Summary: A sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20, series C
17th Sunday after Pentecost [Pr. 20] September 23, 2007 “Series C”
Grace be unto you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Let us pray: Dear Heavenly Father, you sent your Son, Jesus the Christ, into our world to reveal your word and grace to us. But sometimes we, like his first disciples, fail to grasp the significance of what he taught us. Through the power of your Holy Spirit, help us to acknowledge our limited understanding of Christ’s word for us, and enable us to cling to your redeeming grace, poured out for us through our Lord’s death and resurrection for our salvation. This we ask in Christ’s holy name. Amen.
In all honesty, I spent hours pouring through various commentaries on our Gospel lesson for this morning. Of course, this is not unusual, since I have made a concerted effort over the past few years to improve the quality of my sermons. However, the more I read, the more convinced I became that I just didn’t understand the meaning of this parable of the Unjust Steward! In fact, the more I read, the more convinced I became that the commentators didn’t understand this parable either.
About the only thing that the various New Testament scholars agree on, is the fact that even Luke himself had trouble understanding this parable. For in the verses that follow the parable itself, Luke presents us with two or three different interpretations of its meaning. Perhaps this is one of those situations where something was lost between the time Jesus spoke this parable, and the time that Luke decided to put the oral accounts of Jesus’ teachings on paper.
Think about this text. The parable itself is contained in the first seven and a half verses. Here Jesus tells us that there was a rich man who was no doubt an absentee landlord. So he hired a steward or manager to take care of his property, which, most likely, was used to raise wheat and olive trees. One day, however, someone came to the landowner and snitched on the steward, suggesting that he had either been lazy in his management of the estate, or had been embezzling funds.
So the rich man calls in his steward, and says, “Word has gotten to me that you have been cheating me. I want an audit of the books, and if these accusations are correct, you’re fired. I’ll not have someone cheat me out of my just return on my investment.”
Now, at this point in the story, we find out a couple of things about the steward. First of all, he was guilty, since he knows that his position will be taken away from him. And secondly, we can assume that he was either up in years, close to retirement, or a proud physical weakling. For he says to himself, “What will I do, now that I’m going to be fired. I’m not strong enough to do common labor, and I’m ashamed to beg.”
So the steward shows us his deceitfulness. In order to endear himself to those who owed the landowner substantial debts, he calls the debtors in, and enters into conspiracy with them to defraud the landowner out of even more of his estate. Now, the steward must have been inept as a manager, for he has to ask each of them how much they actually owed. But he was shrewd, because he didn’t reduce the debtor’s bills himself – he has them make the changes. Nevertheless, he has endeared himself to the debtors, in the hope that after he is fired, they will take care of him in his unemployment.
And then comes the kicker! The landowner, after he discovers what the steward has done, after he discovers that he has been defrauded again, commends the dishonest steward, because he acted shrewdly!
Now I’m sorry, but for those of you who would like to take this parable at face value and use it as an example of how Jesus teaches us we ought to be conducting ourselves in the business world, need to read the rest of the New Testament. We’ve seen enough of such dealings, and have lost enough of our investment funds to such scandals as the Enron situation, to realize that to act in such a manner is downright criminal and immoral in the secular world, and certainly not a spiritual value to aspire to.
Nor is Luke’s comment that follows this teaching of Jesus, when he says, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Clearly Luke did not understand this parable either, for this statement is totally inconsistent with the rest of his Gospel and his Book of Acts, giving the impression that we can purchase God’s eternal and redeeming grace by means of dishonest money.