September 18, 2016
18th Sunday After Pentecost
The Rev Rod Sprange
The Unjust Steward
When I came to Canada in 1967, I was surprised to discover many cultural differences to those I was used to in England. I remember, not long after arriving, being invited to a party for 8 o'clock in the evening. I arrived at the address about 7:55, then walked around the block until it was 8 pm. I then went and knocked on the door. No answer. I waited a little while then knocked again a little louder. After a while I heard bare feet pattering down the wooden floors of the hall, the door opened a little bit and my friend poked his face around the door. His hair was very wet - obviously he had just come form the shower. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “I’m here for the party”. “Well I didn’t expect you yet, people will be coming after 9”. “But the invitation says 8” “Yes, that means after 9, but you’d better come on in. I just have to finish getting dressed and prepare for the party, make yourself at home”.
After 49 years I still haven’t figured out the expected protocol on this - I like it when the invitation says 7 pm for 7:30 I can handle that.
Understanding different cultural norms is a concern that looms large when we try to understand the meaning of many of Jesus’s parables - today’s about the Unjust Steward is a prime example of this difficulty and has probably led to many misleading commentaries and sermons.
The way business was done in rural Palestine in the first century, is rather different than the way business is practised in the west in 2016. So when we read these texts it is good to have an experienced guide help us better understand the meaning behind these very creative stories that Jesus told.
I have a favourite guide for the parables, and that is Kenneth Bailey. I particularly like his double book “Poet and Peasant” and “Through Peasant Eyes”. Bailey spent a considerable time in the middle east living in small villages. He would tell the local village people a parable then watch their reactions and ask them what they thought it meant. He has also studied many of the eastern translations of the New Testament and the works of eastern theologians. This together with his careful work in understanding ancient literary forms has given him many insights into what Jesus wanted us to discover - about God, Jesus, the Kingdom of God and out relationship to God and one another.
In today’s Gospel reading from Luke we heard two linked two passages. The parable of the Steward and then a poem on God and Mammon (wealth). Bailey is convincing in showing that these should not be treated as dealing with one subject, but approached as two discrete teachings.
Given the complexity of each and our limited sermon time, I will deal in detail with the parable. As for the poem on God and Mammon I will just give you a summary of the teaching.
The poem asks if a dishonest person can be trusted with God’s truth. Clearly if we love wealth and power and comfort too much we cannot love God with our whole heart and mind and strength and soul. These things become false God’s, idols and we can only serve one God.
The parable of the Unjust Steward is not an easy story for us to understand. I spent an hour and half in heated debate about its meaning with a preaching colleague on Friday. I wish I could say we ended up in full agreement. But we did have a good time, andI think it achieved what Jesus sets out to do in all of the parables. It made us think more deeply about the nature of God and God’s Kingdom and God’s relationship to human kind.
At first reading (maybe second and third too), it sounds as though Jesus is praising shady and underhanded business practices. Unfortunately the way many commentators have presented the parable makes it seem as though God acts is complicit in these dealings.
Bailey has a rather different take on the meaning of the parable than many commentators and backs up his position with what are for me compelling arguments and facts. This sermon is based on Bailey’s work.
We first need to understand how business was conducted in Palestine in the first century CE. A land owner would be a wealthy and influential man in the community. He would be concerned about his position in the community and the honour of his name. He would rent out his land to others who would work the land and in return pay an agreed upon amount of the produce to the landowner after the harvest was brought in. But the tenants would have incurred this debt once the contract was signed. The land owner would usually hire an agent or estate manager (steward) to handle these transactions with the tenants. The manager would determine what the owner wanted for the use of the land and then negotiate the final price. Both the tenant and the owner would have to agree on the final price before the contract was signed. The manager would be paid by the land owner but also expect to receive a commission from the tenant. So if the tenant was producing olive oil - he would pay the landowner in barrels of oil. If growing crops, he would pay in grain and the payment would be due once the harvest was in. On a bad year, the tenant would end up paying a greater percentage of his crop than in a good year.
Bailey makes it clear that the landowner would know exactly how much each tenant owed him for the use of the land.
With this background let’s look at the parable.
People in the community have been telling the land owner that his estate manager (the steward) was mismanaging the landowners estate. The owner calls him in and asks him “What is this I have been hearing about you” This open ended question was a ploy to get the culprit talking too much, as he wouldn’t know how much his master knew. But the Steward is a clever fellow and wisely keeps quiet, even though his silence will confirm his guilt. The land owner tells him he is dismissing him and to turn in his account books.
At this point the audience would expect the steward to start making all sorts of excuses hoping to keep his position. But our fellow keeps quiet. He is probably very relieved that the owner isn’t going to have him sent to prison. He realizes that he is lucky that his master, while justified in sacking him, is merciful in not taking it further. And he knows his master well enough to know he doesn’t like excuses. Better to leave well enough alone.
At this point only the steward and the landowner know he has been fired. As far as other’s are concerned he still has the authority to act for the owner. But what will happen when word get’s out. He knows no one else will hire him, and he hasn’t the strength to do manual labour, and he is not prepared to become a beggar. That he even considered these two humbling options is to his credit.
He comes up with a plan. But the plan is possible only because the steward knows his master to be an honourable and well respected man in the community, and he has recently seen evidence that he is a very merciful man, as he didn’t have him jailed.
The steward quickly, before word got out, summoned each tenant in turn (making it sound as though he still carried the authority of his office) then he offered to reduce the amount owed by the tenant. These reductions were considerable amounts - probably equivalent to what a labourer could earn in a year and a half.
The tenant would assume that the manager had convinced the landowner to reduce the amounts. He wouldn’t have the authority to do so on his own account. Perhaps the crops weren’t coming along as well as most years. The tenants would be ecstatic and readily agree to write in the new number. The manager would be a local hero based on the assumption that he had re-negotiated these huge discounts for them. So that when they eventually heard he was out of work they would welcome him into their homes. He would get taken care of.
When the steward turns in his accounts, the landowner quickly realizes what he has been up to. He has made both himself and the landowner look very good in the eyes of the men of the village, the landowner praised for his generosity and the steward for his ability to convince the landowner to offer the reductions. The landowner would be reluctant to risk his good standing in the village by arguing that he hadn’t agreed to this. To do so would cause him distress and loss of face as well be disruptive to the life of the village.
Although it has cost him a lot, the landowner realizes how street smart the steward has been, and congratulates him on his cleverness in assuring his self preservation, which is based on the steward’s recognition of the good qualities of the landowner and his merciful character.
So what can we learn from this unusual story.
It is always good, when looking at excerpts from the Bible to consider the context. Including what comes before the particular passage. According to Luke, Jesus told this parable right after the story of the ‘The Prodigal Son’. Bailey notes these parallels between these two parables.
- The son throws himself on the mercy of his father; the steward on his master
- Both son and steward betray a trust
- Neither son nor steward offer excuses
- Steward and son both experience extraordinary mercy from their superiors. No jail for the steward and no punishment for the son for wasting his family’s assets; and
- In both stories there is a missing final scene. We don’t know the response of the older son (will he go in to the banquet) or the final result of the stewards act, will the villages take him in as he hopes.
The first story was about the gospel and outcasts - the second is about the coming of the Kingdom and looking towards the end of the age. But the character of God is consistent.
This parable warns us about the crisis that faces us with the coming of God’s Kingdom. We all should know we are sinful people. But this parable tells us God is both just and merciful. There will be a day of reckoning, our only hope is to put all our trust in God’s mercy. The Landowner dismissed the unjust steward, but didn’t send him to jail - and later when the steward places his trust on the landowners merciful character the Landowner alone pays the high price for the steward’s salvation. Does this sound at all familiar?
We know we are sinners. God knows all our sins. God isn’t interested in our excuses, God knows us better than we know ourselves. God wants us to be open and trust God. We know that Jesus Christ won the promise of our salvation, at the cost of his life. We need to come before God with an open and contrite heart. Salvation, God’s Kingdom and eternal life are pure acts of God’s grace, unearned and unmerited.
We need to recognize and offer thanks and praise for God’s abundant generosity, love and mercy. In deep humility and gratitude we should pray for the desire and strength to change, out of love for God.
In the confession we pray “...for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us, that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the Glory of your name. Amen