Stacks Image 5401
Parable of the Dishonest Steward—Eugene Burnand
Parable of the Dishonest Manager

Luke 16:1-13
October 25, 2015

In this parable from Luke there is no hero. Everyone is crooked. Every character schemes, cheats and connives. A good Bible story.

The steward is praised, not for redeeming himself by coming clean, and being honest, but rather for being even more tricky and streetwise than ever and the admiration of the rich man is like the admiration of one con artist for another. This parable certainly holds up the problems and the struggles of the marginalised and it asks how they survive in a hostile world governed by invisible elites. So then it would be fair to ask: how do the marginalised survive in our society when they are surrounded by people with more power than what they have?
Also, how do they cope with government and bureaucracy? All of the commentaries I read, agreed it’s a very convoluted story with few answers. It appears only in Luke’s gospel. Luke must have included this parable in his book for some good reason. What could that reason have been?

Let’s now look at the social setting of the scene in the parable: I want you to listen for what you recognise in this story. What is familiar to you? What rings familiar?

The most common assumption about this scene is that it represents small village life. The master is an absentee landlord, whose manager, the steward, manages his estates and the debtors are the peasants, the poor people who farm the masters land and tend the orchards. They are also the tenants. We know that the landlord is wealthy because of the large amounts of money people owe. These numbers are used in the story to help the audience place the absentee landlord in his appropriate social class. He belongs to the ruling elite who control the land and the lives of the people who work for him, or who rent from him.

We know the reason the steward has been fired because the master heard rumours. These rumours were likely pertaining to incompetence, misuse of information, negligence and downright swindling. All of the above were grounds for dismissal.

It is worth noting that the dishonest steward had many ways to cheat. Every time he bought or sold something he will have made a cut and all of his profits are off the record. So when the steward draws up the rent contracts he will likely always receive a little something under the table.The steward occupies a powerful position – however, not as high up as the land owner. The steward is also at the mercy of the renters – the peasants.

He is constantly susceptible to backstabbing from the disgruntled debtors or tenants. The steward is always caught in a crossfire between the master’s greed and excessive demands on the one hand and the tenants and the debtor’s endless complaints on the other. Nothing changes this basic situation. At any moment the steward can be dismissed at the whim of the master. Indeed, the master hears anonymous rumours that this steward has been wasteful. At this time it is likely that profits are down – as long as the steward kept the profits up there would be no questions asked of him.

But something is amiss and the steward is called to account.

Many commentators say that the steward’s silence before the master is a virtual confession of guilt. At this point we might have some sympathy for the steward, as he is never given further opportunity to defend himself. The steward is in a very precarious situation. He needs a job. He rejects begging because it is not honourable and he rejects digging because it is too hard for someone accustomed to white-collar work. One commentary that I read said the steward was doomed the moment he lost his job, because he would never be able to compete with those doing hard labour.

The peasants have worked hard all their lives and the steward won’t be able to keep up. Having been accustomed to regular meals he will adapt poorly to begging. He is not accustomed to irregular meals interspersed with long periods of hunger. As he loses his strength and can accomplish less and less, he, like Lazarus and countless others, will die from the complications of malnutrition and disease. His dismal from the stewardship is a death sentence that has nothing to do with his refusal to accept honest work.

However, the steward understands the society in which he lives, he understands the bind he is in. His solution is to act quickly before the word of his dismissal becomes public and the workers become aware that he has no authority. The steward goes to the people, to the workers and he reduces the amounts owed to the master. In this way the steward shifts from being a representative of the wealthy owner to align himself instead with people, who in the future, out of a sense of gratitude would provide him with hospitality.

The master will have to go along with these new arrangements, for to cancel them once the debtors know of them, would leave the master with angry tenants. It would be like someone lowering your mortgage and then putting it back up again, higher than it was. If that happened you understand the trouble it would cause. We will understand only too well when the interest rates go back up in Canada which eventually they must.

We are at the point in the story where we understand that both the landlord and the steward are shrewd. We are not sure as to whether the manager has always been charging too much rent for the land, or if the steward had been overcharging at his end of things. In some ways the steward looks better than the wealthy landowner, because the steward reduced the amount owed by the peasants to the rich and in doing that, he acted justly. The steward had been the manager of injustice and he turned that around even if it was for his own sake.

At this point, Luke appears to want us to feel that everything is turning out right. The story is very convoluted. We are at the place where we might ask: What is really going on and how do we bring this story into our context and make some sense of it?

We can assume that Jesus told the parable for a reason and so we believe that in it, there is a message for us. It appears to me that we are being called to have at least an occasional life-altering experience. This is a life-altering event for the steward and I suppose for the master too. It doesn’t appear that God is angry with them. (Remember this is a time when God’s anger is a pretty common view.)

Perhaps this is a turning point in the people’s search for justice. It brought to mind for me this experience: When I was in seminary part of my class work was work in a shelter for women and children. I became friends with a young woman named Jackie. Jackie had three small children and they had been through a lot. At that time, she was in the process of leaving her boyfriend. When I saw her again three years later, she was living in a large city, and going to school. She had her children with her. We made plans to get together and when I arrived at her home she was sitting on the floor going through three large cartons of hair care products. I said to her, “Where did you get this stuff?” She replied, “My ex-boyfriend dropped this off, and he said, “Here is your child support payment for the month. It’s the best I can do. And, remember, its stolen goods.”

I said, “Jackie, you have to call the police.” She looked at me as though I had lost my mind and said, “Oh sure and how will we eat this month? The police will take all of this away and probably charge me with possession of stolen goods. No, I am not calling the police. I am going to sell this stuff to my friends and we are going to eat. Don’t tell me to go to court looking for some kind of settlement. That won’t happen.”

I was embarrassed at my naiveté – that even for a moment I had thought she should call the police. The police do good work, but I also understood after a moment of getting my thoughts together that this wasn’t the time to involve them, So, I had tea with her and bought some hair care products for myself and for some friends and went on my way, promising to return before long.

Jackie’s story reflects on the gospel. Jackie’s story, like the steward’s story is about corruption, but in order for there to be some sense of justice, it appears that corruption will be a reality in our world. Jackie was like the steward; they both knew what they had to do in order to survive. It’s important to remember that what we see happening around us is not always as it might seem. Our moral judgment always kick in when we hear these sorts of stories, but I don’t believe that for the most part there is an issue with how Jackie found a way to survive by selling stolen hair care products. Perhaps that is one truth that we learn from the parable: In a time when the people believed in God’s power and anger, it appears that Yahweh is not angry at the people, but what he really cares about is our search for justice and that we will take opportunities to grow and change, when we are confronted with issues we don’t quite understand.

The parable and the story about the young mother invite us to realise that we need to discern carefully what we see going on in the world around us. We need to be critical thinkers and we must not assume too much.The young woman, Jackie, might have been caught selling a stolen product and if that story had appeared in the newspaper, what would you have thought? Like the parable, we might not have received the whole story. And again, like the parable, it is not a story understood at a single glance. It takes time and experience and compassion to understand the implications of all the players.

It will be like that as we journey together through the interim ministry. There will be moments when we discover that not all is as it seems. You will say, “What exactly is Sharon doing here?” and I will say, “What, exactly is happening here?” In the midst of these dynamics, we will attempt to create new opportunities, new ways of being in our relationship with God, with the Creator Spirit and with that presence that the church nurtures within us and that, is the spirit that calls us to continually make new.

We want the spirit to nudge us in ways that will allow respectful, life giving conversations. We want to step outside the parable and find ways to have honest forthright conversations with one another, regardless of the topic, regardless of what we feel is right and wrong. In our interim time, we will take time to practice listening and hearing one another and in that process, we might build trust where justice, peace and hope will prevail.

The parable is meant to pull us into relationship with one another. It asks us to think about the possibilities that are readily available if we are willing to explore and create a new way of being in a relationship together.

That is what interim is about. It gives us the opportunity to make new our church community. You might be thinking, well there is nothing wrong with my church community, why don’t you leave it alone? That might be very true, but nonetheless we have the opportunity to explore a new way and that is truly grace. Not everyone gets the opportunity to make new, or to renew/reshape old ways of being.

This reading from Luke may be one of the most outrageous parables Jesus ever told, and the church has been struggling to understand it from the beginning. In the fourth century, St. Augustine wondered whether it had been added to Luke’s gospel by someone else, but who would add something so strange and puzzling?

But that is what we want – challenge, strange and puzzling – and the opportunity to have a glimpse of the grace filled time the Spirit has offered us - a time to examine what it is we see happening around us and to take that experience and create it, mould it, into what works for us and for others.

Like the steward, we can push at the edges too and take risks we wouldn’t normally take.

This morning we might reflect on our church edges. We might want to reflect on our personal edges. What are they? What’s on the edge of our church community and on our own lives that we don’t see? What shall we create in the newness of this opportunity with one another and the spirit?
Sharon Ferguson-Hood