September 19, 2004   Shirley Macemon
  When is it Just Stuff?
Luke 16:1-13


Then Jesus said to the disciples, "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, 'What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.'

"Then the manager said to himself, 'What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.'

"So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?' He answered, 'A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.' Then he asked another, 'And how much do you owe?' He replied, 'A hundred containers of wheat.' He said to him, 'Take your bill and make it eighty.'

"And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

"And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."

You know, just when I think I've got a handle on Jesus parables, I come up against one like this. We've got a steward who gets fired, who reduces his ex-bosses creditors' debts, and then is praised by the ex-boss with some hint about the current generation, and hints about being faithful with dishonest wealth? And then a tag line - the conclusion, as it were, "no slave can serve two masters, cannot serve God and wealth", that certainly rings true but doesn't seem to have much to do with the parable that precedes it.

Lets not kid ourselves. This isn't an easy parable. You can read 100's of explanations that tie up ALMOST but not quite all the facets of the story.

First, a summary of the plot of the parable (told with some contemporary terms to make it more readily apprehended):

A Really rich guy lives in a big city - San Francisco - or Jerusalem, living the high life: Wine women and song - parties, great house, good food, the best of everything. He gets to live like this because he has a really big estate way out in the country. The really big estate makes money that he lives on. And the manager of the estate - the steward - runs the estate while he's partying in Jerusalem.

Now, the way the estate makes money is through tenant farmers. Tenant farmers rent a piece of this really big estate and plant crops, and harvest the crops and sell the crops. Sounds great, right. Except that they have to pay rent on the land. And they have to buy seed. And some years crops fail. And some years crop prices are really low. And in the years crops fail and crop prices are low the rent is still what the rent is, and they have to buy food to feed their families. The estate has a company store so that in those bad years - or for the things that every family needs that can't be farmed or produced on their own small piece of rented land, the farmers don't have to go very far from home to get the necessities of life, but of course, the company store isn't a non-profit affair.

Now, just so you understand the context, the land that these farmers (aka peasants) are working probably belonged to their parents, or grandparents, or great grandparents. But somewhere in a previous generation, the tides turned for the prosperity of the family. A debt couldn't be repaid, and the family lost their land. The good news is that they are tenant farmers, not beggars. The bad news is that there is almost no way to get out of the perpetual debt of tenant farming. The harvest is never quite enough to pay the rent and buy what the family needs, so the family slips further and further into debt, working harder and harder to pay what can't be paid.

To the tenant farmers, the immediate face of this system is the steward. The steward might even have come have come from one of the farming families. He somehow managed to get the education needed to keep records and "move up in the world". But he's been living in the system so long he's lost track of the unfairness of the system. Or so it seems.

When this story begins, the landowner has just fired the steward because of rumors that the steward was squandering the landowner's resources. Now, note that "squandering" isn't necessarily the loaded word we hear. Remember that the sower in another of Jesus' parables squanders seed by tossing it on roads, in bird-feeding zones AND on fertile ground, and the shepherd in who has lost one sheep potentially squanders the 99 to find the one. So, maybe "squanders" is a key word that we need to pay attention to.

But, no matter, the steward is fired. He is no longer authorized to do anything at all in the master's name. To make matters worse, He hasn't built up a retirement plan, or 401K, and he knows that the farmers aren't likely to take him in either, since up until now he's the one who has been collecting exorbitant rents, running the company store, and generally dealing unjustly with the farmers.

The steward realizes that unless he comes up with some sort of plan, he'll be out on the streets, always a bad option. So what does the steward do? Something extraordinarily clever. He gathers all of the farmers who owe the master money, and he declares that their debts have been reduced from the astronomical to the manageable. With quirks of how records were kept, this could have been as simple as few subtle strokes of the stylus -- much like what students do in changing a handwritten 'D' to a 'B' on a report card.

Of course, the steward didn't tell the farmers that he was fired any more than he told them that the landowner didn't authorize any of this debt reduction. The result is that the farmers believe the landowner is amazingly generous The landowner is now a hero in the farmers' eyes -- and by extension, the steward is also.

So, imagine the scene. The landowner comes for his regular inspection visit: retrieve his profits for partying, check out the holdings. And as he approaches the estate the farmers see him coming. The put down their farm tools and come to the road. They smile and wave. Smile and wave?? They cheer. By the time he gets home, the estate road is lined with cheering tenants shouting his name, acclaiming him as a hero.

So, when the landowner figures out what has taken place, he has a choice. Of course, he could march right out to all those happy farmers, waiving their shovels and hoes in joy, shouting his name in acclamation, shouting blessings on him and his family, and tell them that they are wrong, that their debts weren't really forgiven, that the steward acted without permission and it is really all a big mistake.

OR, the landowner can go outside and accept the honor the farmers are giving him credit for. Honor, by the way, is a very big deal in the ancient world. Whether it is fairly placed, or unfairly placed, Honor is perhaps of more value than gold.

In either case, the steward comes out ok. If the landowner survives telling a cheering crowd turned angry crowd that the steward acted without his permission, there will be several in the crowd who will still be indebted to the steward for his actions, whether or not they came to fruition. And if the landowner goes along with the scam, then the steward remains employed - it would look very suspicious if he were fired for implementing the master's amazing act of generosity.

The writer of Luke tells us that:

And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.

Now, it is possible that even after this re-telling, that you and I still hear this story as though the Master is a mafia don, and the steward is an underling who may or may not live out the day. Keep face in front of the crowds - handle dirty linen in private. How can the master commend the dishonesty of the steward??? It goes against every capitalistic bone in my body!

Which is where context comes in - not only 1st century context, but also the Gospel of Luke.

I invite you to think about the stories that Jesus told in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus told stories about economic and social ways of the times: parable of the talents, or pounds as it is told in Luke, about the Rich man and Lazarus, about the Lost sheep, coin and sons. Jesus used stories with circumstances that his audience would find familiar to lead them to see situations that challenge us. In each of the parables, we can gain a great deal of understanding by identifying a God-figure, or Christ-figure in the character of one of the players in the parable. The father in the story of the lost/prodigal son comes to mind as an easy example.

One of the reasons this parable is so hard to get our minds around is that somehow the bad guy is the good guy. And we really resist....really resist ...casting Jesus in the role of the steward: The one who breaks the rules in forgiving debt. The one who has no authorization for reducing his ex-master's creditor's debts. Our capitalistic minds simply don't bend that way.

But you see, the steward forgives.

The steward forgives. He forgives things that he had no right to forgive. He forgives things that the law of the time gives him no authority over. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and to compensate for past misconduct. But that action is the decisive action that he undertakes to redeem himself from a place from which it seem he couldn't be reconciled...reconciled to the landowner or reconciled to the farmers.

So when we look at the story from this point of view, what is the point? It is something that the Gospel of Luke emphasizes: FORGIVE. Forgive it all. Forgive it now. Forgive it for any reason you want, or for no reason at all.

Luke is the guy whose version of the "Lord's Prayer" includes the helpful category confusion, "forgive us our sins as we forgive -the monetary debts of -( it's clear in the Greek) our debtors" (Luke 11:4). For Luke it is very clear: the arrival of the kingdom of God is no occasion for score-keeping of any kind, whether monetary or moral.

Why forgive someone who's sinned against us, or against our sense of what is obviously right?

We don't have to do it out of love for the other person, if we're not there yet.

We could forgive the other person because of that whole business of what we pray in Jesus' name every Sunday morning, ( and at other times during the week, I hope!)and because we know we'd like forgiveness ourselves.

We could forgive because we've experienced what we're like as unforgiving people.

We could forgive because we are, or we want to be, deeply in touch with a sense of Jesus' power to forgive and free sinners like us.

Or, we could forgive because, with our hearts on the Kingdom, everything else is just "stuff".

I attended the first session of a group that meets during the school year - parenting teens. My younger daughter, Leah, is in the youth group and choir a the Los Altos UMC. One of the pastors there talked about the two basic tenets he uses for parenting: graceful limits, and limitless grace. The first has to do with setting boundaries that are negotiable when appropriate. The second has to do with respect and love and grace - limitless grace - when those boundaries have been broken. He could have as easily called it unending forgiveness. It doesn't mean the kids get off the hook. It does mean they are always loved, cherished and forgiven.

It boils down to the same thing: deluded or sane, selfish and/or unselfish, there is no bad reason to forgive. Extending the kind of grace God shows us in every possible arena -- financial and moral -- can only put us more deeply in touch with God's grace.

Forgiving debts is simply telling someone else that scorekeeping isn't our job. We've got more important things than scorekeeping to think about and act on: the work God has given us to do: love justice, do kindness, and walk humbly with our God.