The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Many years ago, not so long after I was ordained, I began a Bible Study. Sensing the need for my congregation to delve more deeply into matters of Holy Scripture I got it into my head that it would be a good thing for us to study the parables. Our group took off—seemingly—without a hitch. “The Good Samaritan”—who, really, can quibble with that? “The Parable of the Prodigal Son”—a bit tougher, (particularly if you identify with the older brother) but still, we managed. All was going swimmingly. Finally, we came to the last parable of the study, the “Parable of the Unjust Steward.”
At this point I would like to tell you how I “wowed” my former parishioners with my erudition and eloquence—with my well researched exegesis and scholarly explanation of the Word of God—how I, single handedly, managed to unlock the mysteries contained within this most challenging of readings. But the truth is, I failed. Miserably, in fact. By the time that long, long evening was over, not only did my parishioners determine that there was no possible way that Jesus, their beloved Savior, could have uttered these words, they also managed to take a vote (against the recommendation of their priest) the unanimous result (with the exception of the priest) being that the parable in question should be excised from the Canon.
All of which leads me to conclude that there is a reason for oft repeated phrase: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” And apparently it still applies to me, because here I go—preaching on the “Parable of the Unjust Steward”.
The truth is, I am fascinated by the difficult readings in the Bible, in the parables that seem to speak from both sides of the mouth. The more I have wrestled with them in my own life, the more I believe that these stories have something profound to say to those of us living in the chaotic and tumultuous era we call our own.
The “Parable of the Unjust Steward” is difficult; if for no other reason than the central character seems to be simply so---well….so unlikeable. At first glance, he’s an individual I would be loath to have either in my employ or as my neighbor. Recall, if you will, that Jesus tells us that the steward in question falsified the amounts owed his master in order to gain the favor of those who would later offer him hospitality in the time of his unemployment—which, by the way, was drawing nearer every day. In other words, the Steward, (this man) he knew he had failed to live up to the high standards of his Master. He knew as well that the odds were good that the pink slip was coming and he was well aware that more than likely there would be no letter of reference arriving with it. In other words, he knew he was on the outs, and so he did what any wiley and crafty individual would do in such a set of circumstances. He cheated. The Steward wrote out lower bills to his Master’s debtors and pocketed their good will for later on—when he would need it. I ask you—what’s commendable about this? What could Jesus be saying?
While it’s true that many of us who read this parable want only to string up the Steward as an example of poor ethics and base morality; I have to conclude that there is something commendable in his approach towards life. If nothing else, the Steward was a person of action. He didn’t look at the sorry work of his hands, bemoan his fate and lie down to die. Not at all. This man—he took upon himself the messy and hard work of crafting a future worth living. I don’t know about you, but that is something I find commendable. And here’s the thing--I think Jesus did as well. My basis for thinking this is that Jesus tells us that the Master unearths the deception and takes the time to commend the steward for acting shrewdly; for getting something for the Master’s benefit, rather than settling for nothing.
There is some truth to the sentiment that too many Christians are so preoccupied with getting to heaven that they have become inured to both the suffering—as well as the joys—of life lived on earth. Today’s parable is about the importance of securing a future—not a “pie in the sky” dream that allows us the conceit of putting off what we can do in the present moment—but a future worth living that is molded from the failures and messiness of our present day circumstances. In other words, the time to live into the high calling of God is now; not sometime in the future when, presumably, we have our acts together.
Could it be that the so-called Unjust Steward, a lousy steward, but a shrewd individual, has something to teach us Christians in the twenty-first century? Here’s what I believe this parable tells us. Futures worth living don’t simply happen. They are crafted through the thoughtful prayers and hard work of those who have contemplated the calling God has left to us. These futures are acts of determination as much as they are expressions of faith. And these futures are not simply prayed into being, they are brought into being by the hard work of the disciples of God.
So, what does this parable have to say to us? Certainly, the message is not that our employers are worthy of being defrauded. This parable is neither an endorsement of unethical behavior nor of general dishonesty. What this parable does is remind us that qualities of emulation are discovered not only within the saintly—but rather, the saintly, like all of us, are more often than not a confusing mixture of both the commendable as well as the less commendable elements found in humanity. If nothing else, the character found in this parable is shockingly human.
Today’s parable concludes: “He who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much.” These words are comforting. They tell us that God can do far more with the mistakes we make than if we choose to do nothing at all. A Swedish proverb says: “The first place to look for a helping hand is at the end of your own arm.” I believe this parable says much the same thing. To call for help from on high and then sit back, relax and look for the heavenly armies to arrive is to miss the point of prayer. Prayer strengthens us for action, it does not fix wrongs that are rightfully our own to repair.
Having a clear, articulate vision of the future is important. But a vision, on its own, isn’t good enough. Our future is dependent upon prayer—certainly—but prayer and faithfulness that finds its fullest expression in action. For ours is a God of love and faithfulness; a God who listens to prayers and responds by empowering us for action—giving us the strength to make the future we see ahead of us not only a vision worth dreaming, but a future worth living. In Jesus’ name. Amen.