11 November 2013

The Parable of the Unjust Steward

Last Friday's Gospel lection (Friday 08.November) is difficult for preachers who struggle to make sense of it; I am convinced that despite Luke's parable of the unjust steward being considered "the most difficult parable" in the corpus by many commentators, it makes tremendous sense --- especially when read side by side chapter 5 of Paul's letter to the Romans. You see, I believe that Paul and Luke are trying to describe the same situation. Paul does it by focusing on Law; Luke does it by focusing on wealth (though the place of Law is implicit throughout the story)! Further, Luke is not trying to tell us a story with a comfortable moral or easy resolution. He is telling us a parable which is meant to bring us to a point of discomfort which leads to a radical decision for (or against) the Kingdom. Complaints that we don't know what Luke is trying to say here are, at bottom, attempts to escape the very dynamics typical of the Jesuan parable Luke wants us to be caught up in. In being caught up in this dynamic lies the eventual way of escape from our bondage to sin; that way lies redemption if we choose to allow that.

Introduction, a Return to Paul:

As noted in an earlier post, throughout the past month we have been listening to Paul's letter to Romans. In particular we have heard him stress the seriousness of the "enslavement", alienation from God, self, and others, and the terrible ambiguity of our lives which he calls sin. As persons who are not in complete union with God but who are made for it, we long for this union. We are also insecure because it is the only thing in the world which can absolutely secure us, and yet, our estrangement from God leaves us threatened with death and meaninglessness. We try to heal our yearning in all kinds of ways and only serve to make the situation of sin worse. While we may distract from or attempt to assuage the situation of radical insecurity and division it continues to exist and even be exacerbated by our own attempts to secure ourselves.

When Paul describes this state as one of bondage and our need for rescue from it and all the ways it is made worse in our lives, he focuses on Law. He does this because as a good Pharisee he knows Law is a gift from God; however, he also knows  that it was according to the Law that Christ was crucified and further, it was according to the Law that Paul himself had persecuted the Church. Similarly, he knows that Law functions to tempt us, not only because it causes us to depend upon our own power and merits to try and establish or secure our relationship with God, but also because Law actually awakens sin in us. As also noted in an earlier post, Paul says, [["But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead" (Romans 7:8)]]

Paul's Startling Conclusion about Law:

His startling conclusion about this entire dynamic is that God gave us the Law to show us how desperate our situation is. It is given by God not only to convict us of sin but to actually provoke an intensification of our sin so that we might finally come to admit how weak and completely, incapable of justifying ourselves we are. In describing his own desperate situation of enslavement to the powers of sin and death Paul eventually cries out: WHO WILL RESCUE ME FROM THIS BODY OF DEATH? His conclusion is that  it is the purpose of Law to lead us precisely to this cry for mercy from God! The Law is a gift from God then, not because it shows us the right things to do or the things we absolutely must avoid (though it also does this), but because it convicts us of abject weakness and opens us to turning wholeheartedly to God --- the only one who can heal the division within ourselves and establish us in right relationship with himself.  These two aspects of true conversion which law is meant to provoke in us, admission of abject weakness (inability to secure or free ourselves) and complete dependence upon God run right through Paul's theology. They are summarized in his second letter to the Church in Corinth when he affirms the good news of Christ in the statement that "[God's] grace is sufficient for us; [his] power is perfected in weakness."

Luke's Mirroring of Paul with Wealth and Law:

Luke is concerned with the same elements we find in Paul, namely a terrible state estrangement from God which leads to radical insecurity and the desperate need to secure ourselves in some way. However, when Luke describes this state of enslavement he does not usually focus directly on Law as Paul consistently does. Instead he focuses on the place of wealth in our lives as the best illustration of our predicament.  For Luke it is wealth which shows us how truly sunk in sin we are. It is wealth which tends to separate us further from our deepest selves, from others, and from God. Wealth leads us to (further) covetousness, greed, dishonesty, ingratitude, insensitivity to the plight of others, self-centeredness, and so forth. It functions to exacerbate idolatry by allowing us to entrust ourselves to mammon as is really only appropriate to God. (The Aramaic word mammon which is usually translated as some form of material wealth or money has the same root as faith, namely "trust"; we can ultimately entrust ourselves to God or to something other than God, but not to both.)

Material goods are gifts of God yet, just like law, they can also make everything worse --- even while their failure to secure us ultimately can also lead us to the same confession of weakness and pleading for mercy that Law does. Unfortunately, Luke implies that it is even harder to come to such a confession via wealth than through Law. (Together they can produce a staggering personal tragedy and state of unfreedom!) I suggest that that is one reason he tells the story of the unjust steward. It is stories like this that lead Luke to assert explicitly just a couple of chapters later, "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a wealthy person to enter the Kingdom of heaven."

A Brief Look at the Parable:

The story is fairly simple. A steward is turned into his Master for failing to make enough money for him (as in the parable of the prodigal son, he is guilty of squandering his Master's substance). He knows he is going to lose his job because of this, feels trapped and does not know what he can do because he is "too weak to dig , and too ashamed to beg." So, he goes to some of the brokers holding promissory notes with his Master and slashes the interest they owe on their loans so that they will be obligated to him and he will be able to count on their hospitality rather than becoming homeless or without resources should he be fired. The Master hears what he has done and praises him for his prudence. (He could hardly do otherwise since the steward has acted in his benefit with regard to the Jewish Law on usury which they have been getting around and has also gained him a long term advantage with only short-term loss.)

Beneath the bare facts there is more going on of course. First, we should understand that everyone in the story is well-to-do.  No one here is poor, no one is a tenant farmer just getting by. (The poor are present only by virtue of their significant omission from the lives of the parable's characters.) Secondly we should be clear that everyone is working to make the most money or secure the best position for themselves they can. Backstabbing and dishonesty are the order of the day. The Master is engaging in usury despite the Jewish Law's prohibition of charging interest on loans and using commodities like oil and wheat to get around the Law's strictures. The steward is cheating his Master in some unspecified way. Someone from the brokers who owe the Master has reported the steward in order to get him in trouble. The steward slashes huge amounts of goods from that owed his Master and the brokers enthusiastically go along with this particular bit of cheating despite having reported the steward for something similar just the day (or week or month) before.

Besides the implicit place of the Jewish Law in the story, and despite the constant current of backstabbing which is prevalent here, the cultural honor/shame ethic is also at work binding folks in various ways. This is the ethic that is essentially a quid pro quo way of dealing with people; if a person does you a good turn you owe him something commensurate and are dishonored and socially marginalized if you do not respond in kind. The steward uses it to obligate the brokers to provide for him if he is fired. He uses it against his Master to obligate him to overlook his prior transgressions when the steward assures the good will of the brokers, etc. The picture Luke paints is of people who are in bondage to Law in many of the ways Paul speaks of, but who are also completely ensnared in the problem of wealth and the self-seeking, insensitive dynamic it sets up. It is the quintessential picture of human unfreedom and alienation.

The Call to conversion in both Paul and Luke:

Despite the verses appended to the parable in Luke, commentators generally consider it to end at verse 8a. My sense is that the heart of it and the place it most seriously challenges us -- especially if we are at all wealthy -- is the steward's confession. What he says again is, "I am too weak to dig (that is, I am incapable of working honestly, especially in a demeaning job, to secure myself ), and too ashamed to beg (that is, too proud too throw myself on the mercy of others)." Instead  of adopting the very attitudes which could paradoxically save him, the steward shrewdly finds a way to let the Law work for him; at the same time he thus elects to remain firmly ensnared in the situation of sin in which he finds himself. His Master praises him for his prudence, and we ourselves are both troubled by the praise even as we tend to agree with it. In any case, the situation continues essentially unchanged.

Contrast the attitude and "solution" of the steward with that of Paul outlined in the letter to the Romans we have been reading for the last month. Paul identifies himself as an Apostle, a slave in fact, of Jesus Christ. He says he has been set apart for the Good news of God's power to save us in Christ and by this he means that he has been set apart from the Law (both Jewish and the law of sin) in order to live the freedom of a Son of God. He clearly acknowledges his own inability to act rightly apart from Christ, and under the Law, ("The willing is near at hand but the doing good is not. For the good I would do I do not, and the evil which I would not do I do!") and he cries out for and acknowledges the rescue that comes only in Christ, "Who will save me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord."

Further, in Christ he rejects the pervasive cultural honor/shame ethic that is so powerfully active in the deliberations and machinations of the unjust steward. Paul gives up his status as a Pharisee to proclaim the tremendous scandal and foolishness of the crucified Christ and to work as a tent maker. He entrusts himself to the mercy of those he once persecuted; nor does he exploit them because he is now an Apostle. In every way Paul is the just steward who confesses his weakness; he is "is not ashamed" to be a beggar of God's mercy for, as he tells us in the opening passage of Romans, "it is the power of of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes."


 Both Paul and Luke describe a situation of bondage as one from which we cannot extricate ourselves.  The ONLY way out of the situation, the only way to an authentically God-centered human life which is generous and compassionate toward others is to confess our weakness and depend upon God's mercy to lift us out of the situation of alienation in which we find ourselves by actually changing our hardened hearts and darkened minds. The parable of the unjust steward shows us someone without either the courage or the humility to confess the radical dysfunction of his situation or his own radical weakness and need for rescue. He remains mired in Law and wealth in both of which he continues to trust. He refuses to entrust himself to the mercy of God.

We ourselves hear the parable and are usually deeply distressed by it in every way: the dishonesty troubles us, the cheating and exploitation at every level are repugnant but also familiar, the manipulation of the prescriptions of the law to get around usury are offensive -- despite the fact we act or are at least tempted to act similarly in our own lives whenever we are confronted with law, the praise for a clever "solution" leaves us indignant, and so on. In other words, the parable functions just as it is meant to do. It unmasks the ambiguity of our own situations and attitudes in the process of being heard. It shows us our own divided hearts and minds even as it, like all of Jesus' parables, serves to disorient, trouble, and throw us off balance --- even that is, as it prepares us to make the choice Paul made for the mercy and Reign of God but which the unjust steward could not.

The meaning of the parable is not in question. It is not a story with a moral, but a language event which makes something happen for those who allow themselves to hear and be drawn into it. The only question here is where will we ourselves put our own feet down when we  regain our balance from the dis-ease and uncertainty it occasions in us. Will we open ourselves  exhaustively to God's mercy and stand fully with Paul as a citizen of the Kingdom of God? Will we decide to trust wholeheartedly in any kind of worldly wealth (mammon) other than God's mercy as a citizen of the realm of sin --- something we also do when we refuse to be drawn into the story and be troubled by it? Or will we perhaps do as the steward does and use our ambiguous relationship to the Law (both the law of Judaism and of culture) to simply continue keeping one foot in each of these kingdoms without ever making a real choice for God?