No audio transcript available.
18th Sunday after Pentecost
1 Timothy 2.1-10
Luke 16.1-13 Which side are you on?
I said last week that the familiarity of the parables in our Gospel reading made it difficult not to bore you all to sleep. This week, we have the parable usually known as the Unjust Steward. This time, the problem is that nobody seems to know what to make of it. There have been as many different theories of what Jesus meant as there have been biblical scholars writing about it. Many involve theological gymnastics to avoid saying that Jesus praised dishonesty. As one of the most influential interpreters of the parable has said, “Much as commentators disagree as to the meaning of the parable of the Steward, all are agreed as to the embarrassment it has caused.”
If you’re not sure what to make of this parable, take some comfort – it looks as if Luke wasn’t either! The general consensus seems to be that the section of Luke which we read today is really in two parts. The first is the parable itself, ending midway through verse 8. Then there are at least four interpretations offered:
- The children of the light need to act more shrewdly.
- Christians should make friends by “dishonest wealth.”
- If you’re not faithful with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with the true riches?
- You cannot serve two masters.
Let’s look at the parable itself first. Given the multiple interpretations on offer, I’ll settle on just one. Other interpretations are equally valid and offer interesting and thought-provoking possibilities, but that will have to wait for another sermon! The wonder of Jesus’ parables is that they can often work on a number of levels, this one more than some of the others.
On the face of it, we have a simple story about a rich man who fires his manager for squandering his property, and the about-to-be-sacked manager sets about looking after his own future by reducing the debts of the rich man’s debtors. Surprisingly, the rich man commends the manager for his shrewdness in doing this.
This isn’t the only parable where Jesus uses a less than admirable character to make a point. The Widow and the Unjust Judge later in Luke 18, and the parable of the friend asking for help at night in Luke 11 come to mind.
We also need to look at this parable in its context in Luke’s Gospel. In the previous chapter there were the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, followed by the parable of the Prodigal and his Brother, which has been skipped by the Lectionary. That’s unfortunate because the parable of the Shrewd Manager serves as a bridge between the stories of the Prodigal Son and the Rich Man and Lazarus, which is next week’s Gospel. Like the prodigal in the preceding story, this dishonest manager has “squandered” what was entrusted to him. And, like the story that follows, this parable begins with the phrase, “There was a rich man”.
Although our dishonest manager does not repent (like the prodigal) or act virtuously (like Lazarus), he nonetheless does something with the rich man’s wealth that reverses the existing order of things. In Luke, reversals of status are at the heart of what happens when Jesus and the kingdom of God appear. The proud are “scattered” (which interestingly translates the same word for “squandered”: dieskorpisen). The powerful are brought down and the lowly lifted; the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty, to quote Mary’s Song of Praise in chapter 1. (1:51-53).
Throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ ministry invokes the biblical concept of Jubilee and debt forgiveness. In addition to the Mary’s Magnificat, the gospel proclaimed to tax collectors such as Zacchaeus included economic restitution. When Zacchaeus restores what he had “defrauded” four-fold, he’s restored also to community, as proclaimed by Jesus, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:8).
Much of the debate about today’s parable is around whether the master represents God, or if Jesus himself is commending the action of the steward. But we need to remember that some parts of all the parables may have symbolic meaning, while other parts are just elements to complete the story.
Jesus told this parable in the context of his own time. To us, it looks like a paid employee gets the sack for incompetence and then rips off his employer to avoid having to find a new job. But in the economic reality of Israel in the first century, the picture was very different.
Rich landlords were often loan-sharks, using exorbitant interest rates to amass more land and wealth, and to disinherit peasants of their family land, in direct violation of biblical covenantal law. Wealthy landlords in Jesus’ day created ways to charge interest under other guises, often hiding interest by rolling it into the principal. Often the peasants were trapped by a poor harvest or similar misfortune into borrowing from their wealthier neighbours, and ended up losing their small-holding and becoming tenant farmers, and sometimes even being sold into slavery, along with their families, to pay off the debt.
The rich man or “lord” as he’s called in v.3, along with his steward, were probably both exploiting desperate peasants. It was common practice for stewards, like the notorious tax-collectors employed by the Romans, to charge an additional amount on top of the amount owed to the lord. Since the debtors would have been illiterate, this was an easy way to make money.
We sometimes forget that charging interest on loans was forbidden in the Bible because it exploited the vulnerable poor. But when we come across a steward who actually reduces poor people’s debts by 20% to 50% -probably reducing their debts to the original amount borrowed, without hidden interest charges – we judge him harshly.
When he reduced the payments, the steward may have been writing off his own cut of the interest. Or, more likely given the size of the discount, he may have been doing what the law of God commands, namely forgiving all the hidden interest in the contracts. If the rich landlord was a Jew (the text doesn’t say), he would know the Torah teaching against interest. The rich man may suddenly have realised that he needed at least to appear to be observing covenantal laws, and in any case would have gained great honour in light of his seeming generosity, so, reluctantly or otherwise, commended his sacked steward.
Given the reality of the times, then, it might be said that the steward, rather than being unjust, decided to switch sides, from the rich elite to the exploited, impoverished peasants, who made up the majority of the population, and from whose ranks he had probably risen. Traditionally “being faithful to what is another’s” has been taken to mean being faithful to what belonged to the rich landlord. But the opposite might be equally plausible – that Jesus was talking about being faithful to what rightfully belonged to the peasants who were being disinherited of their land?
Throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is on the side of the poor, the marginalised and the outcast. This would fit well with the reading from Amos today.
Amos was a prophet during the 8th century BC, at a time of relative peace and prosperity but also of neglect of YHWH’s laws. He came from humble beginnings, at a time of increased disparity between the very wealthy and the very poor. His message was that behaving justly is much more important than religious ritual. In our reading today he railed against merchants who couldn’t wait for the Sabbath to be over so as to get on with business and cheat their customers. Units of measurement were not standardised, which made it easy to cheat the illiterate.
It’s worth remembering that the Sabbath day was not primarily about a time for worship, but rather was originally a justice law designed to give rest to all of society – not just to the property owner, but also “your ox and your donkey, and your livestock, and the resident alien in your towns” (Deuteronomy 5:14).
These laws were to create a society in which all life can thrive. In these sabbatical laws, the poor and wild animals are provided with food (Exodus 23:10-11), slaves are given release to freedom after six years (Deuteronomy 15:12-18), those in deep debt are forgiven their debts (Deuteronomy 15:1-11), and so on.
But in Amos’ day, the justice sense of the laws had been lost. The phrase “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals” refers to the practice of enslaving those in debt, even those who owed only a pair of sandals. This is a long way from a just social order in which debts are forgiven. “Selling the sweepings of the wheat” was prohibited because these were to be left for the poor after the harvest.
It may have been that Jesus was remembering the prophetic words of Amos when he told his parable. It was certainly a matter that was close to Jesus’ heart as he spread his message of God’s inclusive love. It’s also important today, when there’s a similar and growing disparity worldwide between a small, very wealthy elite and the increasing numbers of humanity who are falling into poverty even in the developed countries.
God’s law operates in at least two ways. It sets out a “civil” purpose – to create a more civil society. It also has a “theological” purpose – to remind human beings of their sin and that even the most just people need grace and forgiveness. Doing justice is not a way to earn God’s grace. But it is an essential and inevitable outworking of God’s grace in the lives of all believers.
Most of us today would feel that we’re clearly not the people that Amos and Jesus were referring to. Few of us would consciously act unjustly, and we’re horrified by news of the many great injustices people around the world are suffering. But justice and injustice are also systemic.
When a person participates in systems that create a more just social order, they are “doing justice.” On the other hand, when we participate in systems that create a less just social order, we’re “doing injustice.” Which means that basically everyone is already both doing justice and doing injustice. This is because everyone participates in many systems, about which we’re usually unaware. Some of those systems create a more just social order, some maintain unjust social structures, and some do a little of each.
As far as we’ve been able to, here at St Mary’s we’ve chosen to buy Fair Trade goods for the supplies like tea and coffee that we use. But it can be very difficult to know if things we buy, like clothes or electrical goods, were made in well-run factories providing a living income for the workers, or in sweat-shops and dangerous workplaces which exploit the poor. Unknowingly, we can buy goods whose production causes serious environmental degradation and further impoverishes poor people in other parts of the world. Being a conscientious consumer isn’t easy.
This brings us to the final verses of our Gospel reading today, which in our time may be the most challenging of all. Jesus personifies wealth using the word “Mammon,” to warn about the danger wealth poses as a god or idol. Look around, and you will see that Mammon is alive and well, and prospering in a market-based economy near you.
I’ve acquired several books about economics, written by economists for lay people like me. Most of the authors, although well-known names and highly qualified in economics, could be called economic heretics, because they question and criticise the bases on which the present day economy is built. As I’ve been researching the issues of climate change and social justice, I’ve delved into areas that impinge on those issues, trying to understand how we got into the mess we’re in globally.
I came to the conclusion that most of the serious problems we face – climate change, environmental degradation, increasing polarisation of wealth, wars, the increasing number of refugees worldwide, and so on – all came from the same source. Basically the ideology on which our worldwide economy and civilisation is based is deeply flawed. For something so powerful, few know its name – neo-liberal economics. We could just as well call it “Mammon”.
There are increasing numbers of prominent Christians who’ve come to the same conclusion well ahead of me and from whom I’ve learnt a lot. But it’s not just on environmental issues that Christian leaders are increasingly speaking out against the consumerism that’s so promoted in our culture. It’s also because it’s in direct conflict with the teaching of Jesus. We’re encouraged to spend, spend, spend, because, we told, that’s how we’ll find happiness. If we haven’t got enough to get the things we’re told we should want – and not just things, but also experiences – we should go into debt. Our current economic “religion” is structured around debt — including ecological debt owed to future generations.
But as the 12 Step Programs like AA tell us, that’s “having more and more of what doesn’t work”. Having stuff doesn’t make us happy. Following Jesus’ teaching leads to a fulfilment that no amount of consumption can bring.
So maybe it’s good to keep the personalised name of Mammon as a reminder of how a financial system itself can function as an idol or “religion”.
Jesus was reviving community life by reviving biblical covenantal economic life, forgiving debts and giving people new hope. In Luke, the joy of the Gospel is the joy of God’s healing of relationships, including economic relationships. Maybe like the steward who changed sides, we should use our money to promote justice and to build loving relationships and community, in the sure knowledge that such is the kingdom of God.