The Story of Us: The Unjust Steward (Luke 1 16:1-9), Part 2
The Story of Us: The Unjust Steward (Luke 1 16:1-9), Part 2
Rev. Donnell T. Wyche, Executive Pastor, Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor, August 2, 2015
For our summer sermon series, “The Story of Us,” Nigel and I are hanging out in the Parables of Jesus. Last week, I created a little bit of a stir with my take on one of Jesus’ most problematic parables, The Unjust Steward found in Luke 16. As we pick up from where I left off, I wanted to clear up a misstated comment I made last week, while looking at the slide on Anselm of Canterbury, I described his understanding of the cross as Substitutionary atonement, I meant to say, Satisfaction atonement. I’m sorry for this mix up, I know better!
A Disturbing Story - The Parable of the Unjust Steward.
Let’s listen again to the entire parables found in Luke 16:1-9:
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 I’ve wrestled with this parable, I’m struck by the story, characters, and actions of the unjust steward. And it seems to me that Jesus is going to great lengths to reveal something about the Father to us. I offered this observation last week, when I asked you consider interpreting Luke 16 in light of Luke 15. With that view in front of us, we are able to observe some interesting things:
- There’s a father figure in both stories
- The dishonorable figure wastes his masters resources
- The underling comes to a moment of truth
- And both stories deal with broken trust and the problems it creates.
I invited us to consider that we are, all in some ways, just like the unjust steward in so much as we are all guilty of something. And I think it’s worth noting how we find the master in the story, that’s a focal point that bears our attention that I want to keep repeating. The best way for me to share this is with this question, “Is Jesus trying to tell us something about the Father in this story?”
The Steward Responds
As we turn our attention back to the story, the fired steward, starts an internal monologue:
‘What shall I do now?
My master is taking away my job.
I’m not strong enough to dig.
I’m ashamed to beg. (Luke 16:3)
Remember, his silence before his master tells us a lot. It tells us that his master isn’t someone who can be negotiated with, he’s already accepted the word of the community about this steward, he’s already made up his mind, he’s firing this steward, no question about it.
Silent, the steward stands before his master and considers his options. He can’t work in the field as a laborer because he isn’t strong enough to dig. Farming in his culture was done on narrow terraces with sharp corners, so that ruled out using farming tools like plows, all of this meant, he would have to dig with his hands.
I understand where he is coming from, I was snarky teenager. During one holiday celebration, my grandmother asked me to move some chairs downstairs to the basement and I remember replying, “I’m sorry, Grandma, but I don’t work with my hands, I work with my brain.” For a moment, it was if the air left the space, as everyone took in what I said, and waited in eager expectation for my grandmother’s response. I remember her saying something like, “Boy, if you don’t move those chairs downstairs, I will you show you some of my handiwork.”
I Can’t Dig and I Won’t Beg
Ruling out farm work, he considers his next option, begging. But he lacks the qualifications to beg since he isn’t blind, disabled, lame or crippled. We find out quickly that this steward has few redeeming qualities.
I know what I’ll do so that,
when I lose my job here,
people will welcome me into their houses. (Luke 16:4)
At this point of the story, I want to alert you to something.
The steward knows his gig is up, he’s been caught, he won’t beg and can’t dig. But he wants another job, he wants another job managing someone else’s estate. So he schemes. He realizes that he still has his master’s books. The unjust steward is the keeper of the books, ledger of accounts.
Look at this, this is why I love Jesus and this story in particular, watch this.
The master is firing the unjust steward because of the reports from his friends (members of the community), not because the master himself has inspected the books.
The unjust steward is the keeper of those books, that’s why the master demands an accounting.
Let’s keep pushing in here.
Everything that the unjust steward does from this moment forward is illegal and is theft.
The steward’s been fired. He has to return the books and give an accounting, but because the steward wants another job managing someone’s house, he devises a plan to secure a job. How does he do this, by deciding to steal even more money from his master and getting those who owe his master to participate in his scheme and to keep it secret.
Stay with me.
It took me a minute before I really realized what was going on here.
The master doesn’t actually know what is owed to him, only the unjust steward does, that’s why his scheme works.
“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.’ (Luke 16:5-6)
You Might Be Asking Yourself, “What About the Gracious Master?”
There are lots of ways to make sense of this parable, I’m just offering you one more. Here’s my take. Yes, money plays a significant role in this story that’s obvious, but I don’t believe that’s what this story is really about. I don’t believe that Jesus is teaching us how to handle money here. If so, then you have to confront the simple reading of this parable that has Jesus telling you to steal money and use it to secure your future. Is there space for another understanding of this parable, let’s consider together that the steward takes a risk because he encounters a merciful master. What if Jesus is telling this story with this merciful master because he wants us to see something he knows about his Father? Remember the master in this story has been cheated, he’s owed a debt from the steward, yet he doesn’t demand it.
Clearly the story is about money, but what if the story is also about how the unjust steward finds the master? This is why this parable is so problematic, we can’t reduce to just one thing, maybe Jesus is inviting us to be fully present in the spaces we find ourselves and he’s saying, “Pay attention to the master in the story, how do you find him?” I think we reduce the parable to being just about how to manage money, without stopping and asking why Jesus casts the master the way he does? When we do this, I believe we miss out on another benefit that Jesus is presenting, a deeper understanding of the Father. Look, I may be wrong here, but there’s just something about this parable that has arrested me, and it’s the role of the master, the picture the Father that Jesus paints. He’s going to great lengths here to alert us to something, and Friends, I don’t want us to miss out on it!
Back to the story...
“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.’ (Luke 16:7)
It’s not the harvest time, yet he calls in those who owe his master. Each conversation is in private, there are no witnesses–this steward knows what he’s doing. And the debts and reductions he is offering are enormous. Each of the reductions is worth about a year and half’s salary for a farm worker.
The unjust steward is operating in a honor-shame culture, and he uses that to his benefit. In order for this scheme to work, the debtors have to believe that he is still employed by the master. He’s leveraging the “public propriety” and “private awareness” of the debtors. The debtor’s public stance, should things get exposed is, “I didn’t know that the steward had been fired. No one sent me an email letting me know what happened.” This gives them plausible deniability.
And the next key to his scheme is using their “private awareness.” Once the news breaks that the steward was fired and when he cut their debt, he was actually cheating the master, their “private awareness” kicks in. They now understand what has happened and how they have benefited. They may be reluctant to go to the master and explain what happened, and the steward now has them in his pocket, they now owe him. And since he’s been fired, he now needs a job.
I love this story!
It gets better! Because the steward just cut their debt, what’s their response? To share the information with their friends and family. It’s like they hit the lottery, “Can you believe this master,” they say, “He’s so generous.”
And that’s how the master learns of what the steward has done, he hears reports of his incredible generosity.
And there it is. That’s the point I see Jesus making, “Look at the master.”
In this story, the steward seems to have nothing of his own. Sit with that for a moment.
Nobody else to rely on.
All he has is due to what has been given to him by the master.
I think there’s an insight here for all of us because this accurately describes the position we find ourselves in.
We came into the world God created with nothing and we will leave it the same way.
All that we have is a gift from God.
The master has found out that the steward has mismanaged the master's estate.
We have misused our gifts from God in the same way.
Who can stand before God and say that we've done well with what we've been given?
At some point, we all find ourselves guilty, unrighteous, even.
The steward is called to give an account in the future.
So will we be.
What will we do in the meantime? The steward only has what has been given him by the master, so that is all that he has at his disposal.
All that we have is gift from God.
That's all we can use. (The rub is, we think we have things that are our own, that we have earned.) Jesus says that the steward was wise to use what he had received to make friends. “Do likewise,” Jesus says.
How do we prepare for the future? Use what we have (which is not ours in the first place) to develop strong friendships with those who have influence with God. And who are these folks, the ones who have God’s heart? The poor, the orphans, the weak, the outcasts, that’s who!
The stewards scheme pays off. As the details are disclosed, people will be amazed at the steward’s intelligence and daring. No one will trust him, but they will hire him none the less. They will say, “I want this fellow to work for me and not anyone else.”
And the master pays the price of the steward’s salvation–his redemption–and commends the steward, not for his fraud, but for his accurate perception of the master’s gracious and compassionate nature.
“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.” (Luke 16:8-9)
At the beginning of the story, the steward experiences the incredible and extraordinary mercy of the master. Based on this, the steward takes a risk, he risks everything, it’s like the story of the pearl of great price, Jesus says,
"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. (Matthew 13:44)
The steward is confident in master’s continued grace and mercy–his generosity. This is why I believe this story is more about what Jesus is saying about the master than how to manage money. The steward discovers something about the master’s identity.
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)
And Jesus wants us to have this picture of God. God doesn’t need anything from us, but has everything we need.
Julian the Apostate was wrong, Jesus doesn’t instruct his disciples to lie, cheat, and steal, instead Jesus says, “Did you notice the master?” How do you find him? He’s just like the God that I call Father and he’s good and beautiful. He’s incredibly kind, merciful, full of grace. He’s generous to a fault, and best of all, he’s full of forgiveness.
How do you find God today?
Are you willing to risk everything to follow Jesus through the narrow gate as he leads us into the unknown?
Are you willing to open your hands to receive the gift that God has for you today?
This series is about stories. The stories we receive and we tell. Here’s a practical tip for you this week, start by renaming this parable, “The Merciful Master” then take some time to retell the story. What do you changes in your retelling? What do you focus? Are there new characters? New speakers? Imagine that Jesus is trying to get someone to understand that his Father is kind, merciful, and full of grace, how would you communicate this posture and picture?