Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity High Mass Sunday 22 September 2013 | All Saints Margaret Street

Sermon for Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity High Mass Sunday 22 September 2013

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses

I seem to be having a weekend of preaching on men who have dubious relationships with money. Yesterday, it was St. Matthew’s Day – the tax collector called to be a disciple of Jesus.  But he at least was a reformed character.

In today’s Gospel we find the Unjust Steward in whom it is difficult to find any redeeming feature.  If this story makes us feel uncomfortable, we are not alone. It has been an embarrassment to the Church from early days. Julian the Apostate, the emperor who tried to undo Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as the religion of the empire, saw a story that praises a scoundrel as proof of the moral inferiority of the Christian faith and its founder.

Most commentators agree that this is the most difficult of all the parables to make sense of. Two such unlike figures as Cardinal Cajetan, one of the great scholars of the Counter-reformation, and Rudolf Bultmann, the doyen among German liberal protestant biblical critics of the 20th century, agreed that the problem was simply insoluble.

The passage shows us an unfamiliar Jesus; one who seems inclined to compromise with evil. He approves a programme of canny self-interest, recommending to his disciples a standard of life which is morally suspect: “I say to you, gain friends by means of money.”  Worse still, he bases the teaching on the story of a shrewd scoundrel who feathered his own nest at the expense of the man who had trusted him; and then appears to say to his disciples, “Let this man be your model.”

The parables of Jesus spring from a very different world and the work of those who have taken time to study that world, to learn its ways can shed light on what they mean.  Some decades ago, an American minister called Kenneth Bailey, who taught in the Lebanon, and spoke fluent Arabic, exploring village customs, listening to stories, understanding a culture which had not changed for centuries. He then wrote studies of the parables based on what he had discovered.

If we are to make any sense of it, we need to answer three questions:

1.  Is the master an honourable man, or is he a partner-in-crime with his steward?

2. Has the steward obliged the renters to sign bills for amounts greater than the actual debts? Is his reduction of the debts merely the surrender of his dishonest “cut”?

3.  Is the steward an estate manager dealing with land rentals or is he the agent for a money-lender?

The interpretation of the parable hangs on the answers.

Everything indicates that the master is an upright. The parables usually have contrasting figures: good and bad. The steward is clearly labelled unjust but there is no criticism of the master. He is not one of the rapacious landlords denounced by the prophet Amos.

The second question deals with the stewards’ action. Had he, as many have suggested, inflated the bills to enrich himself. In the crisis of his dismissal, he subtracts his “cut’ from the bills. But the steward would only get away with inflating the bills if his master was a partner-in-crime, and that has been ruled out.    A dishonest steward has many ways to cheat, but they have to be off the record, not recorded on the bills which the master would see.  The master does not seem to be a rapacious type but someone respected enough for the steward’s dishonesty to be reported to him. 

The third question is that of the profession of the steward and the nature of the debts he owed.  First, is he a legal agent, and if so, is he paid, or does he have to fend for himself?  Second, is he an estate manager dealing with land rentals, or a money-lender supervising cash?  It seems most likely that he is an estate manager, who is paid.

The most likely setting for the parable is that of landed estate with a manager who had authority to carry out the business of the estate. The debtors were most likely tenants who had agreed to pay a fixed amount of produce for the yearly rent.  The steward was no doubt making a bit on the side, but these amounts would not be reflected in the signed bills. He was a salaried official. The master was a man of noble character, who cared enough about his own wealth to fire wasteful manager,

The master summons the steward and asks, “What is this that I am hearing about you?” The servant does not know how much the master knows, so keeps silent lest he incriminate himself further.

The master breaks the silence: he orders the steward to hand over the accounts, and dismisses him from his post.

Rather like some dismissed employees today, ordered to clear their desks immediately and escorted from the premises by security, lest they try to inflict further damage by wrecking the computer system or stealing business secrets.  In a rural culture, the steward would be dismissed immediately to make sure he did not get up to the kind of scam we see the steward working.

In the case of this steward, he is notified, as was the usual procedure. Legally his authority as steward is cancelled. But he still has some time to manoeuvre, until he turns in the account books, because the word of his dismissal is not out.

We might expect the steward to protest his innocence, but he stays silent. We only hear him speaking to himself as he is on his way to get the accounts.  He has offered no defence; confirming that he is guilty as charged and that the master knows this.  The steward knows too that the master expects obedience and that disobedience brings judgement.  No amount of excuses will get him his job back.

So he focuses all his energy on the future. How he can he get out of this jam?  He sees a glimmer of hope.  He has discovered something about his master that is supremely significant from the man’s conduct.  He has been dismissed not jailed. He has not even scolded.  The master has been unusually merciful.

In one scene, the servant has experienced two aspects of his master’s nature:

  • He expects obedience and acts in judgement on the disobedient. 
  • He shows unusual mercy and generosity even to a dishonest steward. 

The steward wrestles with the crisis, desperately seeking a solution.  He considers digging – an educated man in a position of authority would not normally consider this. He would be expected to reject it as beneath his dignity.  He rejects it only because of his physical weakness. Can he taker up begging?  No, that is beneath his dignity.

He needs another job. But who would hire him?  He needs to create a situation which will change his public image.

A plan is born and we watch it unfold. It is to risk everything on the quality of mercy he has already experienced from his master. If he fails, he will certainly go to jail. If he succeeds, he will be a hero in the community, and have rescued his own situation.

The key is that no one knows yet that he has been sacked.  They will find out soon enough, so he must act quickly. He summons the debtors who will assume that they are to be given some important message from the master -exactly what he wants them to think.  It is not harvest time, the bills are set, but not yet due.   All the details are significant. He calls them in one by one as he does not want them talking to each other and asking too many questions.  He is in too much of a hurry for polite formalities and titles. The debtors are not greeted. He says to the first, “Write quickly.” 

He must finish before the master finds out what he is up to. 

This fact is crucial to the story: the steward is legally powerless already.   If the debtors knew this they would refuse to cooperate.  They may have their suspicions, after all they know what he is like, but as long as they have no knowledge, they can and will cooperate.

They assume the bill-changing to be above-board: that the master has approved. They would not jeopardise their relationship with the landlord.  The steward would subtly hint that this new arrangement is thanks to him: “I talked the old man into it.” His plan would reflect to his credit.

He completes his daring plan by gathering up the newly changed accounts and delivering them to his master. The master looks at them and considers his alternatives. By now, the village will have started a celebration is his honour;  as the most generous and noble man who has ever rented out land in their district.  So, he has two alternatives:

  • He can go back to the debtors and explain that it was all a mistake, the old arrangements are still in force – but this will turn the villagers’ joy to anger, and he will be cursed for his stinginess. He will lose face.
  • Or, he can keep silent, accept the praise, and allow the clever steward to ride high on a wave of popular enthusiasm.

The master is a generous man. He has not jailed the steward. Generosity was a primary quality of a nobleman in the East.

So, he turns to the steward and says, “You are a very wise fellow.”  One of the Old Testament definitions of wisdom is an instinct for self-preservation. In a back-handed way, the actions of the steward are a compliment to his master. The steward knew he was generous and merciful. He risked everything on that and won. Because the master was indeed generous and merciful, he chose to pay the full price of his steward’s salvation. 

Many earlier commentators worried over how Jesus could use a dishonest man as an example. But the Middle Eastern peasant at the bottom of the economic ladder would delight in such a parable.  Middle Eastern story tellers always have a stock of tales about the clever fellow who gets the better of “Mister Big.”     

The remarkable feature of this parable is that the steward is called unrighteous.  The Middle Eastern story teller would see no need for this.  The Western reader is surprised at the use of a dishonest man as a hero. The eastern listener is surprised that such a hero is criticised.

The parables of Jesus have a surprising list of unsavoury characters: the unjust judge, the neighbour who does not want to be bothered in the night, the man who pockets someone else’s treasure by buying a field. In three of the four cases, Jesus is using the rabbinic principle of “from the light to the heavy.”  If these flawed characters do this, then how much more will God?  If this dishonest steward solved his problem by relying on the mercy of his master to solve the crisis, how much more will God help you in your crisis when you trust in his mercy!

So then, in this parable, ‘God’ (the master) is a God of judgement and mercy. Because he is evil, ‘Man’ (the steward) is caught in the crisis of the coming of the kingdom. Excuses will avail nothing.  Humankind’s only option is to entrust everything to the unfailing mercy of his generous master who, he can be confident, will pay the price of man’s salvation. This clever rascal was wise enough to place his total trust in the quality of mercy experienced at the beginning of the story. That trust was vindicated. Disciples need to do the same.