I have heard it said on occasion, and it is wisdom that I have heeded time and time again that “If you’re not sure about what you are saying, say it with conviction!” or “If you don’t know what you are talking about, keep it short!” It’s right up there with “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission!” At any rate, I shall attempt to keep my conviction relatively brief this morning.
This passage, this parable with the tacked on endings, is notoriously difficult although rather timely and contemporary, no, as we read about the scandalous behavior, the dishonesty of our country stewards – Frank Russo and Jimmy Dimora. How did they last so long, why did we put up with it? 1st century, 21st century – the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Commentators on this parable in Luke 16 as far back as Ireneus (and that is very far back) and as recent as Joseph Fitzmeyer, have all thrown up their hands; “notoriously difficult.” Where does the parable even end? And what does it really mean? There is some consensus that the second half of verse 8, and verses 9 through 13 are all independent sayings of either Jesus or early Christians that Luke placed here. It is almost as if Luke were saying: “Heck if I know, take your pick!”
I am reminded of being in high school and going in to get help with an algebra problem after school. My teacher was so earnest and clearly understood what she was doing. I stood there at the board nodding my head as though I understood – but really I didn’t have a clue – I remember just standing there, wide-eyed and numb.
I remember that feeling whenever I read this passage. Jesus is there, talking to his disciples, telling them a parable. At least it walks like a parable and quacks like a parable, and a parable always teaches something – not necessarily self-evident, something off-putting, something about God, the Kingdom of God, the quality of life within the kingdom.
I think it is important to reset the story.
A land owner who is probably an absent landlord comes home to charges that his household manager, his stewards, his economist (oikonomon – root of economics, oiokos = house) has been “squandering” the owner’s property. We don’t know how he was squandering it – just that he was. And the land owner tells his manager, “Before I fire you, I want an audit.”
We don’t know if the charges in this story are true, but the steward clearly realizes his days are numbered. And since he is “not strong enough to dig, and too ashamed to beg,” he goes off to two homes of those who owe his master “rent” and tells them to reduce what they owe. It may be that he is cutting his own commission, who knows? But as one who owes another, who doesn’t like a decrease? The steward hopes that by ingratiating himself to these folks he may have someplace to live after he is fired.
And what happens? The steward is praised for his shrewdness. We presume he is still fired but perhaps the landlord recognizes a kindred spirit (honor among thieves) and rehires him.
I am not going to try to explain the various endings, because personally I don’t think they have much to say directly to the parable. Verse 13 makes the most sense to me but it still doesn’t explain what goes before.
Sometimes the Bible doesn’t make sense – and maybe that is the best lesson for today – that we need to become more comfortable with ambiguity.
But one thing that jumped out at me is this: the crisis of being caught and getting fired drove the steward to identify his immediate self-interest. It reminds me of the story about the worker who kept refusing to give to the United Way drive at his work. The organizer kept bugging him: “Everyone else is doing it. Come on be generous, this is for a great cause.” But it never moved the worker. Finally the boss goes up to the worker and says, “Either you make a contribution or you are fired.” The very next day, the worker writes a very large check to the United Way and turns it in. The organizer asks, “What caused your change of heart?” The worker responded, “I just never heard the reason ‘why I should’ explained so clearly before!”
Why do we wait until a crisis comes to get moving, to think creatively. A less than desirable prognosis pushes us to think about what we’ve always wanted to do: the old bucket list. It is not until we face the fact of our own mortality that we wake up. Why do we wait passively to move in directions that best reflect our own self-interest, our own call?
I love to share the story of a man, who lives on the West Side of Cleveland, who one day realized, as he sat at his desk at his well-paying job – that he didn’t like what he was doing, it wasn’t an expression of who he was and what he was called to do. So now he is organizing men’s shelters, and loving it.
I remember when my parents were looking for a new church. They were attracted to a very cool Episcopalian community; great liturgy, very upbeat. They were visited by the evangelism committee and were asked, in their opinion, a very off-putting question (and I wholeheartedly agree with them): “If you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity?”
I don’t like that question because I believe it puts the absolutely wrong spin on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But there is something about facing an ultimate choice that causes you get clarity. As the British journalist Samuel Johnson once said: “The prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully.”
I believe the agitation of Jesus Christ to me and to you almost at every turn is to discern deeply who are you and what are you supposed to be doing. If it were all taken away, what would you do, who would you be, where would you go? Being part of the kingdom is not about having comfort and wealth. It is about transformation and radical re-alignment, not just conforming with what everybody does. The gospel is not about comfort. And that is tremendously agitating to me, isn’t it to you?
So get clear about your self-interest, be shrewd – look at the big picture and where you are in it and do what has to be done. For the most part Christians are too damned passive – our goal is to be good and proper, and not overstep the boundaries lest we anger God, or make others uncomfortable. We want to follow the rules and make sure we don’t make mistakes. But is that the goal of the kingdom? No wonder, the lights are going out in churches!
Remember Soren Kierkegaard’s “Duck story?” The ducks waddled to church – a duck church to hear their pastor – a duck pastor – read from the Bible – a duck Bible – and sing the duck songs. The duck preacher got up to preach and spoke to the ducks – “You ducks waddled to church. But you have wings, you were made to fly, to soar to the heavens, no limits to your soaring and flying, nothing can stop you. So fly and claim your identity.” And the ducks at the conclusion of the sermon all proclaimed “Amen”. . . and then went and waddled home.
As I said last Sunday, of course God desires good behavior – we are, after all supposed to, in the words of Micah, “Do Justice, love kindness and walk humbly before our God.” But God seems to delight more in imaginative – and even slightly if not fully outside the boundary or pushing the boundary kind of – action and people.
God loves us all – but takes a certain pleasure, I believe, in the scoundrel. After all, what is Jacob who stole Esau’s birthright? David, Samson, Tamar? The kingdom is not about playing it safe and doing the expected. It is about taking a leap of faith, a risk, a long shot.
God loves the outcast- isn’t this steward just another character to whom Jesus would say “come and eat?” Jesus already is inviting “tax collectors and sinners” to the table. And now a shrewd steward, a dishonest person by all accounts – with no really justifiable claim to holiness – is held up as a model, sort of. Makes you wonder if there might even be room for Jimmy and Frank some day!
No wonder Jesus left everyone – even his own disciples – shaking their heads. Why should it be any different today?
I just don’t know. This parable leaves me flustered, agitated, not quite comfortable – I think Jesus has me just where he wants me – vulnerable.
I have said my piece briefly and with conviction.