“And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.”
In Return of the Jedi, after it’s announced that Lando Calrissian will lead an attack on the terrifying enemy battlestation ominously called the Death Star, Han Solo, played by Harrison Ford, turns to his old friend wryly smirks, “Good luck, you’re gonna need it.”
I had a similar experience this week, when I turned to Amy-Jill Levine, one of my favorite New Testament scholars, for insight into this week’s gospel story, only to find her conclusion was— and I quote—“This parable defies any fully satisfactory explanation.”
Not exactly what you hope to find in a commentary, but commentary after commentary seemed to agree with her. No one quite knew what to make of Jesus seeming to praise the dishonesty of the steward who frankly commits theft and fraud.
It’s like Dr. Levine and all these scholars turned to preachers everywhere this week and simply said, with a wry smile, “Good luck, you’re gonna need it.”
Apparently, the Parable of the Dishonest Steward is the Death Star for preachers.
And maybe for good reason. We spend most of our time wrestling with what to do with the business owner, the wealthy landowner, or maybe the steward, his business manager. Because of our own experiences and social locations, we naturally gravitate to them, even if they aren’t necessarily the greatest examples of love or ethical behavior.
I didn’t read a single commentary this week—and I read a lot—that read this parable primarily from the perspective of all those desperate, virtually enslaved families, who had their debts canceled, carved in half.
As a tradition, we’ve been reading this parable from the perspective of the creditors when most of the people in Jesus’ times would have been the debtors.
Debt and debt slavery was the primary social anxiety in Jesus’ time.
It wasn’t uncommon for family farms to fall on hard times and essentially, through debt, have their lands subsumed into a wealthy landowner’s agricultural operation in which they became little more than slaves or sharecroppers, perpetually indebted and impoverished, eternally unable to dig out from under it.
Debt was such an issue that one of the first acts of the Jewish people in the first Jewish-Roman War, right around the time Luke was written, was to burn the debt records in the temple in Jerusalem.
In Luke’s gospel in particular, wealth, debt, and the cancellation of debts form a primary theological and moral foundation for the kingdom of God. In fact, Jesus inaugurates his ministry at the beginning of Luke by reading a passage from Isaiah describing the year of Jubilee, when all debts are forgiven and all prisoners released, and he announces that in his ministry, that Scripture—the Jubilee, the Year of the Lord’s Favor—has been fulfilled.
This concern about debt is actually in the text of the Lord’s Prayer. We often don’t realize it because what we pray in the liturgy each week isn’t quite correct. If we were to be faithful and true to the recorded words of Jesus, we’d say something like, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” as we find in Matthew’s Gospel.
In Luke’s version of the prayer, Jesus links the forgiveness of our sins directly to our willingness to forgive those indebted to us.
So any time there is debt and there is the forgiveness of debt—either eternal or temporal, we are entering into the borders of the kingdom of God.
With that context in mind, we begin to pay less the actions of wealthy man and his steward and begin to notice the sisyphean amount of debt each of these families in today’s story are carrying. A hundred jugs of olive oil doesn’t seem like a lot to us, but that’s because it’s a ridiculous mistranslation. The original language indicates somewhere on the level of 800 to 900 gallons of olive oil. That amount would be at least worth the equivalent of two to three years wages and some place it as high as seven or eight years.
Imagine that much debt!
If you have never been so deeply in debt, that you were on the verge of losing everything, your livelihood, your house, clothes on your back, the good news in this parable might be hard for you to grasp.
If you have never ever been under the crushing weight of debt to the point you could hardly sleep, maybe even breathe at times, the good news in this parable might seem elusive.
If you have never been so far in the red you didn’t know whether you could write a check for the week’s groceries, then the good news in this parable might seem problematic.
But if any of those things have ever been close to your own experiences, you know exactly what those families would experience and felt when, with the stroke of even a dishonest pen, their insurmountable debts are carved in half.
It would feel like a miracle.
It would feel like a gift from God.
It would feel like heaven coming down to earth.
It would make you look at this steward, and see not a scheming, dishonest, unscrupulous man who used to collect on your debts, but instead see an angel, a messenger of God, maybe even for a minute a reformed saint.
The best modern-day equivalent would be if the rich man in the story owned a predatory payday loan shop in an impoverished neighborhood. And he finds out his store manager, a skeevy, weasely, ne'er-do-well, who no one really likes, has been skimming off the top for himself.
So he decides to fire him. But before word gets out to the community, the manager goes around canceling debts, not out of some sense of mercy, altruism, or goodness, but simply to save his own sorry skin. He knows that if he cancels all these debts, the community will adore him. And, if he gets fired by his boss, the community will adore him even more and hate the business owner more, because they will assume he got fired because of his generosity not because he’s a thief.
So the steward keeps his job. He’s commended by the boss.
Here’s a story about a sleazy, lazy steward who stumbles by pure luck into the kingdom of God, who accidentally proclaims the year of jubilee, unintentionally creates a community built on forgiveness and the safety mercy offers, all for the worst, most selfish possible reasons.
But to those suffering, did his reasons really matter, do his shady ethics eclipse their experience of mercy?
Can God use even the unscrupulous and the unredeemable to bring about redemption in an unscrupulous world?
Because the children of this world are shrewder than the children of light in dealing with their own generation.
Because the kingdom isn’t just about the forgiveness of sins and the golden ticket to an eternal reward on some far off day. The kingdom of God is about the forgiveness of sins and of debts—of everything—right now, in our time, in our generation.
If the disciples stay silent, even the stones — and dishonest managers — will cry out to proclaim the good news, the year of the Lord's favor, the kingdom of God, the jubilee of Jesus Christ our Lord
If Jesus comes not to bring peace but division, then what is it that implicitly unites us as a species?
We are still at the beginning of the season of Pentecost, this extended amount of time in the Church year when we work through many of Jesus’ parables and teachings. Sometimes the way our lectionary is set up seems fairly random, but there is a method to the madness!
The Episcopal Church is my spiritual home, but it’s not the tradition I grew up in. Over 30 years ago I was enrolled at an evangelical Christian school as a “ministerial student.”
Saturday night, about 45 of us gathered in the Bell Tower courtyard for fellowship, food, and one of the all-time great films of the late 20th century, The Princess Bride. Now, this is one of those movies I can pretty much quote it word-for-word, line-for-line, start-to-finish.