Parable of the Unjust Steward
A Sermon by Lay Reader, Eleanor Childs
29 September 2013
Today’s reading is one of the parables Jesus told to his disciples. We know that the Pharisees were hovering in the background somewhere because the verses that follow our passage say that they sneered at Jesus after he’d told it. Parables, as we know, were a visual and concrete form of teaching, which was very participative. Their vivid imagery from everyday life lingered in the mind and stimulated people to do their own thinking and come to their own conclusions.
At a casual reading it would appear from the parable that Jesus was commending a crooked manager. The man had been entrusted with his boss’s estate and accounts and he had been mismanaging them and had been found out. He’d been told his job was over and to turn in the books. The future was looking pretty bleak for to be jobless in that society, was to be destitute. So, before he turned in the account books he set about doctoring the figures. By reducing on paper the amounts owed to his boss he made good friends out of his boss’s debtors, useful friends who would help him out when he was jobless. The boss whom he was cheating was probably an absentee landlord, of which there were many in Palestine. Probably what the debtors owed was rent, which was often paid to a landlord, not in money, but in kind. It was often an agreed proportion of the produce of the part of the estate which had been rented. Here it is olives and wheat. In falsifying the amounts owed to the owner, the manager was, of course, further cheating his boss.
One thing to note is that the boss sounds a very considerate, if not compassionate man, for he has not thrown the manager in jail, nor sold him and his family as slaves, which would be expected in this sort of case. And the manager must have been counting on the boss’s constant generous nature in order to proceed with the scam. But the manager is a strange model to hold up to us. What exactly is Jesus commending to us? It’s certainly not the manager’s dishonesty, that’s clear from v10-12 and from Jesus’s teaching in general. What is commended is the manager’s shrewdness. But what is so commendable about this shrewdness, which at first sight I would call corruption? I think the first thing to notice is that Jesus is talking about ‘people of this world’ who do not acknowledge God, and about their behaviour ‘to their own kind.’ v8 ‘For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.’- that is, God’s people. Jesus is not suggesting that ‘people of the light’, that is, God’s people copy this behaviour, but there is something they can learn from it. This manager, without faith in God or moral principles, had foresight. He’d made a realistic estimation of his own circumstances and abilities and options, he’d counted on the compassionate nature of his boss not to further punish him, and then he made provision for his future in practical ways. He’d seen the writing on the wall and knew what was awaiting him. He was long-sighted, realistic and practical. He used his master’s money to make friends for himself, friends who could provide for his future. That’s the first thing his disciples can learn from the ways of the world. The manager faces a scary future, but he makes provision for it. He’s not a fool. He knows what is best for himself. Jesus knew his people, the Jews were wilfully resisting God’s ways, going to reject his Messiah, making their own plans and heading for a dire future – Jerusalem was flattened by the Romans in AD 70 as Jesus warned elsewhere in the gospels. If his people are shrewd, like the manager, they will see where their behaviour is leading and will do something about it. This is the first thing the parable suggests.
Secondly, the manager uses worldly wealth to make friends for himself. The advice ‘Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves’ can sound self-serving and manipulative. And it obviously was in the case of the crooked manager, though it benefitted the debtors enormously. But not nearly as self-serving as other uses of money, e.g. for personal luxury, or to gain power. Jesus indicates that God’s people should be alert to use money to benefit others. Scripture is scathing about those who enrich themselves at the expense of the poor as our OT lesson this morning indicates, and God’s people have always been exhorted to care for and provide for the poor. It was, in any way a Jewish belief that charity given to poor people would stand to a person’s credit in the world to come. The friends we are to make with our material wealth are not the fickle friends that the prodigal son made with his money, but friends in need who will welcome us into the eternal world and remain our friends eternally. Jesus seems to be saying that if his hearers really believed in the hereafter as the money-loving Pharisees, who were listening, claimed to, they should demonstrate their faith by using their money to befriend and help others, who would be at heaven’s door to welcome them home.
Jesus had a lot to say about money and its use. It was people’s attitude to and use of money that often indicated what they really believed, rather than their professed religious beliefs.
In v 10 & 11 he states that how we fulfil a small task is the best indicator of whether we should be entrusted with a bigger one. There was something of this belief in the public’s response to the MPs expenses scandal: if we can’t trust them to be honest in filing expense claims, why should we trust them with the jobs they do. Jesus extends this principle even further. If you’re not trustworthy in handling money, who will trust you with true riches, which are spiritual? It’s a sobering thought that our attitude to money can seriously affect our spiritual life. If we are not trustworthy in handling earthly wealth, we need not expect to enjoy fellowship with God, and experience his love and peace in our hearts, which are spiritual riches, true riches. Then he extends the principle even further – to eternity, if you like: ‘If you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property who will give you property of your own?’ Here on earth we are really only stewards or managers of what God has given us. When we die we can’t take it with us. But in God’s eternal kingdom we will receive what is really and eternally ours. There awaits us an eternal inheritance, promised to us in and through Christ. But what we get there depends on how we used the things of which we were stewards on earth.
And Jesus finishes this teaching about foresight and the use of money with a very stark challenge: you cannot serve both God and money. What does he mean by that? Surely we don’t serve money? I’d suggest that is precisely what we do in a consumer society. Money drives just about everything in our world – politics, civic life, the marketplace, our life-style. It affects every area of our life and most of our personal choices. ‘That’s life,’ we may say, but it isn’t life as God intended. Maybe we can understand Jesus’s meaning better when we consider his illustration. ‘No servant can serve 2 masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.’ In Jesus’ time many servants were household slaves. They belonged exclusively to their master. There was little possibility of doing 2 jobs, as many people today do, and if it had been attempted the servant would have been worn to a frazzle trying to please 2 bosses, and would soon have resented the claims of one or the other. Jesus is saying that serving God can’t be a part time activity. Serving God must dictate our choices and how we spend our money. And not just our money. All our resources come from God. Our time, our abilities, our property are all gifts from God. Do we put the same time and energy and forethought into pursuing spiritual objectives, such as the growth of his kingdom, as we do material ones? We have to use money, but we must not pursue it for its own sake or for the luxury, power and prestige it brings. No, we must use it honestly, responsibly and in the service of others, as we use all the resources God has given us because serving God and doing his will is our clear priority. What a challenge to us in our consumer society!
Jesus has sometimes been dismissed as impractical, a dreamy visionary, unrealistic. That is not the person we meet in the gospel. Here we encounter a radical, someone who came to turn the world upside down, or rather, right side up. Someone who commended foresight and practicality. Someone who couldn’t be bought or co-opted into the existing scheme of things. Someone who challenges our cultural values and insists that God must come first in our lives.