Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay
September 23, 2007
There once was a man who worked at a factory. He worked at this factory for 30 years. And about 20 years into his time there, the owners of the factory decided that the workers were stealing things, so they set up guards at the gate to check all the workers every day as they left.
And every evening for those 10 years, this guy walked through those gates, trundling his wheelbarrow, and the guards could see, every evening, that the wheelbarrow was empty. They checked his pockets and all—it was clear to them that this guy wasn’t stealing anything.
Finally he retired, and the next week one of his co-workers commented as he left the factory, “Well, we’ll see a lot less theft now that he’s gone.”
“Why? What was he stealing?” the guard demanded.
We laugh, don’t we. Ah, he pulled one over on the bosses. The Little Guy wins!
As a story, it’s great, but if we were on the jury at his trial, we’d probably be quick to convict him.
I think we respond the same way to this parable. A manager—or steward—is accused by the rich man he works for of stealing and told to bring in the books. He’s going to be fired. He panics—how will he live, without a job? He’s too weak to do manual labor and too proud to beg. Ah! He gets an idea. He calls in his master’s debtors and slashes the amounts they owe, knowing that they’ll be so grateful to him that they’ll welcome him into their homes.
Don’t we respond negatively to that story? Sure, he pulled one over, but gee, that’s just wrong! He cheated his boss!
I have to tell you that when I went searching to figure out what in the world this parable is about, I found that there are about as many interpretations of it as there are people who’ve ever thought about it. One thing that stood out, though, is an understanding of how this kind of accounting worked at that time. Apparently there would be the original amount owed—such as fifty jugs of olive oil—and then the steward’s commission on top of that. So it’s possible that when he slashed what they owed, he was actually cutting out his own commission—a kind of short-term pain for long-term gain deal.
And that’s a possible explanation for the rich man’s response to what this steward has done—he praises him! He commends him for acting shrewdly.
It does seem weird, though, doesn’t it? It’s as if the owners of that factory came to the man who had stolen the wheelbarrows and said, “Good job, man. You were really clever.”
We’d really like this parable not to say that the man was praised for being clever enough—shrewd enough—to cheat his employer before he was let go. Because it seems that Jesus is also approving of what the man did. And that goes against the grain for us. This guy is a cheater, so what the heck is Jesus doing commending his behavior?
Does God want us to cheat our way through life? Of course not. But we’re left frustrated over this parable. Because this steward doesn’t seem to have been an upright kind of guy. We’re turned off by him, actually. We don’t trust him, and we don’t really approve of what he did. So how in the world does he get to be the “hero” in one of Jesus’s parables? How does such a person get into the kingdom of heaven?
It’s probably good to look at what comes right before this parable—it’s the Prodigal Son. You remember this story—the son takes off with his part of the inheritance, squanders the money and ends up coming home, hoping to be taken on as a servant—and his father welcomes him with open arms. In our eyes, this prodigal son is a bit misguided, perhaps, but gee, not unlike a lot of us or of our daughters and sons. So he took off for a while and ended up losing a lot of money—hasn’t that happened in a lot of our families? And shouldn’t he be welcomed back?
But what we don’t recognize is the shock this parable would have been to its first-century audience. Because for a son to ask for his share of the inheritance was for him to say to his father, “I want you dead. I want your living, your life. I want you dead.” This simply wasn’t done! So for the father in this parable to welcome his son back—wow! A son who wants his father dead—this unbelievable sinner—he is welcomed into the kingdom of heaven? Amazing!
And so when we come to this parable, in which we have a guy who was brought up on charges for embezzlement and proceeded to cheat his way to a future, when we come to this parable we’re amazed. He is welcomed into the kingdom? Wow!
But even if we can admit that this shrewd steward is welcomed into God’s kingdom, we’re still left puzzling over what the parable means.
What does the master say? “The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” (Luke 16:8). The Message translates it this way: “Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits.”
But then Jesus continues with another puzzler: “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth,” he says, “so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (Luke 16:9). What? Dishonest wealth? That’s pretty standard for the way Luke talks about money—it’s always dirty money in this gospel. “Mamona tes adikias,” the Greek says: “money of evil.” Mammon. So we’re not talking about a distinction here between “clean money”—righteous money—and dirty or sinful money—it’s all the same thing. If we can move past that hurdle, then, what is Jesus saying?
Use your money, your property, your gifts, your influence, your abilities—use them to do good! You’re not supposed to just be getting by on good behavior but rather being really proactive to create good lives for yourselves, your families … your communities, your world.
We know that our salvation is a gift from God and that there’s nothing we have to do or can do to earn it, but God doesn’t expect us to just sit on our backsides and wait for heaven. God wants us to use all of our gifts to bring about the kingdom here on earth!
“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much,” the passage says, “and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much” (). Whatever gifts you have, be faithful with them. Do you have talents—can you sing or dance or balance books or comfort a crying child or mow a lawn or write a letter … or work for peace or tutor children or advocate for accessible healthcare? Do you have money? Enough to put a teenager through college … or to buy a homeless person a sandwich? Whatever gifts you have, be faithful with them—use them to spread God’s love.
I had breakfast with a friend this week, and after we’d pooled our money to pay for our meal and I was standing at the register, I noticed that she was handing the waitress some money. “What was that about?” I asked on the way out. “Oh, I was paying it forward,” she said. “A couple of weeks ago I was in Boston Market and suddenly realized that I didn’t have enough cash with me—and the woman in front of me paid for my meal. I promised her that I’d ‘pay it forward,’ and that’s what I was doing.” A stranger had shared her gifts with my friend—and along with buying her a meal at Boston Market she spread God’s love. And my friend was doing the same.
Oh Holy One. As we contemplate our lives and the gifts you have given us, help us to remember that they are gifts from you and that we are your stewards in their use. May we not forget that they are given to us to be paid forward into your kingdom. And may we be your servants in all that we do. Amen.