IMAGE: Marinus van Reymerswaele, 1490–1546. Parable of the Unjust Steward. Wikimedia Commons.
This post is part of the ON THE WAY sermon series at St Mark’s Anglican Church, Casino July/October 2022
Gospel: Luke 16:1–9
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and [false/hostile] charges* were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’
Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’
So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’
And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
[Vss 10–13: Later commentary and additions by the tradition:
“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”]
* διαβάλλω 1 aor. pass. διεβλήθην; pf. pass. 3 sg. διαβέβληται (Just., D. 10, 1) (s. βάλλω, διάβολος; trag., Hdt. et al.; pap, LXX, Joseph.) to make a complaint about a pers. to a third party, bring charges, inform either justly or falsely. [BDG]
Another excerpt from the Good News according to Luke.
Another slap in the face for respectable religion.
What exactly are we supposed to do with a Gospel like that?
How is it good news?
Who would ever employ a Christian bookkeeper or sales manager, if this is how they operate?
It is rare that a lectionary passage sends me to my books, but this one did.
Fortunately, I remembered that a colleague and friend (Brandon Scott) had written a brief commentary on this parable in his delightful little book: Re-Imagine the World: An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus.
At the start of his brief commentary, Brandon raises two really fundamental points for us to keep in mind:
- The master in this story is not a metaphor for God. (Indeed, God is never mentioned in this story as Jesus first told it.)
- The economic system presumed by the parable is not capitalism.
Those are both very important insights.
First of all, like many other parables told by Jesus, this is not a religious story. It is simply a story that draws its material from the way that stuff happens in everyday life. Systems are crooked. People are corrupt. Bad stuff happens. Life goes on. God is in there. Somewhere. So are we.
Secondly, this was an ancient agrarian society where traditional patterns of land ownership were being displaced by large-scale commercial farms owned by wealthy absentee landlords (what an interesting word that is). In that system, the rich got richer and the regular folk were squeezed. (To use a polite term.)
This is the world of the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our debts …
In that world, things look like this, according to an influential piece of social modelling by Gerhard Lenski:
Governing class (3%)
Priests (2%–but 15% of the land)
The only movement is downwards. No-one ever goes up in this system.
As Brandon Scott observed, “to dig” was to work in the mines – and be dead within the year. While to beg, was a fate worse than death.
So all that may help us get inside the story with first-century eyes.
But then what do we see?
Everyone in this story is from the elite.
They are all wealthy, educated, literate and have some agency.
Someone has given the master a bad report about the manager.
The master decides to commission an audit.
A performance review!
But what are the KPIs?
The manager sets about his plan.
He is quite clever. In the circumstances.
He gives all the major customers a HUGE discount on their bills.
He had the discretion to do this.
None of the customers questioned the process.
Eventually the master hears.
And he is impressed!
Not outraged, but impressed:
“This guy is a freaking good manager”
He has been making a very nice profit for the master.
He has even secured the long-term goodwill of the major clients with a massive discount.
The audit report suggests the manager is doing just fine!
The master cannot cancel the discounts without losing face—and major accounts
Perhaps (just perhaps) the manager has saved his job.
Of course, we are never told.
Such is life.
And we are left wondering why exactly Jesus told that story to those with him on the way
Verses 9–13 give us at least 3 failed attempts to make this story respectable
None of them succeeds
Sometimes life is complicated
It is rarely black and white
Or male and female
Or right and wrong
None of us are pure
We are all implicated in past evils
And in present privilege
God is at work even in that complexity
Her ways may be invisible to us
We just have to do what we can
We trust that as Mary’s Song proclaims
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. [Luke 1:51–53]