Sermon: "Parable of the Unjust Steward"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Jeremiah 8.18 – 9.1; Psalm 79.1-9; 1 Timothy 2.1-7; Luke 16.1-13
Today’s collect provides the lens through which we should examine the lectionary readings: “Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure.”
Our reading from Jeremiah begins with a lament: “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: ‘Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her king not in her’” (Jeremiah 8.18-19; NRSV). The people’s worship of foreign idols has provoked God’s anger. Although summer is over and the crops have been harvested, the people have not been saved. Invasion is imminent – many will perish. Hence, Jeremiah cries: “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (Jeremiah 9.1; NRSV)
Psalm 79 is a post-invasion reflection. The Babylonian invaders have entered the land, destroyed the temple, and sacked Jerusalem. Many inhabitants of Judah have died; Judah suffers great shame; she is the laughingstock of surrounding nations. The psalmist asks, how long will God remain angry? then prays that God will no longer remember their sins but come to their aid for the glory of God’s name. The people did not love things heavenly; they chose to worship other gods; and they endured judgment at the hands of the Babylonians.
In 1 Timothy, Paul urges Timothy and the Church of Ephesus to make “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings . . . for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (2.1-2; NRSV). I must confess, I do not find it easy to pray for our leaders when their actions are grounded in egoism and lacking in virtue. So, I am challenged. I suspect many of us are.
Paul further writes that our supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving are “right and . . . acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2.3-4; NRSV). Contrary to what we so often think, our salvation does not lie in earthy things, in wealth or military might – it does not lie in the worship of false gods. As Paul reminds us, salvation lies in the “one God” and “one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2.5-6; NRSV).
So, where does our reading from the gospel of Luke fit into all of this? The parable of the unjust steward raises many questions – it is beyond doubt the most puzzling of Jesus’ parables, for it appears, at first glance, that Jesus is commending dishonesty. This is where the disciples needed to ask for clarification – forget the parable of the sower!
A rich landowner discovers his steward has been squandering the landowner’s property. He fires the steward and asks that the accounts be reconciled. The steward is unsuited for other employment; he cannot see himself reduced to begging. Realizing his master’s debtors are not yet aware of his dismissal, he calls them in one by one, asks what they owe, and tells them to quickly alter their bill to reflect roughly half of what was owed. By doing so, the manager gains their favor and will be welcomed into their homes. Upon discovering what had taken place, the rich man commended the manager for having acted shrewdly. After saying this, Jesus noted the children of this age act more shrewdly than do the children of light. Then Jesus ended the parable by saying, “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” (Luke 16.9; NRSV).
If we are to gain some insight into the meaning of this parable, we need to familiarize ourselves with the economic practices of that time. Peasants who owned land had a hard time keeping it; a class of wealthy landowners had arisen who employed stewards to manage their property. Most peasants were reduced to the status of sharecroppers; they rented land for a share of what was produced. As John Pilch (https://liturgy.slu.edu/25OrdC092219/theword_cultural.html) relates, “The Mishnah (post-biblical tradition in Judaic literature) identifies three kinds of renters: some pay a percentage of the crop; some pay a fixed amount of the produce; and some pay rent in money.” It appears those in the parable paid a fixed amount of produce.
Some commentators believe the steward negotiated rents such that they included the landowner’s cut plus some additional for the steward. The steward may have reduced his share. But this explanation is somewhat unsatisfactory for, in the case of the olive oil, the debt was reduced by 50%. It is highly unlikely that the steward could get away with such an exorbitant arrangement. As Pilch (Ibid.) notes, the “peasants would have immediately informed the landowner or would have rioted if a landowner were in collusion with such extortion.”
Once again, Pilch reminds us of the role, and importance, of honor in Middle-Eastern societies. How so?
When the master discovers the steward’s strategy, he faces a genuine dilemma. If he rescinds the steward’s new contracts, as he is legally entitled to do because they are unlawful, he will alienate the renters and the entire village. They have already been celebrating the master’s generosity!
If he allows these reduced contracts to stand, he will be short of produce this year, but his “honor” will spread far and wide (as also will the “honor” of the shrewd steward for arranging the deals). People will praise the noble and generous landowner (Ibid.).
Thus, the steward is not commended for dishonesty, but for shrewdness in dealing with a very difficult situation. We might say the steward’s action resulted in a win-win-win strategy: the peasants won, the steward won, and the landowner won. However, I doubt the landowner would tolerate a second attempt.
After Jesus says, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes,” he further comments on our use of wealth:
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.
The word translated as “wealth” in the NRSV is the Aramaic “mammon.” Dennis Hamm, S.J., points out that Jesus is engaging in word play: “Mammon is related to another Semitic word familiar to us – “amen.” Root mn forms a verb that means to trust in or believe. Thus property or wealth is called mammon because wealth is precisely what most people (“the children of this world”) trust in for their security. If you are a child of light, you place your ultimate trust in God, not in mammon” (https://liturgy.slu.edu/25OrdC092219/theword_hamm.html).
When we take this sense of wordplay into consideration, as Hamm observes, the last four verses may be understood as saying:
If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with [“the mammon of iniquity”] who will trust you with true wealth? If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another [i.e., the Ultimate Landowner], who will give you what is yours [a place in the “eternal tents”]? No servant can serve two masters. … You cannot serve both God and mammon (Ibid.).
Hamm further notes, “This is precisely the basis of Jewish and Christian social ethics. The goods of the earth belong to God. Human beings are stewards of those resources, to serve the needs of all” (Ibid). As we say at the offertory: “All that we have, O Lord, is a gift from thee; and of thine own have we given thee.”
We are not to worship mammon; “we are not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure.” In so living, we are to act shrewdly; we are to employ the mammon of iniquity for heavenly purposes.