The Dishonest Steward

September 22, 2019     Proper 25

Luke 16:1-14

So here we have it: the Dishonest Steward. The source of confusion and consternation for the church over the centuries. What does Jesus mean? How can he possibly be setting up this scoundrel as an example for the Christian life? Some have called it the most difficult of all the parables.

The confusion set in early. Clearly Luke doesn’t really know what to do with this unsettling story. He has tacked on the end several different sayings of Jesus, taken from the index cards strewn around his desk, in the hope that one or the other will shed some light on this.

And then there followed the commentaries over the centuries, down to the present day. Reading commentaries is seldom so entertaining as it is for this passage: watching the earnest professors and preachers wrestle with this text, clucking with indignation over the steward’s criminal dishonesty, and tying themselves in knots trying to squeeze a comfortable moral message for a sermon out of this scandalous tale.

I am going to begin with a supposition, which may be unconventional, but I think is an essential interpretive tool: Jesus is messing with us.

I don’t mean just in this parable, although it is particularly obvious here. In all the parables, really. I think we have grown more used to the idea that parables are not just pat little illustrations of a clear moral, but something more open-ended: they invoke our imagination, they open new possibilities, they subvert our tired and predictable patterns of thought. They make us think. In other words, they mess with us.

That is true of all parables, but especially of Jesus’s parables that have to do with human social and economic interaction. There are a whole series of parables that make God appear like some kind of unsavoury lord: an unjust judge; a rapacious capitalist who reaps where he does not sow; a prince living in a far-off land, demanding the fruits of a vineyard he does not tend. There is no reason to single out the immorality of this one roguish steward: the parables often lead us onto morally shaky ground. Jesus is messing with us, messing with our image of God, and with our deference to those in authority.

So I take that as a given, the assumption we have to start from if we are to keep honest. Jesus is messing with us in this parable. The sooner we accept that premise, the sooner we can get on with listening to it. The interesting question then becomes, how is he messing with us?

A first clue might be to call to mind who Jesus was speaking to, who he was originally messing with. The reading tells us he was talking to his disciples; but this does not seem to esoteric teaching for the disciples alone, and we later learn that others were listening in, and were clearly meant to be. Generally in the gospels Jesus’s public works are spoken between two groups of listeners: the people of the land, to whom he proclaims a vision of God’s kingdom that includes them; and on the other hand the scribes and Pharisees, who opposed his ministry as selling cheap the grace of God to the impure. So how would Jesus’s tale have messed with each of them?

Perhaps the common people who made up the bulk of Jesus’s listeners would not have had as much difficulty with this story as we do. They would have, for the most part, been the poor, the ordinary folk, trying to scrape an existence by on the edge of a colonial economy. They would have immediately recognized the master in this parable as one of the wealthy landowners who had built up huge estates, growing cash crops for export throughout the Roman world, people who dealt daily in 100 barrels of olive oil or 100 tons of wheat.

The problem of the centralization of the land in big estates, disinheriting ordinary people from their family farms, is one that runs through Scripture. Isaiah, in the eighth century BC, denounced these landowners: “Woe to you who join house to house, and add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!” Sounds like parts of the prairies today. And at the very end of the Bible, 800 years later, it is still a problem. When Famine speaks, one of the four horsemen of the book of Revelation, a spectral figure holding a set of scales, he cries out: “A quart of wheat for a day’s pay, and three quarts of barley for a day’s pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!” Do not damage the olive oil and the wine, because these were the export crops grown on the big estates, much as bananas and coffee is grown in Central America today. Having displaced people from the land, they are part of the problem, the tools of Famine.

So Jesus’s listeners would easily have recognized the master in today’s story, and most of them would have had little sympathy for him. It would have been a small step to see the dishonest steward as a kind of Robin Hood figure, a sympathetic rascal who by cheating his master was taking a small step towards righting the wrongs of an unjust system. And the legions of modern commentators and preachers who reinforce over and over again what an unsavoury criminal he was may be saying more about their devotion to the sacred capitalist ideal of private property, than giving any insight into what Jesus intended.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that Jesus is advancing a program of Marxist revolution here, telling his disciples to rise up and steal from the rich. I’m just saying he is messing with us a bit, messing with our assumptions of the absolute value of the rich’s property, messing with our deference to a system that had been dispossessing and exploiting the poor for centuries. And when our commentators fall over each other in righteous indignation at the steward’s flouting of these values, they have walked right into Jesus’s trap.

But there is also a religious dimension to all this. I would suggest that in the Biblical mindset, shaped by the law and the prophets, socio-economic issues always have a religious dimension; they have to do with the question of which God we are serving, the God of Jacob, who executes justice for the oppressed (Psalm 146:7), or the baals of the nations, whose image stands today on Wall St.

The religious dimension comes into focus when we consider how this story serves to mess with that other group of Jesus’s listeners hovering in the background, the Pharisees. The Pharisees were that movement in first century Judaism that called people back to affirm their Jewish identity by a stricter adherence to the Torah in everyday life. Historically they did a lot of good, laying a foundation that would allow the Jewish faith to survive the loss of their homeland and two thousand years in exile. But the picture of the Pharisees in the Gospels highlights their shadow side: their demanding lifestyle was very much a middle-class thing, excluding the poor who did not have the resources or leisure to follow the laws so closely; and the sick, who were ritually unclean. And so the Pharisees, in Jesus’s indictment, had the effect of shutting out the poor and sick from the people of Israel. This is the core of his conflict with them: that Jesus’s proclamation of God’s kingdom that had come near, had come among the poor, was compromising the Pharisees’ vision, watering down the demands that God makes of his people.

And that is exactly what this parable is about, the story of a rogue servant marking down people’s accounts and letting them off on the cheap. I think Jesus is very much messing with the Pharisees here. He is messing with their image of God, characterizing God as a kind of rich landowner, a capitalist interested in making maximal profits in terms of the religious demands he lays on his people. This is much the same thing we see him doing in other parables: messing with our ideas of persistent prayer by casting God as an unjust judge, who grants justice only when we bug him enough; or another exploitative capitalist, who reaps where he does not sow.

And Jesus also plays with the way the Pharisees see him, casting himself as a dishonest rogue who runs about discounting people’s accounts with God, telling them they are welcome into the kingdom even if they don’t live up to the Pharisees’ standards. He gleefully embraces their version of him, only to mess with them. Because then comes the surprise: the master commends the unrighteous steward’s cheating ways. Apparently, God is not so obsessed with demanding the high standards that the Pharisees are trying to enforce; apparently, God is quite happy with Jesus’s work, offering salvation at a discount, at a price ordinary people can manage.

And the Pharisees know that they are being messed with, and they are not happy: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him” (v. 14).

If there is any truth to what I am saying about this passage, that does not mean we should just roll this parable up, and file it away as a puzzle solved. It is not that simple, and it shouldn’t be. It is a terrible temptation for us preachers to want to solve all that is confusing or unsettling in Scripture. And that, of course, is to miss the very point. Jesus wants to mess with us. Again and again, in the most loving way possible, with gentle (but occasionally harsh) irony, Jesus wants to call out our pretensions, subvert our assumptions, unsettle our certainties, reminding us that we do not own God’s truth, but can only approach it in humility and wonder. So let us embrace being messed with by Jesus – it is an exhilarating and freeing experience.