The Unjust Steward, Part I (The Story of Us #3) Notes
The Story of Us: The Unjust Steward (Luke1 16:1-9), Part 1
Rev. Donnell T. Wyche, Executive Pastor, Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor, July 26, 2015
Nigel and I are hanging out in the Parables of Jesus for our summer sermon series, called the “The Story of Us.” Last week, Nigel challenged how we build our foundations by examining Matthew 7 & Luke 6 and The Parable of the Builders. This parable is about our discernment, which affects the foundations in life that we build. Is your foundation built on dependence and trust in God, or are you answering the demands of the Empire trusting yourself, your ability, and your skills for your security? Take a moment this upcoming week to download this sermon, especially if you missed it live.
At the center of our sermon series is the power of story, the stories we receive and the stories we tell. Because a story is the best way of talking about the way the world actually is. Our lives are lived within a narrative. It’s the story of our lives because
story is central;
story binds us;
story creates emotionsstory creates connection;
story shapes our reality.
The stories we tell reveal not just who we are, but who we hope to be.
A Disturbing Story - The Parable of the Unjust Steward.
Today’s parable is found in Luke 16:1-9. This parable has been described as one of the Jesus’s most problematic parables. Or as I like to say, a parable of “Jesus being Jesus.”
Commentators and pastors alike are really uncomfortable with this parable because on the surface, it appears as if Jesus is saying use money to “win friends and influence people.” For some of us, this is insulting and offensive; we’ve been told that Jesus commends us for using money, something that’s fleeting, as a tool to manipulate and control others.
So, you may ask, “Are you serious, Donnell?” Well, yes.
Let’s listen to the parable together:
Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’ “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’ “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ “ ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’ “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’ “ ‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied.“He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’ “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. (Luke 16:1-9)
As a sales manager at IBM, I was encouraged to ply clients and potential clients with meals or golf outings with the idea that if I used a little bit of money to make a client comfortable doing business with me, then it would pay off when we closed their business later. On the surface it seems like Jesus is suggesting the same thing, but actually, he’s not. In my example, IBM was willing to let me “give” their money to a few people in the hopes that these people would in essence “give” even more of their company’s money to IBM. Basically, this was an investment on IBM’s part, and some might argue, not a very honest investment, but in the parable Jesus offers, the unjust steward steals money to secure his future employment, and Jesus says do the same. Or if that’s too offensive to you, Jesus uses money to build relationships.
Jesus praises this dishonest manager and encourages us, his disciples, to be just like him. Friends, this is why I love me “some Jesus.” This is shocking, it’s surprising, it undermines our assumptions about morality and how Jesus expects us to behave. This is why this parable is one his most problematic parables. As a matter of fact, in the fourth century, as Christianity was expanding, Julian the Apostate, and everyone knows who Julian was, used this parable as evidence that those who followed Jesus were liars and thieves and that noble Romans should reject and avoid all “such corrupting influences.” Friends, in the parables, Jesus is often telling surprising, unnerving stories to reveal a deeper truth and understanding about ourselves, God, and the Kingdom, and this parable is right in line.
So, I spent money from IBM on my customers to make more money for IBM. That makes sense, we have a framework for this kind of activity. But this guy with limited options, embezzles his employer’s money to force the employer or future employers into securing employment for him later. He stole money from his employer and then forced future potential employers into silence because they were complicit with him. This is genius. You have to give it to this guy. He gets fired, then because he knows that his employer doesn’t have the books, he cooks the books, forcing others into his scheme because they would be publicly shamed if they revealed what actually happened. It’s the perfect crime, and then, shockingly, the employer congratulates him, and Jesus does so too!
You're Fired! Now Get Out!
There are major three characters in this story: two are on the stage and one is just off stage. The story focuses on the interactions and dialog between the unjust steward and his master, but the community is present as well, just off stage. It’s from the community that we learn of the behavior of the unjust steward. When there are two major characters in a parable and one is dishonorable, the other is always noble, and that’s the case in this parable. The master is not a co-conspirator with the unjust steward.
“There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’ (Luke 16:1-2)
Some folks from the community, who are trusted by rich master, come to him and tell him his manager, who is unnamed, is “misappropriating” resources from him. We assume it was friends or at least someone that rich man trusted more than his manager because if it were just other servants, the rich man would have surely investigated the charges. He doesn’t conduct an investigation; he trusts the words of his friends and effectively fires the manager.
Have you ever been fired? I have. It was traumatic, it was painful. I cried. I was in high school. I worked at a major DC law firm and managed the security and keys of the firm. We had a vendor who came in often. After I implemented a new security system, I had the authority to issue keys, so I issued one to this vendor, thinking this would be helpful for everyone since he had to buzzed in and this would allow us to skip a step. He was basically an employee given how much time he spent onsite. Well, that was out of line, and I didn’t have the authority to issue the keys. I begged to differ, but I was still promptly fired from this $11/hr job in 1990 (in todays dollars, I was making $18/hr). Before I was fired, I tried to plead my case, explain my actions, and beg for my job.
In contrast this manager says nothing. He is silent before his master. This is stunning. No pleading. No begging. I mean even Adam pleaded with God in the garden after he was caught taking what didn’t belong to him, and yet, nothing from this unjust steward. This behavior is unimaginable. This is a great story!
“The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’ (Luke 16:1-3)
Instead he has a conversation with himself. In this moment, I see his acknowledgement of his guilt. His crimes. He’s been caught, there’s no negotiating with this boss. That tells us a lot about his master, doesn’t it?
Grace, Mercy, and Broken Trust, Oh My!
If you will, can we push in here for just a moment?
What if we interpreted this parable in light of the prodigal son in which we see a compassionate Father who seeks his son’s return? Does the prodigal son parable give us any insight here? Yes. I believe that both stories share the same theological arch. The main issues are sin, grace, and salvation, not how to manage money properly. Remember, I’m arguing that Jesus is often telling these stories not necessarily to instruct us in what do when we find ourselves in their situation, but to alert us to something significant about God, his grace, mercy, forgiveness, and how the Kingdom operates.
Let’s explain what I mean with four quick observations:
- Each story has a noble father-figure who extends extraordinary grace towards a wayward underling. (The son in the prodigal son, wishes his father dead, so he can collect his inheritance–it doesn’t get more wayward than that.)
- Both stories has a dishonorable figure who wastes his masters resources. (The son in prodigal son gambles away his wealth and spends what’s left on prostitutes.)
- In both stories, the underling comes to a moment of truth regarding their behavior and actions. (Penniless, the son has to hire himself out as a servant to survive.)
- Both stories deal with broken trust and the problems that result from it. (This is a continuation of the parable of the builders, which is ultimately about discernment.)
Let’s return to the unjust steward.
“The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’ (Luke 16:3-4)
There’s a realization that when you are caught, you’re just caught. As a father, I’m experiencing this regularly. I have a very sensitive child, and when he is caught, he breaks down, and it breaks me down. I feel so bad for him, even though he’s the one that made a bad choice that is resulting in his discipline. I didn’t know this was possible. My hearts literally breaks for him. I want to weep with him. It hurts me to see him hurt. I don’t want anything taken from him. I don’t want him to repay me for what he’s done. I want to take away his shame. Because I love him so much. I don’t want him hurting, broken, sad. I just don’t want him to do what he’s doing.
Back to the steward, he’s caught. He’s silent. In this moment, he has to accept the mercy of his master. In this culture, at this time, if you steal and can’t repay, you can be imprisoned. Not just you, but your entire family, until you can pay back what is owed.
I Can't Repay, Now What?
Is this where we started to develop our understanding of salvation as a payment of a debt we owe God. Maybe? Anselm of Canterbury in 1140 got us started down this path. He established in our thinking that since we took what didn’t belong to us in the garden, we broke God’s moral order through our disobedience and therefore incurred a debt. A debt we could not repay. Since we already owe God our repentance, works of charity, works of piety, and our righteousness, we can’t pay back the debt of our disobedience. Anselm’s thinking requires a punishment for our disobedience and that’s what is expected in the story of the unjust steward. The original hearers would have expected Jesus to tell a story of how the master imprisoned and punished the unjust steward. The unjust steward has already taken what he can’t repay, so he has to be punished, and if the master can’t get satisfaction from his punishment, he can demand that the steward’s entire family be imprisoned too. If that doesn’t satisfy the master, the master can demand his steward’s death. Sound familiar?
If this parable is about God, his mercy and grace, our sin and our need for salvation, then what is Jesus trying to do? He’s trying to help us understand his Father.
In the prodigal son story, the Father doesn’t demand repayment, even though he’s entitled to it.
In this story, the master doesn’t demand repayment, even though he’s entitled to it.
What is Jesus telling us about the Father? That maybe the Father doesn’t need anything from us to forgive us.
But what about our sins, Donnell? Didn’t Jesus die on the cross for them?
Have you send this image before on the Internet? (Jesus knocking)
Look, we simply cannot reduce what happens on the cross to just one thing. And Jesus’ death, there isn’t some kind of quid pro quo by which God gains the necessary payment to forgive us.
Friends, Jesus does not save us from God; instead, Jesus reveals just who God is! Jesus does not provide God with the capacity to forgive us; Jesus reveals God as forgiving love.
Think about it this way:
“At the cross we violently sinned our sins into Jesus, and Jesus absorbed them, died because of them, carried them into death, and rose on the third day to speak the first word of the new world: ‘Peace be with you.’ ” Brian Zahnd
The problem begins when we let Anselm’s thinking lead us to an “economic model” of the cross–which just won’t work. God is not saying, “I’d really love to forgive you, but, I’m sorry my hands are tied. If I forgive you before you pay back your debt, then I’m going to have Justice on my back demanding her money, so I’m really sorry.”
Yes, something significant happens on the cross that’s for sure. It’s the unfair lynching of an innocent man. On the cross, Jesus takes away our shame. Jesus definitely loses his life, but it isn’t a payment to a Father who demands satisfaction. Look, the cross is a mystery, and we have to abandon our economic terms to describe what happens there. We need better language.
In the parable of the unjust steward, Jesus is doing heavy lifting. He’s teaching us about the father here, friends. He’s saying with a strong voice that God doesn’t need anything from us.
Remember Paul understands this too when says
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. (Acts 17:24-25)
I know I’ve given you a lot to digest, but stick with me, please. Please, don’t stop listening.
Jesus is revealing a Father who loves us intensely.
Jesus is revealing a Father is merciful.
Jesus is revealing a Father who is full of grace.
Try to identify with unjust steward.
Do you plead your case?
As you imagine God (represented by the Master) in this story, how does he find you?
How do you find him?
What story do you tell about the Father?