+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning’s Gospel contains what is probably the most baffling of Jesus’ parables. If you were paying attention it might have struck you as more than a little odd. It might have seemed like I misread something to horrible effect, because it seems to run counter to everything we know about Jesus: And I tell you, [he says] make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.
So troubling are these words that, even from very early on, some Christians have tried to argue that this is a mistake in how Luke recorded our Lord’s words, and critics of Christianity have used it as proof of the faith’s inconsistency. Julian the Apostate—the Roman Emperor who reverted to paganism after his uncle Constantine and cousin Constantius had turned toward Christianity—claimed this passage as proof that Jesus was no more God than any other fallible human. And if we look at the text, it appears that Luke himself might not have known what to do with this saying. Surely, he included it because Jesus said it, but then he follows it with a number of Jesus’ other, apparently contradictory sayings about the dangers of money. So, we go from “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth” to “you cannot serve [both] God and wealth” in the span of a few verses. Now, I don’t doubt Jesus said all these things; I’m just suggesting that Luke might not have done the best job of editing and making sure everything was in its proper context.
So, what the heck are we going to do with this? Let’s start with a couple of important points about how to read parables. You will remember from last week that we sometimes misunderstand parables because we reckon their protagonists to be us rather than God. Keep that in mind.
Another thing about parables to keep in mind is that theymay have allegorical features but they are not mere allegories. An allegory is basically a work in which there is a one-to-one correlation between characters and actions in the text and in real life.
But parables are not simple allegories. They give us an insight into the nature of God or of the Christian life, but not every detail is meant to sync up with the reality. So, in last week’s Gospel we heard the parable of the lost coin, and determined that the woman was to be seen as God and the coin as the lost soul (these are, no doubt, allegorical features) but the woman’s poverty is a plot device rather than a symbol suggesting that God is somehow poor or lacking something in himself.
So let us apply these two facts—that we often mistake whom the parable is about and that parables are not mere allegories—to this morning’s Gospel. Remember what happened? The steward is fired for defrauding his master, and he proceeds to collect less than what is owed from the master’s debtors in order to ingratiate himself to them. Ultimately, the master commends the steward for his shrewd rejection of justice. The just, or righteous, path would have been to collect all that was owed, but such justice often lacks mercy. The steward is less interested in what is fair than he is in what is effective in bringing about rapprochement.
Now, what if this parable is not about us and our business dealings? What if it’s actually about a different sort of economy, namely the economy of salvation?
This would seem to be in keeping with the interpretation we gave last week regarding the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. It’s also, I think, the principle meaning of the parable our lectionary skipped over between last week and this morning (namely, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, skipped not because it is unimportant, but rather because it is so important that we heard it at Mid-Lent). This suggestion that the parable is not really about money but about salvation requires us to accept the suggestion I made a little earlier that while Jesus did, in fact, present these four parables as a unit, the inclusion of the last four verses of this morning’s reading was a perhaps ham-handed editorial choice made by Luke.
So, I don’t believe the parable of the unjust steward is really about money at all. I’ve seen some modern interpretations that claim the opposite, that try to give the parable a sort of Marxist gloss; some of you will disagree with me (and that’s fine) but this does not strike me as a terribly likely or faithful reading of the text.
Also remember, parables aren’t simple allegories, so we don’t have to see the steward’s initial unfaithfulness and incompetence as anything other than a plot device to get the story going. His moral status and business skills at the beginning of the story isn’t the most important thing here. The important part is what he does with the debtors. They owe something, and the steward cuts them a break so that he might be taken in by one them.
This is called “dishonest” in our translation of the parable, but I think this is one of those occasions on which the New Revised Standard Version yields an inferior translation to its predecessors. The Greek here reads “τοῦ μαμωνᾶ τῆϛ ἁδικίαϛ”: “the wealth of unrighteousness.” The point is not that the money is dishonest but that it is unrighteous. Now, in Jesus’ context “unrighteous” would have been reckoned a synonym for “unlawful”, because that’s what a first-century Jew would have understood the word “unrighteous” to mean. The law demanded full payment.
So, if the unjust steward is supposed to be Jesus himself, I contend that the parable is not about money at all. It is rather about the human soul and sin and our just deserts. By all rights, we’ve got a debt we cannot pay. The fair thing, the lawful thing, the righteous thing, would be for each of us to suffer the consequences, and those consequences would, no doubt, be eternal. But just like the steward, who desired to live with one of the debtors, Jesus desires to dwell with us and within us. And just like the steward, Christ knows that that can’t happen if he follows “the rules”.
That we can have a relationship with Jesus is not fair; justice would demand the opposite. If a friend were to constantly turn his back on any one of us, to break faith and defraud us, we would be just to end that friendship. So, too, would God have been within his rights to cut us loose. The children of Israel had what we might characterize as a conditional relationship with God. God promised to remain faithful if and only if they kept their end of the bargain, if they followed the laws and ordinances of the Old Covenant. They didn’t. We are supposed to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind and our neighbors as ourselves. We never did a good job of this, and we still don’t. But then what God did was shocking, an affront to fairness and justice. He said “no more conditions. I will love you unconditionally.” That wasn’t the deal. He didn’t have to do it, but He loved us so much that He desired to stay in relationship with us whatever the costs to Himself, knowing that the cost would ultimately be His own life. Mercy has trumped fairness; love has overcome the law.
As I’ve said before, this doesn’t mean that we don’t have any expectations. What it does mean is that there isn’t anything we can do to make God stop loving us. He’s broken the rules for us already; He’s bailed us out when we should have been left in chains. Thankfully we have an opportunity to do a little toward repaying this debt which has already been forgiven. We can offer our thanks, which is why we keep showing up here week after week. We can try to love Him back, even if we haven’t enough love in us to go very far in that regard. Most of all, we can permit Him to live in our hearts. That is not a one-time deal, no matter what the televangelists tell you. That is a daily choice. We can let Him in or evict Him. But before we do the latter, let’s remember that that’s why he bent the rules in the first place. That’s why he showed mercy when justice demanded wrath. He who on earth had no home, wants only to live in us.
This leaves us with one remaining, potentially uncomfortable question. Somebody is getting defrauded in the parable. The rich man doesn’t get paid back, and the unjust steward clearly realizes that his choice of mercy over justice will make him unpopular with his former boss. Now, we could just say, as I said a few minutes ago “parables aren’t allegories, and this is just a plot device”, but I think if one scratches under the surface of this question the plot, in fact, thickens.
Has Jesus Christ, the Son of God, been unjust toward God the Father? Has God himself been defrauded? By no means!
This would indeed be a problem; it would render meaningless the Church’s definition of the Trinity and it would further mean that God was somehow incapable of maintaining perfection. However, in the one perfect offering, sacrifice, and oblation of Christ on the Cross, the sin debt has been paid and God’s honor has been satisfied.
Who then is the rich man laid low by the operation of God’s Grace? The Church Father’s present us with an ingenuous solution. Jesus did engage in defrauding Satan, and the powers of death and hell are left comfortless and without recourse to collecting their due. This, the Fathers argue, is what it means when the author of today’s Epistle referred to Christ Jesus as a “ransom for all.” We owed everything, and a kidnapper tried to collect on the debt, but the Great Creditor paid Himself, and in a manner which at the same time bankrupted the one who thought himself so clever.
Think of it this way. It’s like the Crucifixion was one of those heist movies where the thief gets double-crossed and opens up the suitcase to discover it’s full of underpants or something instead of money. There was a switcheroo, and the thief is never going to get paid. In this case, it’s like the devil and he thinks the suitcase is full of souls but it’s got a time bomb in it instead.
St. Augustine put it this way:
The Redeemer came and the deceiver was overcome. What did our Redeemer do to our Captor? In payment for us He set the trap, His Cross, with His blood for bait. He [Satan] could indeed shed that blood; but he deserved not to drink it. By shedding the blood of One who was not his debtor, he was forced to release his debtors.
Or take those moving words from the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom, which I read every Easter Vigil:
O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
So, the Lord God has done some creative accounting when it comes to the economy of Salvation, but I for one am not going to lose any sleep over the one it forced into filing Chapter 11, because Hell is one corporation that could stand to benefit from some administrative restructuring.
My earlier point about the Marxist reading being inappropriate notwithstanding–since we’re talking about something much more important than money here–I suppose this is the one kind of redistribution of wealth we can all get on board with, regardless of our political philosophy. We are all beneficiaries of the economy of the Kingdom of God so long as we permit that clever, wily, unjust manager, whom we welcomed into our homes, and into whose own eternal home we will ourselves be welcomed on the last day.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.