THE CASE OF THE DISHONEST STEWARD
Luke 16: 1-9
One time growing up I visited a tilt house at a carnival. In it, I found a mirror that distorted my image, walls that were not straight, floors that were not level, and ceilings that were not parallel to the floor. As I went around a corner, I knew I was in a strange place as water appeared to be flowing uphill! So many things played tricks on my mind. When I left the tilt house, I was glad to be able to again tell up from down, and see that water flowed downhill.
As we head into the end of September, Halloween themed nights at theme parks and Halloween types of television shows are starting to appear; they again mess with my mind and my sense of right and wrong. Clowns that used to delight children at circuses or a rodeos are destructive and horrifying this time of the year. Thanks to the macabre mind of Stephen King and his book It, that film about a demented clown had the top grossing box office last week.
Next week a new television show called “Preacher” will air on AMC network. At first I thought a show about a preacher might be interesting for me to see. Then in our tilt house world I read the synopsis: “Jesse Custer is a hard-drinking, chain smoking preacher who becomes infused with an extraordinary power. He embarks on a quest to literally find God alongside his trigger-happy ex-girlfriend, Tulip, and new vampire friend, Cassidy.” (Promotional material) The title to a 1963 film came to my mind: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” And so it is.
Sometimes, I wonder if I am still in a tilt house.
Lies are called truth, and true statements are called lies.
Is there global warming or not?
Are the leaders of Russia and North Korea our friends or our enemies?
Should children be vaccinated or not?
What I used to think was north, south, east or west has been brought into question. So I have tried grounding myself in someone to trust, and something I can trust. I turn to God, and to my Bible. But sometimes, like today, when I open my Bible, I get a story like the one we find in Luke 16: a head scrambler. Then I feel like I’m still in a tilt-house. Who is the good guy in this parable? Who is the bad guy? What is the moral of the story? Is it really that the listeners should make friends with unrighteous mammon, or in common language, with dirty money? Is the moral really that we have to watch our own back because no one else will do it for us? Am I still reading from “The Good Book?” Help me decide.
A rich man had a manager, and someone told the rich man that the manager was wasting his money. There was no inquiry; there was just a rhetorical question to the manager: “What is this that I hear about you?” By definition, that’s hearsay. But on that basis, and that basis alone according the premise, the manager is fired. So that makes the rich man the bad guy, right? Since he fires a man with a snap judgment and no evidence, is he the bad guy? Then I think, “perhaps the manager is the good guy!” So I latch on to him and listen in to him talk to himself saying: “I am not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg.” I too know some who would not be strong enough to dig if they were fired without notice. Do you know someone who would be too ashamed to beg? I understand this man’s reflection. But then, his thinking takes a worldly turn instead of a Godly turn. He does something that, to me, seems unethical. But what do I know? I still wonder if I’m in a tilt house! He calls the buyers of his boss’s goods and makes a deal that completely lines his own pockets with money rightfully intended for his boss. Now he’s become a thief!
To the man who owed his boss 100 measures of oil, he says make it fifty; and to the one who owes 100 hundred measures of wheat, he says to make it eighty. We are left to our own assumptions about whether the man took the adjusted amount for himself or gave the lower amount to his boss. I’m inclined to think he kept it, (which is wrong in my world,) but if the boss commends him for what he did, I’m wondering: did he give the lowered amounts to his boss? But then, almost like a conversation between two mobsters, the boss commends the manager for his quick thinking. It is an odd story that fails to give a plumb line to my tilt house. “Jesus, why did you share this story?” I ask.
In his book Parables as Subversive Speech, William R. Herzog, II who was Professor of New Testament at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, wrote this: “The parable of the unjust steward has long been considered one of the most puzzling parables of Jesus. Yet interpreters have not been at a loss to propose possible meanings.” [Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994, p. 233. Herzog then goes into more than two and a half pages of theories which is why this parable feels tilted to me. Not one theory was completely helpful. So I have drawn my own conclusion: this particular parable was especially aimed at the disenfranchised workers listening to Jesus, especially the ones who felt cheated by management. Was the story told from their perspective? Jesus said the owner of the business was rich, (the perception of the workers?). Then, perhaps, the manager of the business was crooked too, so the story is told as if he stole or worked deals for his own gain.
Finally, we come to what Jesus says about the parable: “Make friends with unrighteous mammon” (or money). What? What does that mean? Listen to expert Herbert Lockyer: “Christ did not commend the cunning deceit, but the astuteness of this steward, (or manager). [All the Parables of the Bible Zondervan, 1963, p.290. Even that doesn’t lead me to a good reason for this story being in the Bible.
In many corners of our world today, we look in vain for paragons of virtue. This story certainly had no one above the fray of deceit. But what did Jesus expect his hearers to glean from it? I’ve heard someone say about a mastermind criminal: “If only he used his vast talents for good!” That means they admired his skill, or thinking, or shrewdness. Jesus does not need Christian nitwits.
What can we learn from felons who continue to escape from maximum security prisons? They seem to have some amazing influence, or intelligence, or both that is misguided. Jesus, it seems, needs people working for the Kingdom of God who are as smart as they are are about making money, or moving money. We need to learn from the best. We can learn from people who lie, or cheat, or steal—not copying their deceit, or their dishonesty, but learning from their shrewdness. How many non-Christians in our world make more money or are more productive than some Christians are? That’s the major lesson, the food for thought, of this strange story. We should learn from the best.
After unpacking the likely meaning of this parable, it feels just a little less disorienting when I read it. But when I look at our world today?
Sometimes it still… seems … tilted.
Jeffrey A. Sumner September 22, 2019