For a very brief time in seminary, I worked for a real estate agent. And it sounds cliché, but it’s true…location, location, location…makes all the difference. When it comes to the gospel—context, context, context—can make all the difference in how we read and understand the Good News.
This is probably one of the most difficult parables to unpack. On Wednesday at the lectionary study, all the other pastors around the table decided not to preach on this text, but instead to focus on Jeremiah. They were frustrated by the confusing nature of the story that Jesus tells in chapter 16. I’m no less frustrated and confused by it, but I enjoy puzzles, so I hope you’ll go along with me on this little journey to understanding and making sense of the unjust steward.
So let’s begin with context. For the last couple of weeks we’ve been looking at Jesus teaching those around him about the relationship between discipleship and hospitality. He has been accused of welcoming sinners and eating with them, and not only does he accept these accusations, but he says this unconditional welcome is a reflection of God’s love and graciousness. Luke 16:1-13, our lesson for today, is a lesson on the relationship between discipleship and possessions. Next week’s lesson from Luke is going to skip over verses 14-18 and pick up at verse 19, the story of the rich man and Lazarus. But those four verses that the lectionary skips actually help to frame the context of our verses today…Jesus and the Pharisees are challenging each other on the question of who fulfills the ethical demands of the law. It reads:
The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.
‘The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.
‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.
The little piece at the end about divorce and adultery serve to highlight the question of ethics, the law, and the Kingdom of God. But if you consider those verses before that…that Jesus is saying to the Pharisees that what is important and of value to humans in terms of material goods and possessions is of little concern to God…what is important to God is how we are in relationship with one another.
When we consider this extension of the reading, both the previous chapters and the verses following our text for the day, then it helps us to understand the context that Jesus finds himself in.
While context is important and gives us some insight into the demands of discipleship, it doesn’t completely solve the puzzle presented by this parable. So there’s more work to be done.
What if we considered the parable in parts? We could break the parable down in this way:
Verses 1-8a are the story of the unjust steward being confronted and fired by his manager, his attempt to finagle the books, and then his being commended for acting shrewdly.
Technically, we could end the parable here and while it would leave us feeling unsatisfied because the unjust steward is commended (instead of getting his just desserts), I could preach it that God forgives us even when we do stupid things, or that the Kingdom of God requires us to act with street smarts and not just in line with the law.
But instead, Jesus keeps talking. In verses 10-12, Jesus teaches us to renounce such practices…don’t be foolish and dishonest like the unjust steward. Honesty is the best policy and ethically, the right thing to do. I could preach that too…it’d make for a great stewardship sermon.
But Jesus still isn’t finished. He ends this part of the lesson with: “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.”
It’s not really connected to the parable, but is a moral in its own right…a warning of the danger of money as a rival to God. Again, great stuff for a stewardship sermon.
While this breakdown of the parable might help us to see it in a different way, with all its potential lessons, it doesn’t solve the riddle of this particular set of teachings.
So what if we go back to context? What if we ask the question…what does this story have to do with discipleship, the Kingdom of God, and relationships? We’ve already established that this story is set between other stories of unconditional welcome to the sinner and stranger, and the story of the rich man and Lazarus. So we know that Jesus is teaching us that there is a new “norm” for how relationships between people are to be in the Kingdom of God. And we’ve established over the last couple of weeks as we’ve looked at these stories that we are to use our resources to welcome the stranger and the sinner into the Kingdom. What if this parable, set among grumbling Pharisees, is a continuation of that story about relationships and resources?
How is your relationship with your money? How do you invest your money? How much debt do you have? Is the way you spend money a reflection of your values? How do you spend your money…on the staples (food, shelter, clothing, transportation, bills) or on “other” (vacations, spa days, shopping for pleasure, entertainment)? What charities do you give to? How do these charities reflect your values? How much do you pledge to the church?
At least one of these questions might have made you a little nervous. Somehow we’ve come to live in a culture where money is extremely important—we fear losing it, not having enough of it, and always wanting more. Money equals power in our world. The more you have, the more power, control and sway you have. The louder your voice is. The less you have, the quieter your voice becomes. Yet, how much or how little money you have has nothing to do with God, except in terms of relationship. How do you use your money and your resources as a disciple? How does your money welcome (or not) the stranger and the sinner?
In the Book of Proverbs, Solomon wrote: Where there is no vision, the people perish (29:18). The unjust steward had lost his vision of good business practices, and when he was called on it by his manager, he feared losing everything. He wasn’t concerned with the health of his relationships so much as he was saving face and making sure he had something left in the end. Is this how we’re supposed to act as stewards of God’s gifts?
In the weeks ahead, we’re going to be talking a lot about stewardship. There will be ministry testimonies, letters, bulletin inserts, and reflection questions. There will also be time for you to consider your vision. What does the ministry and mission of St. Mark’s look like? How are we being good stewards of the gifts we’ve been entrusted with? How does our communal money reflect our relationships with one another and the outsider?
Theologian Helen Montgomery Debevoise said, “When we have no idea where we are going, the treasures in front of us are hardly treasures at all; they are simply things, things that have no larger value beyond our own need for them. These things too easily become objects to be used, misused, and manipulated.” This is what had happened to the unjust steward…he had lost his vision, and the treasure was misused and manipulated.
When Jesus told this puzzle of a parable to the Pharisees who were grumbling, he was talking to a group of people who had lost their vision of the kingdom. “They had traded their call to be God’s people to become servant of the treasures of the present day. Controlled by wealth, by money, even complacency, they had blended into society and lost their vision.” (Helen Montgomery Debevoise)
This parable serves to remind us that from time to time, we might lose our vision…we might lose sight of how we are to use God’s gifts to serve our neighbor and our common ministry. However, we are entrusted with the Kingdom of God and all its treasures…not to be buried away or squandered, but to be used reclaim our mission and ministry and our vision of the Kingdom of God.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.