A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
September 22, 2013
Psalm 4:1-8; Luke 16:1-13
I’m hardly a movie or television critic. I’ll leave that job up to our Hillcrest neighbor Phil Martin. He’s the one who does that for our local newspaper, you know. But I know when I like something and when I don’t, and generally it depends on whether the story has any likable characters, people with whom I can relate at least a little bit. If there are few or no characters with which I can connect, or sympathize with, on an emotional level, I’d just as soon be doing something else rather than spending my time with folks with whom I wouldn’t personally want to be around, even if they’re simply images on a movie or TV screen.
That’s pretty much the way I feel when it comes to the parable Jesus told, recorded in the sixteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. If the parable of the Prodigal Son, which precedes it, is our favorite Jesus story, I have a feeling that this one about the unscrupulous manager ranks as our least favorite… if, that is, we were aware of it at all. There’s not a likable person in the parable. They may not be characters projected on a screen, but on the printed page they’re bad enough.
This parable has been given several titles, the most prominent one perhaps being “The Unjust (or Dishonest) Steward.” Whatever you call it, and however you choose to characterize the main person in Jesus’ story, he’s not very likable… not at all. And certainly he is not sympathetic. Had we been his boss, we would have fired him too.
Nor is he redeemed by the time Jesus is finished with his story. He seems to continue with the same kind of behavior that got him into trouble in the first place, and Jesus appears to praise him for it!
Perhaps some of you remember when, for a few years, we had the “Summer Nites” series. We met in peoples’ homes on Sunday evenings and had Bible study and fellowship. One summer, our curriculum was taken from the Gospel of Luke and included this parable. At one point in the discussion, I recall one of our participants saying, “Why are we messing around with this story? I don’t like this guy. And why would Jesus tell a story about such a despicable fellow?”
My response was to chuckle and say, “Why don’t you tell us how you really feel?” But I understood; I really did. Why did Jesus tell this story? And what’s it got to do with the gospel? Look at it, look very closely. Can you find any grace in it? Any redemption? If not, what’s Jesus’ point? Why indeed are we messing around with this story? And that’s another thing. Not only is the principle character unlikable and dishonest, the point Jesus is making with this story is hard to figure out.
There were times when Jesus’ disciples asked him to explain the parable he had told previously. We tend to think them thick-headed, because as far as we are concerned the meaning is fairly simple. Not here. We don’t get this one either. So I tell you what… why don’t we just chalk it up as a portion of scripture we don’t understand, and cannot relate to, and just leave it at that?
Good question. Let’s see if we can come up with an equally good answer.
Luke is the only one to include this parable in his gospel. You won’t find it in Matthew or Mark, and we can pretty well guess why. They avoided it like the plague, probably figuring it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. But then again, there are a number of Jesus’ parables found only in Luke’s gospel, the prodigal son being one of them. We’re glad we have that story, are we not? So, that in itself kind of behooves us to give this story a look. Are you willing? If so, let’s take a shot at it, shall we?
First of all, the steward isn’t the only bad guy in the story. His boss isn’t very likable either. Jesus tells about a rich man who owned a rather large business. Think of him as a wholesaler, if you will. Though Jesus does not tell us this directly, we can guess that the owner is Jewish and the manager, or steward, is Gentile. Why? Because it was against Jewish law to collect interest from debtors. So he hires a Gentile who can do it for him. Clever, huh? That kind of thing happened all the time in Jesus’ world.
In the eastern tradition, in such a situation, it was understood – it may not have necessarily been acceptable, but still, it was understood – that bribes would be paid under the table. That’s what happened when it came to collecting taxes, which is why tax collectors had such a terrible reputation. The people paying taxes knew what was going on and were just as aware that there wasn’t a blessed thing they could do about it. That’s just the way the system worked.
This steward isn’t any different. He’s obviously been operating dishonestly under the table for quite some time. Jesus’ story picks up at the point where he finally gets caught for being such a scoundrel. Maybe he said the wrong thing to the wrong person, or he just hacked somebody off and they decided to get their vengeance by ratting out on him. Regardless of how it might have happened in Jesus’ imagination – and remember, this story is the product of his imagination – the steward simply gets careless and word gets back to the boss as to what he is doing. When the business owner finds out that his manager is dipping his hand in the till – not that he didn’t know already but that it is now public knowledge and he is embarrassed by it – he fires the steward for embezzling his money. “Give me your account book and go your way,” he tells him.
Have you ever gotten one of those dreaded letters in the mail, the one with the IRS’s return address informing you that you have been chosen for an audit? Multiple that many times over and that’s what is happening to this steward. The only difference is that he deserves what’s coming to him, and you didn’t… right?
Nevertheless, he’s in a tough predicament. His job, up to this point, has not required any physical exertion on his part, so he’s gotten a bit thick around the middle and his hands are soft. That means manual labor is out of the question. He’s too proud to beg, even though begging was considered something of a profession in that part of the world. And besides, his reputation isn’t the best in the community. Everybody knows what he’s been up to, so he’ll not likely get any sympathy from anyone, and begging requires a certain amount of sympathy, does it not?
Now that he’s about to be out of a job, how can he build trust with the people he’s alienated, those he will need in order to survive; namely, those who know he is a cheat and a fraud? Can you say “between a rock and a hard place”? That’s where this disgraced steward is finding himself. And you and I have absolutely no sympathy for him, none whatsoever.
But “shrewd” is his middle name. He calls on his clients – think of them as retailers who, by the way, apparently don’t yet know he’s been fired from his job – and he cuts them a deal by reducing their debt. Really, what he has done is remove his portion of profit from the transactions. He gets it in writing and takes it to his boss who at least appreciates his shrewdness in collecting the debts he is owed. The dishonest steward has gained both the favor of those with whom he has been doing business and his boss.
And in the process, Jesus seems to be praising the man for being a clever crook and placing his stamp of approval on bad business ethics.
It’s important, I think, at this point to underline the fact that Jesus is telling this story to his disciples. The Pharisees, who Luke tells us love money, are eavesdropping, and after the story is told they take offense at what Jesus says, probably because, by this time, they know that even though he is addressing himself to his disciples Jesus is really aiming this story at them. What Jesus is saying to his followers is that they need to be as resourceful as the unscrupulous steward in using money to their advantage. Jesus refers to his disciples as the “children of light,” and is saying they need to be as calculating as the children of darkness. You’ve heard the expression, “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”? I think that’s what Jesus means, as he casts his eyes toward the Pharisees. We can learn, he is saying, even from those with whom we find it hard to relate.
I’m thinking of scripture passages that are so simple, and perhaps even mundane, that when we bother to read them what we really do is read right over them. They make no impact upon us at all. For example, Paul is concluding his letter to the church in Philippi. You may know already, but just in case I’ll tell you anyway, that he is in prison when he writes this letter. The chances are he is jailed because he’s gotten under somebody’s skin, probably someone who has a title of authority. Paul had a way of doing that, you know… getting under the skin of the wrong people.
“Greet every saint in Christ Jesus,” he says to his friends as he ends his epistle. “The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you,” he says, and then he adds, “especially those of Caesar’s household.” Did you get that? “… those of Caesar’s household”! What in the world! There are Jesus followers in the house of Caesar!? It is Caesar who has thrown Paul in jail, and the apostle finds himself surrounded by those who are sympathetic to him because of their common devotion to Jesus. Hard to believe, but true.
Though we live on the buckle of the Bible Belt, it is still a world that is not sympathetic to our faith. Or, at least, we live in a world that doesn’t care anymore. In other words, we live in Caesar’s household. Just a couple of weeks ago I was telling someone about the items we are placing in the time capsule, to be opened on the church’s bicentennial Sunday in 2113. You want to know his response? “I hope the church (and he didn’t just mean this church, but any church) is still around in a hundred years.”
If we are going to survive in this world, and insure that this church will be here in 2113, we must be like the steward in Jesus’ parable. It doesn’t mean we are to be dishonest, but we are to be shrewd in how we go about our business. And how do we do that?
One way is to keep our focus sharp, our purpose clear, and to depend on those eternal realities that do not fade with time or even death. For example, you may not think that your participation in your Sunday school class is all that important to anyone else but yourself. But you may just be wrong. It impacts the way you respond to the events around you, and how you do that just may influence someone in a way you will never know. Those of you who spend a Sunday morning occasionally watching over our small children downstairs, you may think that all you are doing is babysitting. But who’s to say that one thing you say or do won’t have an impact on one of those children for many years to come? If you usher in our worship service, how you approach one of our guests may be the determining factor in whether that person returns to be with us again… and who knows what their returning to be with us might mean for them eternally?
You see? It is in being faithful to the small things that indicates how committed you are to the One whose name you claim when you call yourself a Christian.
Bill Tuck tells of a young boy who was burned badly in an accident. Not only was his family concerned that he might not live, but if he did what his emotional state might be. His school teacher asked a tutor if she would be willing to go by the hospital and work with him. The teacher was concerned that the boy might get so far behind in his school work that he would fail. What did the teacher want the tutor to do? Well, they were studying irregular verbs and dangling participles. Teach him about that.
How ridiculous! This boy was fighting for his life and the teacher wanted him to be instructed in irregular verbs and dangling participles?! But the tutor did it, all the while wondering what difference it could possibly make.
She returned to the hospital the next day and was greeted by the boy’s nurse. “You will never know how much good you did yesterday,” she said.
“Why, what do you mean?”
“I don’t know what you said or did, but he has made a big improvement. Before you came, he had seemed to give up, but your visit with him has made all the difference.”
Eventually, the boy left the hospital and was able to go home. His family asked him what it was about the tutor’s visit that made such a change in his healing. “You know, I was burned so badly I didn’t think I had a chance of getting well. Everybody told me I would recover, but I really didn’t believe it. When the teacher came and started teaching me about irregular verbs and dangling participles, I figured she wasn’t going to waste her time and energy teaching that stuff to someone she thought was dying. So it gave me hope that indeed I would get well.”1
Where is your hope?
Perhaps what Jesus was telling his disciples – and the Pharisees who were eavesdropping in on the story – is that an important strategy of faith is to keep our vision sharp, our purpose clear, and our dependence not on earthly things. We can learn from anyone, even this dishonest steward, if we will keep our eyes open and our minds and hearts tuned to the lessons that life teaches us. Even when the children of darkness are our teachers, we who want to be the children of light, can find our way.
Are you using all your resources when it comes to your faith? Your time, your energy, your education, your money… to inform and determine how you follow Jesus? If not, think about those irregular verbs and dangling participles, and even if you forgot your grammar so long ago you don’t remember what they are, let this story encourage you to deepen your faith in the One who has given his all to you. After all, he has called us the children of light. Isn’t it about time we act like it?
Lord, may you find us faithfully learning from every experience that comes our way. Help us not to be empty from always wanting more, but to be filled with the knowledge that giving is having. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1adapted from William P. Tuck, “Lessons From a Dishonest Man,” unpublished sermon, February 1, 1998.