the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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
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
make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest
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
this passage as proof that Jesus was no more God than any other
And if we look at the text, it appears that Luke himself might
what to do with this saying. Surely, he included it because Jesus
said it, but then he follows
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
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.
are we going to do with this? Let’s
start with a couple of important points about how to read parables.
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.
about parables to keep in mind is
have allegorical features but they are
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
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
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
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
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
us to accept the suggestion I made a little earlier that while
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
likely or faithful reading of the text.
parables aren’t simple
allegories, so we don’t have to see the steward’s initial
anything other than a plot device to get the story going. His
moral status and
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
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
τῆϛ ἁδικίαϛ”: “the
wealth of unrighteousness.” The point is not that the money is
it is unrighteous.
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
steward is supposed to be Jesus himself,
the parable is not about money at all. It
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
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
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.
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
Augustine put it this way:
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.
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.
was in an uproar because it was done away with.
was in an uproar because it is mocked.
was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
took a body, and discovered God.
took earth, and encountered Heaven.
took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
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
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.
the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.