Scoundrels in Heaven? (Let’s Hope So!)
Rev. James Rausch
This section of Luke’s gospel is filled with parables. Today we tackle the biggest “knuckle buster” of them all! It’s one you seldom hear preached, and most people wouldn’t blame preachers for shying away. I’ve never preached it before, mostly because I felt like I couldn’t do it properly in less than an hour.
I wonder how many of you have even heard this parable before. We tend to pass it over because it looks like somebody cheats his master and is then commended for being a liar and a thief. And then the listener is apparently told “You go and do the same thing!” Because it is so complicated, people just sort of throw up their hands in holy horror. And when many pastors are preaching through Luke and come to this one, they sort of slide over it and go on.
Well, sorry, but you’re just not that lucky! I say, “When the Word of the Lord gets tough, the tough get going!” Frequently, the hardest passages in the Bible yield the most for us if we’ll be brave enough to move into them rather than away from them. And this one is a doozy! It’s a parable about salvation, like the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which comes right before it.
Interpreters who come from a Western perspective, incorrectly tie the sayings about money which follow it, to the interpretation of the story. This leads them to believe it’s a parable about money and that the main characters are bankers. But Middle-Easterners understand the parable is about a farming community. These are farmers who either own, manage, or rent land for their subsistence. They also know it’s a parable about salvation. We’ll see in a bit why Luke followed it with those sayings about money and how highly God prizes honesty in our handling of worldly wealth.
But first, let’s look at what happens when you interpret the passage from a Western perspective. Julian, the Apostate, the Roman emperor in the 4th century, tried to return the Roman empire to paganism after it had become Christian. To do so, he used this very text as his primary argument. He said, “Look at this. Here is this carpenter who actually teaches his people to become liars and thieves, and we Romans, with our high concept of morality and our high standards of justice cannot have this kind of nonsense polluting our consciousness and perverting the morals of our young people!”
The problem for Julian, and for us, is that we are not oriented to a Middle-Eastern understanding of the world. Luke anticipated this problem. He knew that many of his readers were Gentiles and would likely misunderstand this parable as Jesus teaching his followers to be liars and thieves. This parable was beloved in the Middle-Eastern tradition of Jesus, so Luke needed to include it in his gospel. However, knowing, the likelihood of mis-interpretations, he attached to it some sayings about wealth and dishonesty that stated clearly that Jesus was not urging his followers to be dishonest.
So, if a non-Middle-Eastern reader comes upon the first story and says “Gee, it looks like he’s commending us if we’re dishonest,” just keep reading, and you find the strongest possible statement about honesty with money. So, at the very least you can say, “Well, I didn’t understand the story, but at least I can see Jesus does not teach us to be dishonest.”
But let’s see if we can gain some insight into the perspective in which Jesus first offered this story. “There was a rich man who had a steward, (we know a steward is a manager, vested with authority to oversee the master’s property and business dealings), and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.” Middle-Easterners familiar with these kinds of relationships would know that in their close-knit communities, it was difficult to keep shady secrets, and that someone in the community brought this report to the master when the deception was discovered. This also lets us know that the master, the landowner, was respected and known to be honest and fair. If he hadn’t been, no one in the community would have bothered to inform him of the cheating.
“So, the landowner called the steward in and said to him, `What is this that I hear about you?” Have you ever seen this tactic employed? Middle-Easterners have all the time. Imagine Seth calls Parker, his son, in to speak privately and asks, “So, Parker, what’s all this that I’ve been hearing about you?” If Parker is like me when my dad called me in, he would feel a sudden rush of nerves, and the pressure would make him start to sweat, and he would think, “Oh God, what has dad found out? I’d better come clean,” and then he would begin to spill the beans about all kinds of things that Seth never knew in the first place. It can be very effective.
But in our story, the steward didn’t bite. He did not say anything. It’s just like when I said to Tom Butler, “What’s this I hear about you and your income taxes?” He just clams up and says nothing. He knows the game, and he’s not playing. So it is with the steward in the story.
The original audience would have expected him to make some kind of defense.
In fact, dismissals in the Middle East usually take two or three days of negotiations.
The late Rev. Dr. Ken Bailey, from whom I stole much of what I am telling you today, asked numerous business people in the Middle East over several decades, “Have you ever dismissed a servant who made no attempt to defend himself?” And the answer is, “Never. Unthinkable!”
So, the listeners would have been expecting the steward to say something like, “Oh, you can’t be serious. I have served you so many years – My father has served your father – My grandfather has served your grandfather, and we’re not going to let this beautiful relationship be destroyed over a little thing like money…” Or, he might say, “Look, this really isn’t my fault. I have done my best, but I haven’t got a thousand eyes, I can’t watch everything. The people I am dealing with are crafty and dishonest, and you’re not always here to help, and I have done my best . . ..”
Or, he might say, “You know it really isn’t my fault because you haven’t given me the right staff…” It’s like in the garden when Adam says “God, it’s not my fault. It’s this woman you gave me – she did such and such and now I’m in a mess so it’s really your fault.” Well, that didn’t get him anywhere, and then along comes Eve saying, “Well the serpent deceived me…” Anyway, none of this business got either of them anywhere.
So, something very unusual happens in our story. The steward remains silent. Now, for the Middle-Eastern listener, this silence is consent. So, when he walks away from the master without saying a word, he accepts the reality of his guilt. That’s a very important aspect of the story. Having left the presence of the master without having said anything is important for us to understand theologically. For like Adam and Eve, and Tom Butler, Jesus is pointing out in the story that we are caught before God, and we cannot offer any excuses.
Back to the story. “Turn in the account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.” In the Jewish Mishna (the codification of the laws of the period), the law is quite precise. Anyone who terminates an agent – if he notifies the agent or the people with whom the agent deals on his behalf (he doesn’t have to notify both, just one or the other), everything the agent does from that point on is not valid. So, the master is now telling this fellow “You’re fired. Go get the account books.” He doesn’t tell him to balance them. They’re probably perfectly balanced. All the missing money will not show up in the books.
Then we have this little monologue by the steward. Mind you, he knows he’s fired, but nobody else does. So, what does he say? “What shall I do because my master is taking the stewardship away from me?” Now that means, “I’m fired. Nothing I do from now on is legal. But the thing isn’t really finished until I turn over the accounts to him.” That’s what he is in the process of doing.
“I am not strong enough to dig” – that is to take a hoe and work in the fields – he’s been behind a desk all his life. And he says, “I am ashamed to beg.” Not everybody is, but he is. So, he says, “I know what I will do so that when the thing is finalized, when I finally turn in those accounts and everybody realizes I am fired . . . they will receive me into their own houses.”
This phrase, by the way, is an idiom. In this case it occurs in Greek literature in the writings of a stoic Greek philosopher named Epictetus, and it means to get another job. Somebody “receiving you into their own home,” means they hire you into their household. The only thing this guy knows how to do is manage an estate, and that’s what he wants to go on doing. But he’s got to somehow go out with the approval of the community or he’s not going to get another job, so how’s he going to do that?
“So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one…” What’s he doing? How do you summon someone? You don’t go to them. You send someone to bring them back to you. Okay, so he’s told the servants, “Go and get so and so…” They go. Why? Because they think he is still in authority. They haven’t got the word yet. And when he sends the word out to those who are debtors to the master to come, they come. They believe he is still in authority. If they knew he was no longer in authority they would not come. But they believe that he has some word from the master that is important enough that they are being called in to be notified of. This is precisely the assumption that this clever rascal wants these people to come in with.
He summoned them because he wants them to think he is still in authority. When they show up, he says, “How much do you owe my master?” Now this is not a question for information. Dr. Bailey has watched Middle Eastern account managers do this: Here I am. I’ve got the books in front of me. If you quote the same price I have here then we don’t have to argue. But if you don’t then we have to argue until we agree. Witnesses can be called in to establish the right answer.
So, he asks the first guy how much he owes the master – and the answer is a hundred measures of oil. He tells him, “Here, take the bill. Sit down and quickly write in 50.” That amounted to 500 denarii. That would be the wages for a year and a half! Why does he want them to do the writing? Why doesn’t he do it? He wants it in their handwriting, and he wants them to do it one at a time so no one is together to talk about what’s going on and thereby figure out his game. If they know he’s already been fired, they won’t do it.
If these people knowingly cooperate with this guy knowing he’s up to trickery, then next year the master won’t rent to them. But they think everything’s okay. And of course, they’ll ask, “Hey, why the big reduction?” And our clever fellow will say, “Well, we know things have been hard – the worms have been bad and the rains have not been good and you guys are sweating out there in the fields, and I talked the old man into it.” “Wow, thanks a lot, Joe, that’s really great.” So, they all sign, and then, one by one they return to the village, and slowly everybody starts to talk about their good fortune – and so a kind of party begins to form to celebrate this wonderfully generous man who has canceled such large amounts of debt and also for such a neat steward who thought to suggest it to him.
The clever scoundrel then walks in to the master with these accounts signed by all his business associates, with the ink barely dry, wearing a “cat that ate the canary smile” on his face. He puts these in front of the master, and the master has now two choices. Legally, he can go back to that village and say, “Sorry everyone, he was dismissed prior to all of this and you still owe the previous amounts.” If he does that, instead of praising him as the most generous renter they ever knew, they are going to say he is the stingiest man they have ever dealt with.
Or he can keep his mouth shut and pay the price of this clever rascal’s salvation, and continue to enjoy the reputation of being just and fair that he has. He is a generous man. We know this because he dismissed this steward and did not send him to jail or sell him as a slave, which he had the legal right to do.
What this clever man discovered in the middle of the story is that, “This master has dealt very generously with me. This generosity, which has motivated his life at the deepest level … I’m going to press on that generosity and see what happens. That he does and indeed the master generously pays the price for his salvation. The steward goes out as the hero of the community – oh, they’ll find out that he’s pulled a clever trick – they’ll watch him! – but they can use a man who is that smart. This is the psychology of an oppressed minority. And the peasantry of first century Palestine was so oppressed.
Very dangerous-sounding story, perhaps. But at the end of the story, Jesus says, “This fellow was a son of darkness, yet he was smart enough to know that his only hope was to trust in an unqualified manner on the mercy of his master.” When he jumped that way, with all of his eggs in that basket, he was saved. If he, a son of darkness knows to do that, how much more should you, the “sons of light?”
It’s like the story of the prodigal son, which comes before it. To throw yourself on the mercy of the master is the only hope of salvation for this liar and thief, and Jesus says he’s a “son of darkness.” (He’s not commending his dishonest ways, but his intelligence!) He knew which way to jump. He knew the mercy of his master was his only hope. “And,” says Jesus, “I wish you, the sons of light, who are not going to use his lying and his deception, I wish you too were as intelligent and would know that you too can only ‘jump in that direction.’”