Summary: A sermon on the Parable of The Shrewd Steward
The Shrewd Steward
The plane slowed and leveled out about a mile above ground. Up ahead, the Viennese castle glowed like a fairy tale palace. When the pilot gave the thumbs-up, Gerald Blanchard jumped into the darkness and descended to the tiled roof. It was early June 1998, and the evening wind was warm. He steered his parachute toward his target and almost overshot the castle, slowing himself just enough on the tiles, arms and legs flailing for a grip and finally saving himself from falling four stories by grabbing a railing at the roof’s edge.
A couple of days earlier, Blanchard had appeared to be just another 20-something on vacation on a VIP sneak peek tour at a highly prized piece of jewelry from a private collection, the Sisi Star, a delicate but dazzling 10-pointed star of diamonds fanned around one monstrous pearl. And there it was, displayed in a cavernous room, in an alarmed case, behind bulletproof glass, on a weight-sensitive pedestal. Five seconds after laying eyes on it, Blanchard knew he would try to take it. Specially crafted for Empress Elisabeth of Austria to be worn in her beautiful hair, it has been 75 years since the public had a glimpse of it. On the tour, Blanchard wasn’t listening to the guide but instead was noting and videotaping the motion sensors in the corner, the type of screws on the case, the large windows nearby, and the security flaws. He found the Sisi mesmerizing and the challenge irresistible. He used a key to loosen the screws when the staff moved on to the next room, unlocked the windows, and determined that the motion sensors would allow him to move — albeit very slowly — inside the castle. He stopped at the souvenir shop and bought a replica of the Sisi Star, noting the armed guards stationed at every entrance and patrolling the halls. But the roof was unguarded.
Just one night after his visit to see the star, Blanchard unhooked his parachute, retrieved a rope from his pack, wrapped it around a marble column, and lowered himself down the side of the building, entering through the window he had unlocked the previous day. He slowly approached the display and removed the already loosened screws, carefully using a butter knife to hold in place the two long rods that would trigger the alarm system. He reached into his pocket and deftly replaced the Sisi with the gift-store fake onto the spring-loaded mechanism the star was sitting on. Within minutes, it was in Blanchard’s pocket and he was rappelling down a back wall to the garden, taking the rope with him as he slipped from the grounds. Thus was born a criminal mastermind who orchestrated high tech crimes never seen before spanning three continents. One prosecutor called him “Cunning, clever, conniving, and creative,” Mitch McCormick, one of the lead investigators, developed a high regard for Blanchard’s abilities saying, “We had never seen anything like it.” Even the sentencing judge said, the banks “should hire him and pay him a million dollars a year.” And right before sentencing, he turned directly to Blanchard. “I think that you have a great future ahead of you, if you wish to pursue an honest style of life.”
First, Jesus commends shrewdness. We live in a world that often appreciates shrewdness and cunning in others. In fact, many movies and novels have clever plot twists where the heroes or heroines do something shrewd to thwart evil – and the audience applauds. Shrewdness is considered a valuable skill. Even so, it seems strange to have a prosecutor, the two lead investigators and the sentencing judge praise a career criminal mastermind and thief. But it seems even more difficult to hear Jesus seemingly do the same thing with a crooked estate manager overseeing the owner’s property and wasting the Owner’s resources. On the surface, Jesus seems to be commending dishonesty and misrepresentation. How could that possibly be?
To understand the true meaning of Jesus’ words and this parable, we need to see the context in which it was told. In Jesus’ day, 90% of the people in Israel were peasants, i.e., indebted tenant farmers, living on the edge of poverty. Almost all the land in Palestine was owned and controlled by elite absentee landowners who heavily taxed the crops as rental for the land. Rents of 25-33% of the grain yield and 50% of the fruit yield were not unusual. If you were a peasant farmer in the First Century, you were but one crop failure or drought away from financial ruin and debtor’s prison. Thus, the tenant farmers paid a fixed portion of the crop to the Estate Owner at harvest. So the crowd around Jesus would have loved this story because it not only meant financial relief but this is the story about “sticking it to the Man!”