The Hardest Parable
The Unjust Steward
Luke 16: 1-13
Jesus said to his disciples, “A rich man had a steward who was reported to him for squandering his property
He summoned him and said, ‘What is this I hear about you?
Prepare a full account of your stewardship, because you can no longer be my steward.’
The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me?
I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg.
I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.’
He called in his master’s debtors one by one.
To the first he said, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’
He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note.
Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’
Then to another the steward said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’
He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’
The steward said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note, write one for eighty.’
And the master commended the dishonest steward for acting prudently.
“For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.
I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones.
If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth?
If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours?
No servant can serve two masters.
He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.
You cannot serve both God and mammon.”
The parable of The Unjust Steward always needs a lengthy explanation for it is not clear right away who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. That is why it was so interesting to go to two Masses and listen to two different interpretations of the same scripture.
At the Roman Catholic Mass Father Danny saw the steward’s doctoring of the books as an attempt to curry favor with those who owed his Master a debt. In this interpretation Father Danny sees the master as commending the steward for his cleverness.
But then he asks, if you can be clever for what is wrong why cannot you be equally clever for good? God gave us wisdom. Instead of abusing that gift cannot we use it for the betterment of humankind?
Do we use our God given wisdom to make bigger and better weapons or for more effective medicine?
In the end Father Danny still saw the steward as the bad guy and the master as blameless in this account.
At the Universal Catholic Church Bishop Tony asks, “Who do we identify with – the steward, the rich man or those who got a huge discount?”
This parable, continued Bishop Tony, is similar to another parable where a large debt is forgiven in the hope that the forgiven would do likewise, forgive the debts of those who owe him. This similar parable is forgiveness from the top down.
But in the case of the Unjust Steward forgiveness comes from the bottom up.
Bishop Tony then introduced us to another book this week – “The Parables of Grace” – reading some of the chapter titled “The Hardest Parable”.
In doing so he pointed out a few of the concepts introduced by its author Robert Farrar Capon.
1) Grace works only on those it finds dead enough to raise.
2) Grace cannot come from respectability
3) The unjust steward can be seen as a Christ figure
Here is a major portion of that chapter “The Hardest Parable” from the book “The Parables Of Grace”.
The Parables Of Grace
In any case, it all boils down to the fact that there are basically just two ways of interpreting this parable: you can make the steward out to be a hero or you can make him out to be a villain. Obviously, if you decide to read the parable as verses 1-8, the white-hat interpretation will be your natural choice; but if you read it as verses 1-13, the black hat will seem to fit better. It’s worth noting, though, that each interpretation has a price to pay. If you make the steward a bad guy, several things don’t make sense. In the first place, the heavily moralized parable that that gives you consists ill not only with the preceding parable in Luke but with the entire tone of the final journey to Jerusalem. Jesus has been on a grace trip for seven chapters now: he has been talking lastness, lostness, death, and resurrection, and he has again and again made it clear that the bookkeeping department’s heyday is a thing of the past. Why, then, at this stage of the game, would he poke in a parable that has none of the above as its main point – that amounts to little more than a surgeon general’s warning that “shady dealing is hazardous to your soul’s health”? Above all, why on earth would he put into the parable verse 8 (“And the Lord praised the unjust steward because he had acted shrewdly…”) – a verse which, unless it is taken as pure sarcasm, makes no sense whatsoever if you take the steward as a plain old bounder?
On the other hand, if you make the steward a good guy, verse 8 becomes the principal support for your interpretation – so much so, that you are willing (as I am) to lop off the rest of the passage in order to do justice to its decisiveness. Even at that price, though, the steward-as-hero interpretation seems preferable: it is, as you will see, consonant with the whole thrust of the parables of grace; in particular, it allows the parable to voice once again the theme of forgiveness-by-resurrection-from-the-dead that is the burden of so much of what Jesus has been saying. It even allows you to entertain the most bizarre and fruitful notion of all, namely, that of the unjust steward as Christ-figure. But more of that shortly. time now to expound the parable in order.
It begins with some nameless informant telling a certain rich man that his steward has been wasting (diaskorpizon) his money (hyparchonta, possessions). Score one fascinating point right there for a “grace” rather than a “morality” interpretation of this parable: diaskorpizein is the same verb used in the Prodigal Son to describe the boy’s “wasting” of his substance in the far country. From Jesus’ very choice of words, therefore, we are given a hint of continuity. Next, the master – without any trial or even fair inquiry – simply reads the steward the riot act: “What’s this I hear? You’re a disgrace! Turn in your books! You’re fired!” Score yet another point for continuity: just as with the Prodigal Son, death enters this parable early, and as a pivotal consideration. The son found himself dead in the far country; the steward comes out of his master’s office with none of his old life left at all.
But at this point, the parable of the Unjust Steward diverges from the Prodiagal Son and begins to look more like an upside-down version of the Unforgiving Servant. Watch “So the steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do now that my master has taken away my manager ship? I’m not strong enough to work as a laborer. I’m too proud to be a beggar. Aha! I’ve got it! I’ll use my brains and ace out that unforgiving tyrant. So he wants to play letter-of-the-law games, does he? He would like me to turn in my books, eh? Well, I’ll do just that – after I’ve made a few … adjustments.'”
What he does, of course, is call in his master’s debtors and settle accounts with them at considerable write-offs: he knocks the bill of one of them down by half, the bill of another by a fifth. all of which might produce a number of different results, depending on how you estimate it. On the one hand, it might at one and the same time make him look bad to his master and good to the debtors. If the master ever remembers any of the originally owed amounts he could be so furious over being gypped that the presence of cash in the till would hardly be enough to mollify him. But then, if the debtors thought kindly of the steward’s write-offs, they might, as he hooped, “receive him into their houses” after he was officially fired. On the other hand, his sharp dealing could, with even more logic, be read as making him look good to his master and bad to his debtors. For all we know, the master may have been overjoyed to get even fifty cents on the dollar from deadbeats like those. Likewise, for all we know, deadbeats like those could very likely have spotted the steward as no better than themselves and refused to give him office space.
But whichever of those readings or combination of them you decide to go with, the deciding factor remains verse 8. “And the Lord praised the unjust steward, for the children of this age are wiser in their generation than the children of light.” Somehow, between verse 2 (“What’s this? You’re fired”) and verse 8 (“My beamish boy! You’re a genius! I never thought I’d see even a nickel from those accounts!”), the master of the steward has turned from an unforgiving bookkeeper to a happy-go-lucky celebrator of any new interest that comes along. And what happened to him, can, as I have said, be best understood by comparing this parable with that of the Unforgiving Servant.
In that parable, forgiveness starts from the top down: the Lord, who is owed ten million dollars by one of his servants, simply drops dead to his own claim and absolves the debt. His intention, of course, is that the servant will take the hint and likewise drop dead to the hundred dollars owed to him by a fellow servant. But as Jesus tells the story, things do not work out that way – the forgiven servant chooses a bookkeeper’s life rather than a spendthrift’s death and thus short-circuits the working of forgiveness. Still, the point of the parable remains unchanged: grace works only on those it finds dead enough to raise.
Exactly the same point is made in the parable of the Unjust Steward, but by a reversal of the story’s device: forgiveness in this parable starts from the bottom up. Here, it is the lord of the steward who starts out unwilling to drop dead to any of his bookkeeping: He will not die to the steward’s peculations, and he will not die to the accounts past due that he has never succeeded in collecting. The steward, however, does die; and because he is freed by his death to think things he could not have thought before, he is the one who, from the bottom of the heap, as it were, becomes somehow the sight of a loser bringing off a coup like this in the very thick of his losses finally loosens the old boy up: ‘My God!” the master says, “My whole life has been a joke, and only now I learn to laugh at it!” But the steward is also able to be the resurrection of his lord’s debtors because they wouldn’t consent to deal with anyone but a crook like themselves: they would never have gone near him if they hadn’t been convinced he was dead to all the laws of respectable bookkeeping.
As far as I am concerned, therefore, the unjust steward is nothing less than the Christ-figure in this parable, a dead ringer for Jesus himself. First of all, he dies and rises, like Jesus. Second, by his death and resurrection, he raises others, like Jesus. But third and most important of all, the unjust steward is the Christ-figure because he is a crook, like Jesus. The unique contribution of this parable to our understanding of Jesus is its insistence that grace cannot come to the world through respectability. Respectability regards only life, success, winning; it will have no truck with the grace that works by death and losing – which is the only kind of grace there is.
The parable, therefore, says in story form what Jesus himself said by his life. He was not respectable. He broke the sabbath. He consorted with crooks. And he died as a criminal. Now at last, in the light of this parable, we see why he refused to be respectable: he did it to catch a world that respectability could only terrify and condemn. He became sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for us losers, and dead for us dead. Crux muscipulum diaboli, St Augustine said: the cross is the devil’s mousetrap, baited with Jesus’ disreputable death. And it is a mousetrap for us, too. Jesus baits us criminals with his own criminality: as the shabby debtors in the parable were willing to deal only with the crooked steward and not with the upright lord, so we find ourselves drawn by the bait of a Jesus who winks at iniquity and makes friends of sinners – of us crooks, that is – and of all the losers who would never in a million years go near a God who knew what was expected of himself and insisted on what he expected of others.
You don’t like that? You think it lowers standards and threatens good order? You bet it does! And if you will cast your mind back, you will recall that is exactly why the forces of righteousness got rid of Jesus. Unfortunately, though, the church has never been able for very long to leave Jesus looking like the attractively crummy character he is: it can hardly resist the temptation to gussy him up into a respectable citizen. Even more unfortunately, it can almost never resist the temptation to gussy itself up into a bunch of supposedly perfect peaches, too good for the riffraff to sink their teeth into. But for all that, Jesus remains the only real peach – too fuzzy on the outside, nowhere near as sweet as we expected on the inside, and with the jaw breaking stone of his death right smack in the middle. And therefore he is the only mediator and advocate the likes of us will ever be able to trust, because like the unjust steward, he is the only one who has even a chance of getting the Lord God to give us a kind word.
“And the lord praised the unjust steward because he had dealt shrewdly”: “This is my beloved Son, Hear him” (Mark 9:7).
“For the children of this world are shrewder in their generation than the children of light”: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth (John 1:14)…and his own people did not receive him (John 1:11). He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant …and finding himself merely human, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death – death on the cross. Therefore God himself exalted him and graced him with a name that is above any other name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2: 7-11).
Lucky for us we don’t have to deal with a just steward.