This parable has always fascinated me. It is very hard to understand – is Jesus commending dishonesty? Is he recommending that we be as cunning in our faith as crooked buisnessmen? Hundreds of different interpretations over the centuries have sought to get Jesus off the hook of praising sin, and yet we’re left rather confused. All sorts of questions fly out at us. Who is doing the praising? Jesus or the rich man? If it is Jesus, what it is he approves of here? Deceit? Surely not. The sacked manager’s cleverness or determination? Partly, it would seem. The self interest? That appears to be in his mind too. And then on the other hand, if the boss is the one doing the praising, why would he praise a steward who was being sacked for bad management in the first place, when he is now standing to lose money? Was it honour among thieves? Or, again, is it the cleverness, the shrewdness that is being praised?
Partly it depends on how we understand the story in the first place. Some people think that the sacked man was overcharging and so, when he knew he was to be dismissed, he was forgoing his cut to gain acceptance among his former clients. Or its been suggested that he setting up a situation which would enhance his master’s reputation as well as his own – hoping to make his master look generous and so by a public relations coup hoping to regain his job? Or maybe the amount he reduced each bill by was the disguised interest his master was charging on his debts, so he gains the moral high ground and the master can do nothing about it because charging usury was illegal in the first place.
Perhaps that is all there is to it: a rather confusing little story that simply means, be clever. But its also been suggested that this may been a story that was circulating at the time, which Jesus then picked and used for his own ends.
I think the key to understanding this parable as more than simple advice is to turn the focus from us – who are we in this story? To Jesus – where is Jesus in this story?
Debt was used more than once by Jesus as a metaphor for sins and forgiving debts, for forgiving sins. Jesus uses the imagery in the Lord’s Prayer, and in other parables. For example, earlier in Luke’s gospel we are told the story of a woman pouring perfume on Jesus’s feet, and wiping them with her hair. Jesus’s host, a pharisee, was horrified and thought to himself ‘if this man really was a prophet, surely he would know what kind of a woman this is, that she is a sinner?’. Jesus knew what he was thinking, and told him a parable of two debtors, one who owed five hundred denarii, the other fifty. Both debts were written off by the creditor, and the one who owed more was more grateful. Jesus then said to the woman, ‘your sins are forgiven’ , to the consternation of the other guests at the feast.
Central to the parable of the unjust steward is the fact that the rogue had no authorisation to go around cancelling or cutting people’s debts. It was outrageous behaviour. But Luke has just been telling us, for the whole of the previous two chapters, that Jesus’ behaviour was outrageous. His opponents were saying he had no right to go about welcoming sinners and declaring God’s forgiveness to them. Jesus was a rogue in the system. The scribes, and the pharisees, and other religious authorities denied his authority to do what he did. They criticised the company he hung out with, and they criticised his failure to conform to the moral standards of the day. It was in answer to these criticsms that Jesus told the previous parables, the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin that we heard last week, and the story of the prodigal son that is between them and this story in Luke. In all those stories, Jesus makes the point that God is more concerned with finding the lost than simply keeping the righteous. He told those stories specifically to defend himself against the pharisees criticisms that he was spending time with those deemed to be sinners and inappropriate company for a rabbi. In the context of those stories, it seems likely that this parable too is telling us something about God and his relationship with us, rather than simply offering some rather odd advice.
It seems very likely that Jesus has taken up a popular story about a rogue manager and used it in self defence and to confront his opponents. He’s telling this story against himself, and what a bold stroke! Suddenly the whole difficult, complicated, immoral story untwists itself if , we think of Jesus as likening himself to the unjust steward. Jesus is the one whom his opponents were accusing of being a bad steward of God’s holy things, and being unauthorised to forgive debts, but, he asserts, he does so with God’s approval. As the master praised the sacked manager, so, claims Jesus, God will approve his ministry and his radical generosity. Jesus is the legitimate agent. And God is that generous!
Jesus often used stories from the commercial world, including those which likened God or himself to rather shady characters – in other parables he used the images of an unjust judge or a ruthless king, for example. And if we think back to the parables of the previous chapter of Luke, such as the lost sheep and the prodigal son, it is easy to see the similarities. We are used to thinking of these stories as illustrating God’s goodness, but in the context of the time they were told, and especially in the context of the pharisees disapproval of Jesus, they show God as good, yes, but to an almost irresponsible degree. The parable of the lost sheep could be called the parable of the irresponsible shepherd – what sort of shepherd abandons 99 sheep to bandits or wolves, to search for one lost one which might already be dead? And the story of the prodigal son has the father showing a reckless generosity, which enrages the older brother. In all these parables, Jesus is asserting the outrageous, reckless, irresponsible nature of God’s grace. The parable of the unjust steward is defiant in the face of the criticism that Jesus is subverting normal values. He insists that normal wordly standards can’t be simply transposed onto God, and you can’t simply expect God to behave as a human being might be expected to in a situation. Time and again in the gospels, Jesus uses parables to hammer home the message that God is not like a normal debtor, insisting that we pay what we owe, he forgives us freely and much more than we deserve. And the corollary of that is that we should do the same.
The world of debts and debtors was not fantasy for Jesus’ first hearers. While applying the imagery of debt to a broader theme, Jesus was also indicating that he knew what was going on in his world. He knew how oppressive systems worked themselves out in his Galilee to drive people from their land into unemployment and poverty. While it is naïve to read into Jesus’ teaching our perceptions of the complexities of economic exploitation, nevertheless the proclamation of the kingdom was meant to be good news for these poor and bring them blessing. How can you assert these things as God’s priorities and not address what is going on?
All through the gospels, and especially in Luke’s gospel, money and wealth and exploitation come up again and again. For the past couple of months, Sunday after Sunday, we’ve heard about treasure on earth, treasure in heaven, inviting the poor not just our friends or useful contacts to our parties, how we use our money, and debt. Wealth and exploitation are not simply one more moral issue which Christians need to address, but something quite central to the gospel. No one is to be written off, because what people have held against others has been written off by the roguery, the outrageous behaviour, of divine grace.
The mathematics that God uses is not like our arithmetic. A very traditional view of how gods judge humans after death, common to many religions and world views across different times and cultures, is that we are weighed in the scales. You may have seen ancient Egyptian paintings of the soul being weighed – the idea being that the good and the bad we have done are weighed against each other, and the gods see which is more significant. Jesus’s economic parables turn that idea on its head. God is more likely to throw the scales across the room, and come dancing forward to embrace us. God’s grace is ridiculous, unfair, profligate – that’s why the pharisees were so annoyed by Jesus. It is lavished on us, regardless of whether we deserve it. But time and again, in parable after parable – the lost sheep, the prodigal son, the unjust steward – Jesus continues to insist that like it or not, that is what God’s grace is like.