Sunday, September 20, 1998

Sermon on the Dishonest Steward

Preached at Grace and St. James Church, Denver, Colorado
September 20, 1998
Lessons: Year C, Proper 20

This summer I spent three weeks at the Lambeth Conference, within clear view of the famous Canterbury Cathedral, which was built as a shrine to the martyr Thomas a Becket. Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous Canterbury Tales was a travelogue of pilgrims going to the cathedral “the holy blissful martyr for to seek.” In telling the story, Chaucer painted very clear portraits of human nature in the various people, of all sorts and conditions, who were on pilgrimage.

Jesus does something of the same thing in Luke’s Gospel. As the disciples are accompanying Jesus toward the city where he will be martyred, he tells them parables about the different kind of people who will hear his call to enter the kingdom of God. Some of these people will respond in faith, others will turn away in fear or anger. In Luke 15-16, Jesus gives three particularly vivid portraits.

The first of these portraits is very familiar: the prodigal son. The prodigal son is a type of what I would call the Convert, someone who has betrayed his own family and culture and then turns back in sorrow and asks forgiveness. In our American culture, we find such a person reciting words of contrition a sympathetic figure, even when he has abused the highest trust in the land. Others cultures have not been so quick to forgive, and the Bible itself gives in the example of St. Paul an idea of what a full-blooded conversion would look like. It includes lifelong work and suffering for Christ.

The second portrait is that of the elder brother, who stood in judgment of the prodigal Father and “this son of yours” as he called him. This figure I’ll call the Traditionalist. He is the heir of the kingdom, he has toiled away on the vestry or altar guild, he has read his Bible and said his prayers with some regularity. And he is now asked to forfeit all that worthy stuff by attending a party thrown for his no-good brother. Jesus does not exactly tell us whether the Traditionalists of his day would respond, but he suggests that they may find it hardest to enter the kingdom.

In our lesson today, we encounter a third portrait, the dishonest steward. And most readers of this parable find him the hardest to figure out. I am going to call him the Secularist because Jesus later identifies him with “the children of this world,” over against the “children of light,” the religious elite.

In order to understand this weird parable, we need to get several things straight from the beginning. First, I think we need to understand the landowner to be a great and just man. So great that he probably does not reside on the property. So just that there is never any hint that he is falsely accusing the steward or collaborating in fleecing the tenants. Like the Prodigal Father or the landowner in other parables, he is a cipher for God our heavenly Father.

Second, the “steward” is a man of great power and reputation. He is not a steward in the sense of airline server. Rather, he like the director of a corporation, operating under the Chairman of the Board. Furthermore, we must accept the premise that he had been corrupt, before the parable opens, in squandering his master’s goods. In this light, we might call this the Parable of the Cheating CEO.

Third, let’s get an overview of the flow of today’s reading. Our passage has two main parts, the parable, which I think runs to the middle of verse 8, where the landowner commends the dishonest steward and four “morals” that follow up to verse 13. The parable itself has five parts, which we can call declaration, deliberation, decision, dealing, and declaration (again).

In the first scene – declaration – the Master calls the steward on the carpet: “You’re fired. Turn in your books,” he says. This Master knows exactly what the situation is. He demands exact accountability. But he also wants an answer. The steward is to be answerable not by any fast-talking excuse but by a precise set of account books. The demand for answerability at the same time gives the steward a brief window of opportunity to respond. He is fired, but his tenants back on the farm do not know this yet.

The second scene is the steward’s inner deliberation: “What shall I do,” he says to himself, “since my master is taking the stewardship away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” What a realistic touch! He kicks into survival mode. One can imagine a 55-year-old bank vice-president going through much the same inner thought process. This is man who knows he can’t dodge the truth, but wants to survive and maybe even has the distant hope that someday he’ll get another chance to lead.

Then he hits on a bold gamble of a decision. “I know what I’ll do,” he says. “I’ll do something so that people may receive me into their houses when I am put out of the stewardship.” Let’s try to grasp his plan clearly. I do not think he is hoping literally to be taken into people’s houses as a sort of refugee. After all, he said he didn’t want to be a beggar. Rather, his plan is to find some way to clear his reputation, to get the kind of job recommendation that will allow him to work again in the future.

The steward’s plan involves deal-making, cutting a deal with all his master’s tenants (Jesus gives us two examples, one of oil and one of wheat). Basically the deal looks like a “early payment discount” scheme. In one case he offers a 50% discount, in another 20%. It may be that in the process the steward is forfeiting his commission in order to get cash in hand. But the main purpose of the entire exercise is to impress the Master. The risk is, of course, that the Master will feel cheated and his response will be “there you go again, you scheming knave.”

But in fact, the idea works, as “The master commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness.” This final declaration balances off the first one, where the master had condemned the steward. Did the master perhaps hire the steward back on the spot? We don’t know. But perhaps he was willing to write a strong recommendation to the next employer and to attest that he had learned his lesson. In any case, the steward would have a positive reputation in the community for any future role he had to play.

In this difficult but rather amusing parable, we might ask, “Was Jesus only making one point, about being shrewd or prudent in one’s use of worldly goods?” Or was he saying something more? I think I can extend the parable in two directions without pushing beyond its plain sense.

First of all, the Master saw something in the steward he valued, a potential to be a real servant. He treated the man as a responsible agent: he did not humiliate him or jail him. He set up the conditions for the test that followed and he then commended the steward when he passed it. This might be something akin to what the Church has called “justification,” God declaring us righteous despite our fallen human nature.

Second, the steward may have known something of the Master’s stature and character that gave him hope. Perhaps he picked up from the first interview that there might be mercy available if he truly repented. The key risk in his plan was the apparent cheating his master of his full deserts (maybe this was what really got him in trouble in the first place). But maybe he decided that this Master was so incredibly rich that granting some discounts to his tenants, if it were done in the right spirit, would not offend him but rather persuade him. If the Master is God our Father, who owns everything, such an idea would be absolutely true.

Looked at this way, the Parable of the Cheating CEO portrays God in a way very similar to that of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. God is an incredibly generous Father who wishes nothing more than that his sons and daughters would return to him and be restored to his family and his kingdom.

But the character of the Dishonest Steward as the Secularist is distinct either from the Prodigal Son – the Convert – or the elder brother – the Traditionalist. Jesus goes on the remaining verses to trace four “morals” that apply particularly to this last type of person. I am going to focus on the first one, where Jesus says that “the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.”

This statement has a simple everyday application. “Religious people are of no earthly good. Beware of Christian auto mechanics and CPA’s, at least if they see their work as specifically Christian. At the Lambeth Conference, there was fascinating moment when the James Wolfenden, the head of the World Bank, chided the assembled bishops for preferring utopian schemes like total remission of debt by 2000 rather than practical debt restructuring, which Wolfenden himself has pioneered.

But I want to take this observation one step further. I believe Jesus saw in the secular people of his time, for instance the tax collectors and centurions, a kind of honest openness to God that was not present in the religious elite of the day. This is the kind of honesty that can look at an account book, or a person’s character, and “tell it like it is.” When such a person is confronted head-on by the challenge of Jesus – the challenge to admit that you are a sinner in God’s sight, the offer of total forgiveness only the basis of receiving salvation as a gift, paid for by the death of his Son – sometimes it is this kind of person who becomes one of the great saints of the faith.

How many of you are familiar with the phrase “Pascal’s wager”? Blaise Pascal was one of the leading rational minds of his time, a scientist and a philosopher,a man of the Enlightenment. Pascal reasoned in his famous wager that if the claims of Christianity were true – that Jesus Christ was risen from the dead and that those who believed in him would live with him forever in heaven – then Christianity was worth committing one’s whole life to – body, soul, and spirit. But if, Pascal reasoned, one believed in Christ in this way and it turned out that Christianity was false, one would not have lost that much, since in that case life was meaningless, “nasty, brutish, and short.” Now this was not by any means the whole of Pascal's theology, but it has provided an effective entry point for many skeptics who are nevertheless willing to look the truth straight-on without blinking.

St. Paul wrote to some of the Corinthians with this attitude: “If Christ has not been raised [from the dead],” he says, “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). C’mon, let’s be honest. If Christianity is just social activity and singing, we’re wasting our time.

This was my own experience. When I was a young boy, my parents, who had abandoned their parents’ Christian faith, took me to an Episcopal Sunday School, where we spent the whole time playing games. I was impressed with the solemnity of the worship service, but I complained to my parents: “I can play games with my own friends at home. Why do I have to go to Sunday School to play.” Before long, they caved in to my impeccable logic, and from then on I had no exposure to Christianity.

In my late teens I began asking questions about the meaning of life and the world. Some of my peers went into politics and you can see them on the news every night. But “in the fulness of time,” I found that Christ provided the depth of truth and the depth of forgiveness (I needed that) that politics and money could not provide. As Robert Frost said, “Two roads diverged in the wood…” Praise be to the heavenly Father, he saw fit to entrust me with the riches of his grace, and that has made all the difference.

Maybe there is someone like that here today, maybe a husband who comes along for the ride with the family. Maybe you are like the dishonest CEO, not a bad person by worldly standards. I don’t think the steward was a colossal crook, he just served a master who required absolute righteousness. And that he did not have. And that he couldn’t earn. He had to take a bold and reckless risk, throwing himself on the Master’s mercy. This is Pascal’s wager: he had to bet his life on the reality and faithfulness of God.

Perhaps the Master gave the steward back his job. That might be like me, ultimately going in to the ministry as a way of thanking God for his mercy. Or maybe the Master helped him get a job in some other plantation of the world. There he could also serve. God will not necessarily take the Worldlings out of the world, but he will give them a new contract and a new heart in their daily living.

Which of Jesus portraits is more like you? Are you the Prodigal, knowing God, rejecting him, and then coming back to him? Are you the elder brother, learning how to be grateful that you have never left the family home? Or are you like the Secularist, cleverer than thou but secretly looking for eternal habitations that go far beyond any mansion on earth. Jesus would have every one of you join the pilgrimage, wend your way not to Canterbury but the goal of life and history, eternal fellowship with God through Jesus Christ.

AMEN.

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