Most commentators who are looking for the point of the parable come 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 difficult position, one in which it seem he couldn’t be reconciled,either to the landowner or 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, Luke’s version of the “Lord's Prayer” includes the helpful category confusion, “forgive us our sins as we forgive the monetary debts (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? For a specific example, why forgive the debts of debtor nations? In America, we could get involved in the efforts of groups like Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation to forgive the debts of developing countries and invest in their welfare for the reason that Bono, U2’s lead singer, cited in his recent appearance on the <i>O'Reilly Factor</i>: 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 leprechauns will then lead us to the land of eternal youth. To paraphrase Nike’s best-known ad campaign, we could just do it.
Or for another example, 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, namely, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” and because we know we’d like forgiveness ourselves.
Or 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 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.
Pretty much every Sunday morning at St. Martin’s, either Tricia or John puts on a stole and stands in front of us doing something rather like what the “unjust steward” in today’s gospel does: declare our debts, whether debts owed to God or to another human being – forgiven. Only they don’t just declare the debt reduced … they declare it erased. Gone. In most cases, they’re not declaring forgiveness of things specifically owed to them. What gives them the right?
Today’s gospel says that Jesus gives them the right. Jesus gives US the right. And furthermore, Jesus’ example gives us the obligation – or, if you prefer, the freedom. Jesus gives a good reason to remain in fellowship (or “in communion,” if you want a more technical term). Jesus gives us a good reason to be gracious. Jesus gives us a good reason to give up any and all scorekeeping.
For what reason? For the good of our soul, because of our of our own sense of being forgiven, for any reason at all. Pick any reason! 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 after he’s been fired, we who have experienced real grace – grace from Jesus, grace in this community – have much better reason to forgive. We’ve got more important things than scorekeeping to think about and act on. We’ve got a mission, and a mission given to us from God. We’ve got the work God has given us to do, to love and serve Him, with gladness and singleness of heart, through Christ our Lord. The time has come to just do it.
Amen, and thanks be to God!
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very good exposition
Posted by: jacob | Sep 22, 2007 7:12:33 AM
You hit the nail on the head! God's mercy trumps worldly justice every time!
Posted by: Malcolm | Sep 21, 2013 6:34:45 PM