I’ve got a history with this parable that goes back thirty years. Back when I was in seminary, I took a class called Exegesis and Preaching. Exegesis is a fancy word for interpretation, by the way. It was team-taught by two people. One was Helmut Koester, Helmut is retired now but he was one of the most important New Testament scholars of the day, and Harvard was then clearly the center of New Testament scholarship in the world. The other professor was Peter Gomes. He died a couple of years ago but he was considered one of the best preachers in America.
This was one of the hardest courses I ever took in all of my academic career; and it’s also the one that has shaped me the most as a preacher, but also has shaped my approach to scripture. They picked what they considered to be the most difficult texts in the New Testament. One week we had to write a paper on the chosen text that would pass muster with a great, and very critical, New Testament scholar. The next week, we preached a sermon on that same passage to the class of ten or so people and the two profs. Following all that, we had an individual one-hour tutorial with Peter. The first thing he did when you walked in his office was pull the sermon manuscript out of your hand, tell you to sit down, and preach your sermon back to you. Quite simply, those were the most embarrassing experiences of my entire academic life. Hearing my words with Peter’s mellifluous intonation made me hope the floor of Harvard’s Memorial Church would open up and swallow me. It was excruciating.
Well, this parable was the first text on which I worked for that class. I have no idea what I wrote or said. They chose it because it is probably the most difficult, the most opaque of all of Jesus’ parables. The steward seems to act abominably but his master praises him, and then Jesus offers what seem to be several different attempts to explain the story. Over the thirty years since that class, I’ve preached on this parable several times. I used it regularly when I taught New Testament or Bible because in some respects I think it’s a model of Jesus’ parables.
How can this strange, illogical parable be a model? Well, for one very important reason, because it resists our attempts to domesticate, make sense of, bring into our sphere of comprehension. Its difficulty is that no explanation is ultimately satisfactory, no explanation—not the ones Luke puts in Jesus’ mouth at the end of the story, not the ones commentators have come up with over the centuries. After all of our struggles with it, we are left with a story in which charges are brought against a steward, he reacts in his own self-interest, and when found out, his boss or master commends him for it.
In order to access the world of this parable, we need to access the economy of the ancient Greco-Roman world. The story is not necessarily set in the countryside, on an estate, but clearly the master is a man of great wealth whose business has to do with the chief commodities of the time—olive oil and wheat. It’s likely he was an absentee landowner. The steward, either a slave, or more likely a freedman, was responsible for extracting the maximum wealth possible from the estate and passing it on to the landowner. But before passing it on, he would take his cut. Typically, as long as he didn’t abuse the system, the steward could benefit richly from the system, skimming off some of the profits for himself. This is the way the economy worked. It was also, by the way, the way the imperial tax system worked.
Now charges were brought against him that he was dishonest. At this point, there’s nothing in the story to suggest whether the charges were valid or not, and that may be a significant point. In such an economy, in such a society, the only power the people at the bottom of the heap have is to bring such charges. Doing so makes the person above them vulnerable. The master demanded an accounting, but before having a chance to look at the books, the steward took action.
While it may look like the steward is trying to ingratiate himself as he reduces the debts that are owed his master, I think there is another way of looking at it. Here is a place where we are very much in a comparable place economically. The master and steward occupied an economy in which worth was calculated solely in financial terms. The relationships between landowner, steward, and debtors were strictly economic. The master and steward had similar goals—to extract as much wealth as possible from the land and from those who owed him. Sound familiar?
But suddenly, the steward is expelled from that economy. He has no place and no prospects. He doesn’t have the skills or strength to dig, and he is ashamed to beg. So he sets out to transform himself and his value. With a goal of being welcomed in people’s homes after he loses his job, he builds social capital by subverting the wealth economy. His actions create new relationships. No longer is he a steward and they debtors. Now they are united by mutual relationship. And there’s this. His actions have also probably created good will between the debtors and the master. Who doesn’t like to see the principal of their loans reduced?
Here’s the thing. We all struggle with money. We worry whether we have enough to pay the bills. We worry whether we’ll have enough for our retirement. We worry whether we’ll have enough to make it to the next paycheck. But that’s not all. So much of our personal value and worth is tied up with how much we make. Our self-worth seems to be often dependent on the fact that we are consumers, and that we can display for all to see the wealth we have. We live in a culture dominated by celebrity, where political power is more and more a function of how much money one can throw into an issue, or into a political race. And just this week I read that the richest 500 people in the US have as much wealth as the lowest 150 million people.
We struggle with it, but when we see our society operating on those terms; when our political system seems to have been completely corrupted by money, where economic inequality is increasing and social mobility decreasing, it’s hard not to buy into the hype—we’re inundated with it pretty much twenty-four hours a day.
But here we are in church and we’ve just heard this gospel lesson in which someone who was in some ways very much like most of us. He was in the system and benefiting from it. But suddenly things changed. Faced with a choice, he opted out and entered into a very different mode of being. It’s the mode of being, the kingdom of God that the Gospel of Luke shares throughout—a mode of being where strangers are welcomed, bounty is shared, debts are forgiven, as are sins, and there is abundant grace and mercy.
It’s here that it finally comes down to us. We participate in that economy of wealth and scarcity. We participate in it; most of us benefit from it in one way or another. We are consumers; we are groomed to be consumers now from the time we are able to walk. Those kid-sized shopping carts aren’t just cute gimmicks; they are shaping the behavior of our children, teaching them to be consumers, to think about everything—and everyone–in the world in terms of price, profit, and status.
Jesus gives us a glimpse of a different economy, one of relationships where money, wealth is used to create bonds among our fellow humans and tighten our relationship with God. When Jesus invites people to dine with him, when he feeds the five thousand from a few loaves and fishes, when he speaks of the reign of God where all are welcome and all receive God’s grace, he is casting a vision of an economy of abundance, an economy where human beings aren’t reduced to how much they can buy, or seen only as potential markets, as consumers. As he proclaims that gospel and advocates that economy, he is helping us see the infinite possibilities in human life, possibilities of growth and flourishing that explode outside of the metaphors of market and consumer.
That’s the table to which Jesus invites us; the world in which he encourages us to live. Jesus invites us to think of our wealth, and we are wealthy, all of us are. Jesus invites us to think of our wealth as a means by which we reach out to others, establish relationships with them, and invite them into a new community, the reign of God, where they might flourish, experience the abundance of God’s grace and love, and in turn share that abundance with others.
We are entering stewardship season at Grace. You will receive the annual stewardship appeal for support of our ongoing operating budget. In the coming weeks, you will also be hearing about a feasibility study as we reflect on the master plan for renovations and begin to think about a capital campaign. We will be asking you to reflect on how God has blessed you, how you have been blessed by Grace Church, and how, with your help, Grace Church might be a greater blessing to Madison and to the world.
As we have those conversations, as you pray and reflect on what Grace means to you, and on what blessings God has given you, I hope that you will also reflect on the relationships you have, with God, with Jesus Christ, with your brothers and sisters at Grace. How do these relationships help to open you, your family and loved ones, to deeper, fuller relationships, to that economy of grace, mercy and abundance, that is only possible through God’s grace, and the shared love of Jesus Christ?
Thanks for this very insightful discussion of Jesus’ “Robin Hood” parable. It certainly is essential to recall how tenant farming worked, not just in Graeco-Roman times but how it still works in many parts of the world. As I listened to my priest discussing the parable this morning, it seemed to me that the heart of the story was about justice more than money. The contrast that the story sets up is between God’s distributive justice and the oppressive economic and social system of the Roman empire. As you point out, the Kingdom of God is one in which grace and mercy replace oppression and where personal relationships of trust replace exploitation. The Master [God] could commend the steward’s unconventional (and in secular terms, dishonest) actions because he enabled all the parties to have enough of the goods they produced to live and still return a substantial share that was owed in gratitude for what the Master had provided.
To hear this parable discussed at the end of a week filled with tragic death, mayhem and selfishness, when our Representatives voted to cut funding for food to children and the elderly and to deny millions the healthcare they need, reminded me that oppression is very near us and that the need for God’s mercy and grace are as urgent today as they were in ancient times. What Jesus offers in this parable is a response to Jeremiah’s complaint in the OT Reading that “there is no balm in Gilead,” for as the old Afro-American spiritual says, ‘There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole…”