Luke 16: 1-13
During the last few Sundays we’ve been seeing the importance of taking into account our humanity, our emotions and our hearts in determining how to act and how to live. ML King treated a racist man who had attacked him with compassion because it took into account his humanity of being brought up in a system that instilled racism. The parable of the lost sheep invited us to respond with the heart, not just the head. In the difficult story in today’s gospel we again have to take into account the humanity of the steward and his master to understand what Jesus wanted to communicate.
At first glance, it seems that Jesus is admiring the dishonesty of the steward. It scandalizes us that Jesus would affirm someone whose behavior is so dishonest. But Jesus is over in the corner laughing out loud, hoping that we will put ourselves into the story and laugh with him and master; because the joke is on those who can not laugh.
Wealthy executives of large corporations use the term golden parachute to refer to their severance package if they are forced to retire early when another corporation buys the company. Jesus’ story is about a guy who wanted to make sure that when he was pushed out of his Lear jet, he would have his golden parachute firmly strapped to his body to ensure a soft landing. The master called his steward and said he had heard rumors that he had been misappropriating funds. He did an audit that proved the rumors true, and fired his steward immediately.
To get the joke we need to pay attention to what the story doesn’t say; not just what it says. What he did said was, "You're fired." It's what the steward expected. But what he didn’t say, which according to Jewish law he could have said, was, "You're going to jail until you can pay off the entire debt of what I lost by your dishonesty." The steward and Luke’s original readers would have noticed the master’s mercy more than his judgment. The second silence is the steward’s. They would have expected a discussion in which the steward protested his innocence loudly. But the steward was silent. His silence communicates several things: he is guilty, his master knows he is guilty, the master expects obedience, disobedience brings judgment, and he can’t recuperate his job by making excuses. That itself is a form of wisdom. Some people don’t realize that once you’re caught, it doesn’t help to deny your mistake. It just makes you look foolish. The surprise is that some still try! The steward didn’t.
The steward didn’t lose any energy trying to save his job. Instead he focused on the future to ensure his golden parachutes. He would need another job, but who would offer him one with a reputation for squandering his master’s property? So he built a plan around his master's reputation as a compassionate person. He had to act quickly, before people realized he had been fired. He called each debtor and reduced their debt. Of course they were very grateful to him for convincing his master to make such a generous offer. It raised the reputation of both the steward and the master in the village. Then the steward went to show his accounts to the master, including his bold action of reducing the amounts owed. At that moment the master had two options: He could tell the truth to the debtors - that he had already dismissed the steward, and he had no authority to lower their debts, and they had to pay the full amount; or he could cooperate with the steward and support the false report that forgiving the debts was his idea, and that he had given permission to the steward.
The master was between a rock and a hard place. With the first option he would lose his reputation of generosity. With option two both he and the steward would maintain their reputation as generous. I imagine the master laughing laughter as he commended the steward: "Young man, I congratulate you. I never imagined you'd be so cunning. I knew you were smart; that’s why I hired you. Now you've outsmarted me.” I imagine that the master loved the steward, and it was hard for him to lay him off; that’s why he couldn’t imprison him, even if he deserved it.
What happens when we get inside the story and laugh with Jesus and the master? If you already get the joke, maybe you should stop listening now. If the message could be understood by giving advice, Jesus would have done so. But to get inside a story changes the inner landscape of our lives, and everything looks different. So if you're still trying to understand, let me offer an explanation and another story that shows us how to apply this today.
The clever steward wasn’t the first impure instrument that God used. Almost every person that God used was full of mischief, deceitful, rebellious or morally questionable - think Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Esau, Moses, Paul. Apparently that’s normal for God. Jesus is following a strong tradition in commending the action of an imperfect person. But notice that he didn’t commend the man’s dishonesty; he commended his cleverness. That’s an important distinction: we mustn’t let an imperfection lead us to reject what a person can offer.
We need to remember this when we educate children. A superintendent of a rural school district wrote a story to describe the impact that school often has on children, and it’s not pretty. It’s about a child who always wanted to say things, but nobody understood him; he always wanted to explain things, but nobody cared. He loved to lay on the grass and write his ideas in the sky, or carve them on a stone. Then he started going to school. He sat at a square brown desk, just like all the other square brown desks. He thought the desks should be red. The classroom was square and brown too, just like all the other rooms; and it was cramped and stiff. He had to write numbers. And they weren’t anything. They were worse than letters, which could at least become something if he put them together. And the numbers were tight and square, and he hated everything. The teacher told him he had to wear a tie like all the other boys. He said he didn’t like ties and she said that didn’t matter. Then they drew. He colored everything yellow, because that was how he felt about the morning. And it was beautiful. The teacher arrived, smiled, and said, "What is this? Why don’t you draw something like Ken drew? Don’t you think it's beautiful?” Then his mother bought him a tie, and he started drawing airplanes and space ships like everyone else. He threw away his old yellow drawing. And when he lay down in the grass alone, looking at the sky, it was big and blue and all, but he was no longer big and blue. He was square and brown inside, and his hands were stiff, and he was just like everyone else. And that thing inside him that he had wanted to say he no longer needed to say. He had stopped pushing. He was crushed. Stiff. Just like everyone else.
If that story doesn’t make you cry, then the story of Jesus about the clever steward will not make you laugh. If the story doesn’t move you to do something to change that experience for at least one child, then the story of Jesus will also fall on stony ground. The history of the clever steward invites us into the compassionate heart of God so that such a heart might affect the way we teach children, the way we handle money, the way we forgive, and the way employers treat their employees and employees treat their employers. Let’s pray that Jesus might teach us to get his jokes, and be faithful in outrageous ways.