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The Trial of the Steward

Homily preached September 19 at the Church of the Good Shepherd

“I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth.”

Did Jesus really say that? Apparently so. And that’s why the parable in today’s Gospel reading (Luke 16:1-13) is probably one of the most debated passages in all of the gospels.

On a quick read, it seems that Jesus is endorsing dishonesty. But there are a few things that make this parable an excellent way to understand all of the parables of Jesus by examining one of the most difficult parables.

First of all, this is a great example of why we shouldn’t quote lines from scripture without context. Even a parable must be interpreted in context. That means not only what comes before and after in the gospel, but also the culture of the times.

Then, we must understand that a parable is not an allegory. A parable is a story based on nature or human relationships, with an unexpected twist, that is open to more than one interpretation.

So based on that, let’s see if we can unpack what this parable has to say to us today. And to do that, we have to remember the passages from Luke we heard over the past few weeks and what is coming up.

This section of Luke offers many examples of how money is meant to enhance relationships.

Three weeks ago we hear Jesus tell us that when we hold a banquet, we should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame. Two weeks ago we heard Jesus say “anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” And next week we will hear the story about the rich man and Lazarus. All of these stories deal to varying degrees how we deal with wealth and our responsibilities toward others.

The other stories we have heard and will hear are to some extent readily understandable. But there have been many different approaches to interpreting today’s parable.

Some have claimed this parable is really not about how we manage money at all, that it’s about being resourceful. But if that were the case, then why does Luke tell us in the very next line after the parable:

“The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.”

One thing everyone agrees on: The word “Mammon” means money. Why we don’t just translate it that way I do not know: “You cannot serve both God and money.” The question for each of us in our own lives is: does money serve us and others or do we serve money? Does the money that comes into our hands belong only to us, or do we owe some of it to others?

Much of the confusion over this parable has been caused by looking at it from the viewpoint of the landowner. Today I invite you to look at this story from the viewpoint of the steward and the debtors. That’s who the people who first heard this story would have identified with. They would not have heard this story from the standpoint of the rich man.

The steward, you see, is much like you and I. He is caught in the middle between the rich landowner and the people in debt to the landowner. Like us, the steward often had to obey the wishes of the master—who often did not even live in the area—at the expense of the tenants and debtors. You can probably identify with this predicament: how do you carry out distasteful orders from your boss while respecting those impacted by those orders? It’s a tough role to play.

Years ago I worked at a public relations firm. Once I was called into the partner’s office and berated for my accounts going over budget. “We’re losing money on these accounts!” he yelled.

I went back and double-checked my tracking of the fees and expenses. They were within a few dollars of the budget. But then I noticed something on the invoice that went to the client: there were huge photocopying charges. But we had done no reports, big mailings or anything like that that month.

It turned out the partner had instructed the office manager to routinely pad the photocopying charges by 1000 percent. I believe the word “profit center” was used. Of course I had no way of knowing these costs would be tacked on to the monthly invoice, so I thought I was being a good steward by managing the budget carefully, only to be blamed when the padded expenses put us over budget. I was accused of mismanagement. And maybe that’s something like what happened to the steward.

The usual title of this parable, The Dishonest Steward, may be not quite right. The parable plainly says the steward was accused of dishonesty. We don’t know if he was guilty. Let’s see if this was an unjust accusation, as I’ve experienced and I’m sure probably all of you have as well.

The steward is innocent until proven guilty. I will serve as attorney for the steward. And I ask the real attorneys present to please forgive me if it seems like all I know about courtrooms is from TV, because, well, you’re right.

You will be the jury, and asked to render judgment at the end of testimony.

I encourage the court to consider the times. The collection of interest was forbidden according to scripture. Rich people would get around this by including exorbitant interest in a single line item of debts. Highly perishable items like olive oil were assigned a higher level of interest over less perishable commodities like wheat. When my client called in the debtors and reduced their debt, he was only deducting the amount of the interest charged them that was forbidden by law.

Why did my client do this? Because he was falsely accused. When he realized the corruption of the system he was involved with, he set out to set it aright.

Now let’s call the landowner to the stand.

Sir, did you extract interest from your debtors in violation of the law of Moses?

“No,” says the landowner, “I did no such thing. There was an error in the accounting. When the steward discovered the error, he set it right. We at Israelite Land Holdings Inc. are committed to our customers, and we would never charge interest on any loan as company policy. We deny any wrongdoing.”

Then how do you explain the fact that debtors were charged 50 percent interest on olive oil and 20 percent interest on wheat?

“That was not our policy. If you look at the records you will see there was not a separate line item for interest. We creative in the growth of our profit centers, but we are in accord with standard accounting practices.”

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, do you believe the master? I ask you: was it the steward who was dishonest, or the master? It’s really about which one you identify with, isn’t it?

If you identify with the master, the steward is dishonest because he deprived the landowner of his wealth obtained through a legal loophole. But if you identify with the steward, you empathize with those who were charged illegal interest and suffered extreme hardship until they were freed of their burden by the steward.

As Christians we are called to identify with the poor. I would like to read into the court record the testimony of the Prophet Amos from today’s first reading (Amos 8:4-7):

“Hear this, you who trample upon the needy
and destroy the poor of the land!
‘When will the new moon be over,’ you ask,
‘that we may sell our grain,
and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat?
We will diminish the ephah,
add to the shekel,
and fix our scales for cheating!
We will buy the lowly for silver,
and the poor for a pair of sandals;
even the refuse of the wheat we will sell!’”

So if the master’s wealth was dishonestly acquired, then I ask you to consider the words of Jesus:

“If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth?”

Then Jesus says:

“If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours?”

“What belongs to another.” Did the money charged in interest belong to the master or the debtors?

Maybe we can understand these words of Jesus in a different light:

“I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth.”

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I ask you to find my client, the steward, innocent of the charges against him. No servant can serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and money. My client has chosen God.

The parable is about conversion, forgiveness, and righting wrongs. It’s about making choices in how we deal with others, and realizing that in all aspects of our lives we must choose to serve God. Even when it comes to money.

What say you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury? Is the steward guilty or not guilty?

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