Pentecost 17C, 2007
Luke 16: 1-8a
A Liturgy is also available
TO BE HONEST... IT ALL DEPENDS.
I always check out a few different sermon web sites each week
just to see what others are saying…
And this is how one person commenced her posting this week:
“I'm tremendously excited, and don't tell me you're not excited too.
It's a very special day coming this Sunday like a holiday that only comes once in every three years.
It's... ‘Unjust Steward Sunday’!
“OK, so maybe you're not that excited. But I am.
I did my master's thesis on (this) parable... I spent the better part of a year or two thinking about these... verses.
And this Sunday will be the first time I've ever had a chance to preach on them. So woo-hoo! Go Unjust Steward!”
I’m not sure how to follow that!
My ‘woo-hoo’ is somewhat tamer.
But here goes.
The story we have heard from storyteller Luke this morning
about the actions of an absentee householder and a manager,
is one of the strangest and most difficult of Jesus’ parables.
Yet I have been assured it has created confusion,
controversy, and embarrassment,
not just for modern interpreters but apparently from very early times.
So we all might have a better ‘feel’ for the difficulties in this story
I’d like to convey just a smattering of some
of the questions raised in its interpretation.
• The title.
Although not in the story itself
many Bible translations give this story the title ‘The unjust steward’.
This straight away prejudges one of the characters.
A more accurate title would be the first line from the story itself:
‘A rich householder had a steward’
• The householder or master.
Many of us assume the householder is God.
When we do that we must find some way
to make the householder’s praise or commendation acceptable.
After all, there’s something in the human psyche
which revolts at seeing so-called ‘badness’ rewarded.
• The gossip.
In the Inclusive Text which we use here at (NN) there is
an attempt to clarify the so-called accusations against the manager:
‘What is this that I hear about you?’
However, perhaps a more accurate ‘feel’ for all this should have an understanding of something like:
People have been spreading lies about the manager
and now the householder, his master, believes the lies.
And that gives a very different feel.
• And finally, the economic system.
Again, many of us unconsciously assume the economic system
implied in the story is capitalism.
But this can obscure the social and economic structure of that day
even when there is a whiff of ‘rogue trader’ about the manager.
So where are we with this very different story?
Let me see if I can offer a few sketchy comments.
This story is a riddle. But beware!
Solving the riddle might take us in an unexpected direction.
So I reckon a health warning label, something like:
‘beware - solving this story could prove fatal to the life we now find rather comfortable...’
needs to be stated before we hear this parable.
I guess I should apologise to (N) for not asking her
to declare that before she told this story this morning!
Both the characters in this story do not seem to conform
to the standard of behaviour that is generally thought appropriate
to the realm or empire of God, do they.
That is, when dismissed from his job, the manager or steward
goes to those who owe a debt to his master
and with some fancy insider trader’ footwork,
drastically reduces their debt.
“But the manager’s master is no saint either,” suggests B B Scott (Scott 2001:123).
Because the master has long been profiting
from the manager’s shrewdness...
with interest rates to boot.
Siding with one against the other is not all that helpful.
So what is Luke’s Jesus doing in this story?
Jesus in his parables is offering a vision of a counter world.
A “glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential” (Heaney 2001)
as one scholar has described it.
Or, another way of saying that could be:
Jesus is creating a safe place for all those who were
left out, cheated, robed of their land and livelihood,
declared unclean due to HIV/AIDS,
have no hope...
A safe place where the Roman Empire, and the powerful,
the religious zealots,
or what or whom ever “could not intrude and dominate” (Scott 2001:144).
That is good news if you are on the margins
of church, of society,
of the commercial, or political systems.
But to be honest the parable continues to intrigue and mystify.
No agreed solution to the riddle has been found totally acceptable.
And that can be bad news if you want security,
a religion with answers,
a set of rules, or
a reward for regular attendance at worship.
How we imagine or re-imagine the world is the fundamental question.
And at the end of the day, chances are we will find ourselves
standing in the householder's shoes more than once in our life time.
Where we have choice and power.
Where several outcomes or endings are possible.
There is always a risk. It all depends.
Life is often an unsolved riddle.
All we can do is to travel with Jesus and have faith with him
that his re-imagined view - his glimpsed alternative - of the world, is OK.
Heaney, S. 1995. The redress of poetry. NY: New York. Schocken Books.
Scott, B. B. 2001. Re-imagine the world. An introduction to the parables of Jesus. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.