Year C, Proper 20, The Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
September 18, 2022
Year C: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-3
This Sunday, we continue reflecting upon the parables Jesus tells in Luke’s Gospel with the parable of the dishonest or unjust steward.
Jesus told this parable immediately after the parable of the prodigal son, in which God’s mercy and forgiveness were spoken of.
So, what are to make of the parable of the dishonest manager, as Jesus called him?
The story details the actions of a steward responsible for the care of another’s property – who has mismanaged the property. The owner is told of this mismanagement and calls the steward to give an account of his holdings. So, before he reports to the owner, he visits all the debtors, those very people from whom the steward is to collect the debts, and he writes them promissory notes reducing those debts. He takes that action without authorization or justification from the owners. For example, he marks a bill of a farmer owing 100 bushels of wheat to 80 bushels. The farmer who owed 100 jugs of olive oil now only owes 50. That’s a pretty gusty move for a guy already in a fair amount of trouble.
Why does the steward do this? What can the steward gain by reducing these bills?
The answer to those questions is pretty easy to answer.
For one thing, the steward can create gratitude, goodwill, and indebtedness to him among the farmers so that when the steward is out of a job, he has a place to land when the owner throws him out of his position.
Thus, the actions of the steward can be understood. He is trying to salvage what he can out of the situation.
Most certainly, the steward’s actions were dishonest. He is guilty of mismanaging the owner’s property. Jesus specifically refers to him as the dishonest manager.
What is surprising, however, is the commendation of the steward by the owner. The owner seems pleased by the steward’s sly action, at least as told by Jesus.
Perhaps the owner knew he was unlikely to get full payment on the debts owed and figured it was better to get 50 or 80 cents on the dollar than nothing. If that is the case, he can take credit for the steward’s action, in which case he’d continue to take in the acclaim and good wishes from his tenants.
But there’s still the question of Jesus – why relate a parable about dishonesty and injustice? Why seemingly give credit to a dishonest person?
That’s probably an answer in itself because Jesus was always telling morality stories that had more profound meanings.
There’s a wonderful scene in C.S. Lewis’ famous novel, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where Lucy, the youngest of the children to cross into the magical world of Narnia, converses with Mr. Beaver. In this magical land of talking animals and evil queens, Lucy feels both wonder and fear after hearing about Aslan, the original Lion King. He rules over the lands of Narnia. Lucy asks Mr. Beaver, “Is he quite safe?” The industrious rodent replies with an air of indignation, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? Course, he isn’t safe! But he’s good!”
Much like Lucy wants to know that the ruler of her mystical realm of Narnia is safe, we want our God and our faith to be safe and comforting. But if we pay close attention to our Gospel for today, we quickly realize that Jesus is far from safe, but he is always good and full of surprises.
Jesus had been traveling around Jerusalem, preaching about God’s realm, healing the sick, curing the infirm, raising the dead, and generally stepping on the toes of the good religious leaders around Jerusalem. The Scribes and the Pharisees grumbled about his dinner companions being less than savory characters, but instead of answering their criticism, Jesus told a series of parables, including this one.
I’m sure the religious people of Jesus’ day were left grumbling and scratching their heads at this parable. They signed up for a God who is honest and reasonable, just and fair. We also want an honest, reasonable, just, and fair God.
But Jesus points to the realm of a God who seeks the wanderer, celebrates the lost, forgives the proud, and repairs broken relationships.
Throughout the Bible, and particularly in today’s Gospel, we are confronted with a God who takes our norms, expectations, perceptions, and preconceived notions and turns them on their heads. Jesus praises the manager’s irresponsible behavior and urges us to act more like the manager!
Jesus is not praising dishonesty. Instead, the owner finds the steward’s behavior praiseworthy because the steward shows prudence in planning for the future.
The point Jesus is making is that if even dishonest people can act prudently concerning their future, how much more prudently should disciples of God act for their future? Jesus is telling his followers to be prudent in managing the goods that our God has entrusted us.
We are all stewards. Everything you and I possess – our material goods, wealth, gifts and talents, bodies and souls – belongs to God. God entrusts us with these gifts, but there will come a day when we must give an account for them.
Are we at least as prudent as the dishonest steward when planning for that day and the account we will have to give?
What are the gifts entrusted to our church? Imagine if we, as a church, imitated God’s goodness instead of generally seeking the safe route.
What if, as a community of faith, we chose to offer forgiveness, love, and welcome to everyone, including one another, without conditions or requirements?
What if we became agents of love and mercy in our community?
What if we stopped worrying about what is safe and started doing what is good? Drop an “o” and start doing what is God.
How would our church be different? How would our worship be different? How would our relationships be different?
Jesus invited those listening to him, especially those who were hearing him, to step out in faith and to see an outrageously generous God squander generosity on each one of us, whether we deserve it or not.
As followers of Jesus, this is the generous God we proclaim. This is the gracious and giving God we serve.
Jesus, in his life and ministry, chose always to do good at the risk of being safe.
Our society often prizes safety over welcome, fear over compassion, and division over unity. We are sometimes too willing to sacrifice love, compassion, and caring for perceived security, safety, and things other than God.
Safe says, “Follow the rules.” God replies, “Seek compassion and mercy.”
Safe says, “Keep score. Hold grudges.” God replies, “Love your neighbor. Forgive.”
Safe says, “Take care of your own.” God replies, “Just as you do to the least of these, you do to me.”
Safe is tempting, but God is eternal.
At the end of the lesson, Jesus makes it clear that the priorities of the steward are not those of God. We are the slaves of God, not of wealth: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
We can only serve God. Being a good steward of what God has given us, we hope that when we are called to give our account to God, we might hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”