The Parable of the Unjust Steward

September 24, 2013

As some of you know, after the 8:00am service, we have a lovely breakfast, and over breakfast, we have a chance to catch up and chat, and sometimes people ask me about the more difficult parts of the readings for the day. So I thought I had better talk about this parable of Jesus, or else I would have to talk about it at breakfast.

The parable of the unjust manager, as it is called, it one of the most commented on parables in the whole of the New Testament, and I will confess that it’s more than a little bit tricky. But that’s sort of the fun. Before we dig into the parable itself, we need to remember the context. Jesus has been preaching to larger and larger crowds. Some of the folks listening are respectable – that’s the Pharisees – and some are not so respectable – that’s the tax collectors and sinners. The less respectable folks are starting to get real excited about the things he’s saying about love and mercy, and the Pharisees are starting to dislike the things he’s saying more and more. And Jesus tells this parable right about the stories of the Prodigal Son, the lost coin, and the lost sheep. These are all parables of God’s mercy. So somehow, the parable of the unjust manager is also a parable of God’s mercy, and it’s a story about regulations and rules. It’s not a story of how to conduct business practices as a Christian.

In this particular parable, Jesus breaks the rules for how these characters are supposed to act.  Perhaps the best way to understand how Jesus is changing the rules of the story, we could look at what a simple fairy tale might look like when told how Jesus tell his story:

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess in a castle. She loved to eat baby dragons, and she ate all of them up except for one. By the way, the dragons in that country were vegetarians. One day a handsome prince turned up, and he defeated the beautiful princess, and he and the dragon became best friends.

When someone starts out a story, ‘Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess…’ we now how the story is supposed to end up. There might be some variation along the way, but we basically know how this is supposed to work. In Jesus day, if someone started a story, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager…’ everyone knew that the rich man was God and the manager was Israel. But then Jesus’ story goes completely off the rails.

Instead of repenting and throwing himself on the master’s mercy cheats the master further. Now there’s a lot of speculation about writing down the bills, but the best I came across explains it like this. At the time, it was against the religious law to charge interest, but you could bend the law by charging interest on commodities – like oil and wheat. The manager is writing off his cut, and he’s also writing off the questionable interest that the master was charging. So the master couldn’t actually complain about the manager’s behavior because it would expose his own illegal activity.

There are two levels of rules and regulations at play. There is the formal law against charging interest, and there is the informal practice of bending the law for one’s own benefit. By writing down the bills, the manager actually helps the master come into compliance with the law. He cheats him into doing the right thing.

Now recall in these kinds of stories the rich man is God, and the manager is Israel. So God is pleased and he shows mercy when the steward does absolutely everything he can to save himself. In fact, he even does the morally right thing, because sometimes that works too.

Hiding underneath this story about the unjust manager is a story about following the letter of the law, and violating the spirit of the Law. Who are the people in the Gospel who tend to hear stories like this? The Pharisees. This is a story for the Pharisees to hear. And it’s about God showing mercy to people strive for it, regardless of their sins. God shows mercy to people who don’t deserve it, to people who don’t always follow the rules.

When good churchgoing folks like us find ourselves in the scriptures like these, we need to remember that most of the time, we’re the Pharisees. So we need to hear this story directed toward us.  This story should make us question the formal and the informal rules that we keep in our heads about who can be part of God’s mercy and who can be part of our community. In Jesus day, everyone thought that the rule against charging interest was silly so they allowed the world’s rule to slip in. Which of the world’s rules have crept into our community? And how do these rules keep people out?

This is a parable, not a moral teaching, or a justification for shady business practices. And it’s a story that reflects how things were done a long time ago. But the important issues it raises are ones we can see around us today. And these are issues that every single Christian community wrestles with all across the world and in every age. This is a very human problem. But this story reminds us that God’s mercy is so much more than human mercy, and this story reminds us to strive with everything we have to embrace that mercy.

– Michael Tuck+

Proper 20, Year C

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