What’s Wrong With This Picture?
Here’s my sermon from yesterday on the Parable of the Dishonest Steward, one of Scripture’s stranger texts. I ask is God fair? Or is God gracious?
What’s Wrong With This Picture?
Joseph United Methodist Church
Luke 16: 1 – 13
September 18, 2022
Well, I didn’t expect to back here in your pulpit again this summer. And, of course, I regret the circumstance, that Pastor Beth’s mom is ill, though apparently doing better. We hold Beth and her family in our love and prayers. So here I am, regretting the circumstances, but happy to be here.
At least I think I am . . . When I preached here in July I mentioned that I am, by and large, a lectionary preacher, which means that I take the Scripture lessons appointed for that Sunday and work with those, as opposed to selecting whatever occurs to me. I said then that one of the reasons to use the lectionary is that it makes us preachers (and congregations) deal with passages of Scripture that we might not choose if left to our own devices. Because most of us have a few favorites that we return again and again. I related this all with perhaps just a hint of pride . . .
And look where it got me . . . it got me this impossible parable that just happens to be the appointed gospel lesson for this Sunday. “Hey, preacher, you’re so fond of this lectionary thing and telling us how it provides good challenges; yeah, well, stick this one in your pipe and smoke on it!”
Pride goeth . . .
Because this Sunday’s passage is ridiculous.
When I have taught preaching I would suggest to preachers that they always ask a couple of questions about the biblical text they were preaching on. For example, ask “what’s at stake here?” What’s the issue for faith and life?
I also suggested that preachers ask a second question. “What’s wrong with this text?” You’ve seen the thing in the comics, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Well, I said, “Ask yourself, what’s wrong with this text?” So often when we read or when we hear the Bible read we slip onto automatic pilot. We assume everything here is righteous and that nothing could be off or strange or wierd about a Biblical story. I mean it’s God’s own word, right?
But sometimes, if we’re not going all pious, we may notice that there are wierd things in the Bible and that exploring them might kind of open up the Scriptures.
So for instance, take the story of the wedding at Cana, the one where Jesus turns water into wine. Yes, we all know about that . . . even though Methodists have tried to suppress this story. But then there’s this: a careful reading reveals that Jesus didn’t just provide a couple bottles of wine or even say a case, he made somewhere between 120 and 180 gallons of wine or roughly 720 bottles of wine . . . which seems a little excessive, don’t you think . . . unless maybe what we’re talking about the extravagance of grace . . .
Or take the parable of the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to fend for themselves while he goes off to look for the one stupid sheep that is lost. Jesus says the good shepherd does that, and we all nod as if it makes perfect sense but later at home one of that kids says, “That story, the sheep, that’s crazy . . . you don’t just leave the whole fricking flock behind to find one, at least not unless you lock up the 99 first. Sheep they tend to wander.” What’s wrong with this picture?
The parables of Jesus, we sometimes think or say, are just common sense, appealing stories drawn from ordinary life, little moral lessons . . . Not quite. Jesus’ parables can be quite bewildering . . . and none, absolutely none, moreso than this one the so-called “Parable of the Dishonest Steward.”
Just the other day I read an article called, “In Praise of Bewilderment.” The author, a college prof, said that bewilderment, when things don’t make sense is the precondition of learning. If we’re too certain about what’s what, said the professor, we will never learn anything. Bewilderment is good. Well, if that’s the case then this is a great Sunday. Because this parable is super bewildering.
Jesus tells the story of manager who is told by his boss that he is soon to be out of a job because he’s been cooking the books. The guy, the manager — I like this — says, “Oh crap, I could never do real work and I’m too proud to beg . . . what am I going to do? Right, I will give my master’s debtors huge write-offs so that when I’m out of job, they will help me out.
“You owe $100K, make it fifty . . . how about you, yes, reduce your bill by 30%, that’s right, hurry up!” And then we read, “And the lord commended the dishonest manager.” What?
So if you ask my question, “What’s wrong with this text or passage?” it’s not just like some detail that might have slipped by, it’s the whole darn thing that’s wacky, or worse, disturbing. Does Jesus actually commend a dishonest man? Or is it his master, the boss, who commends the con-man? Its not clear who’s saying that bit. But it is clearly Jesus who says, “You disciples, you Christians, pay attention, you can learn something from this crook.”
Either way it’s, well, bewildering. You’re bewildered? We’re bewildered? Well, that’s great — at least according to that college professor. And he may be onto something. Here’s a little factoid . . . Jesus asked way more questions than he answered. Someone did a count. Jesus asked 307 questions. He only directly answers, maybe, three. Isn’t that something?
The truth is that there is no one answer and no simple answer to what this passage, this parable, means. But there have been a lot of preachers who’ve tried to come up with some answer, some interpretation that explains away the offense of this story.
Some argue that what the guy was doing was simply telling the master’s debtors to knock off his percentage, his well-hidden management fee. If that’s the case, he didn’t really do anything wrong, he did something right or at least generous. Kind of like Zacchaeus the tax-collector, giving back everything he had extorted.
Or possibly this sharpie is commended because he acted quickly and decisively. So bracket the dishonesty, but learn from his decisiveness. Again, maybe. It’s possible.
Or yet again, maybe the rich man, the master, was charging terrible, criminally high interest rates, and the manager was a kind of biblical Robin Hood, taking from the rich to give to the poor? Could be . . .
A couple weeks ago President Biden announced a program that cancelled a bunch of student debt . . . remember? That action elicited some very strong reactions. It was popular with some politicians to trot out charactitures of the beneficiaries as lazy, dishonest, probably well-off students with trust funds getting something they darn well don’t deserve and should’t have.
At the time I wrote a blog defending the student loan forgiveness as a good thing. I even quoted the Bible, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Usury, charging interest is actually forbidden in the Bible.
But even as I was basically in support of the measure, I managed to work this into my article: “The income ceiling is troublingly high. Anyone making $125K a year or less qualifies.” Then I added, “Wow, I’m not sure I ever made $125K any year of my working life.” So I haruumped, a little self-righteously.
I’m not trying, and don’t want, to get into the politics or the economics of this. I am noting that it kind of gets under our skin, under mine a little, when we think someone has gotten something they don’t deserve. Honestly, that drives most of us nuts. We really can get up on our high horse about this kind of thing. So even as I was basically saying, it’s good to get folks out from under impossible debt loads, I also sniffed . . . “well, I never made that kind of money . . .”
Here’s where I’m going with this. Jesus tells all kinds of stories, bewildering parables, where people don’t get what they deserve. They get mercy not fire and brimstone. They get restoration to community not exile.
The parable that directly precedes today’s story . . . it’s the parable of the prodigal son. This slacker staggers home after blowing a huge amount of Dad’s money. Stewing in shame, he hopes just to get a low-level job on the farm so he can eat again. Instead of waiting far off in judgment, his father runs down the road to meet his smelly son and throws his arms around him. “Isn’t it wonderful? My son who was lost is found . . . He forgives the kid completely, throws a big party . . .
But not everyone is happy. The slacker’s hard working brother, who never has a day off, shows up and gives old Dad a piece of his mind. “You never threw this kind of party for me!”
Like the elder brother, we often tend to see ourselves as having worked hard, played by the rules, as people who paid off our loans. We say, “I worked two jobs, crappy hours. It’s not fair.”
To which Jesus says, “Do you really want to insist that God be fair, completely, absolutely . . . are you really sure about that? Do you want to insist that God give you exactly what you deserve? Because if God gives us what we deserve maybe we won’t come out smelling like roses. Maybe what we deserve from God is a thumbs down for the things we’ve messed up, for the times we’ve failed, for the words we’ve said that we wish we hadn’t, for the things we’ve done of which we are too ashamed to speak.
Jesus goes to the cross not because God is fair, but because God is merciful. Because God shows us grace. Because God forgives our sin, our failures, our addictions. Because God has given us not just what we deserve, thanks be to God. God has given us more, way more (remember all that wine!) than we deserve.
To me this parable of the dishonest steward and the way that it may offend us reveals that we can be blind to our failures, and to our own need for mercy. And that when we insist on our own righteous before God, we aren’t seeing ourselves clearly. We are blind. Not saints getting our gold stars, but sinners in need of grace.
Am I saying that fairness doesn’t matter at all? That justice isn’t important? No, not for a minute. But I am saying that it’s pretty easy to see the blemishes, the failures, foibles of others while we are blind to our own. I am saying that from God’s point of view none of us is without fault, without need for mercy, without need for grace.
We stand before God not as the righteous, but as sinners in need of grace.
Forgetting this, we come to think that Christianity is about all the things we must do to get on God’s good side or to show other people that we are on God’s side. That we are the righteous, the good ones.
Christianity isn’t about all the things we have to do to get on God’s good side. Christianity is this, “In Jesus Christ, I have taken your side, and I will never leave it.” You don’t, I don’t, deserve this . . . it’s grace. Our lives are a response, sometimes beautiful, sometimes faltering, to a love that has loved us first.
So that’s my take on this parable. That it’s kind of like a mirror. A mirror in which our claims to righteousness, to deserving all that we have, are exposed. We too need a Savior who takes our IOU’s, our outstanding debts, and wipes our slate clean. And in Jesus we have such a Savior.
But let me add just one more thing. A lot of this story, and a lot of the stories especially in Luke have to do with money, which is something we don’t like to talk about in church. But I’m a guest preacher, so I can get away with talking about it.
I don’t think, and I don’t think Scripture teaches, that money is bad or evil in and of itself. It is, Paul wrote, “the love of money that is the root of all evil.” The love of money. But Scripture, and Luke’s Gospel especially, do tell us that money is dangerous. Money can get a hold of us and kind of capture us, make us it’s slaves. That’s why the word “Mammon” is used here for money. Mammon was the name of a false god, a god that made people it’s slaves. That’s true, isn’t it? Money can make us captives. And its interesting that in this parable the dishonest manager doesn’t try to squirrel away money, he uses money to make friends so he has someone to turn to when he’s out on his ear.
Again, this may be trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, a big stretch to say — as some do — “Look, learn from the dishonest steward. He makes friends with money.” Maybe.
But I am recalling something St. Augustine said, which was that God gives us people to love, and things/ money to use. But the power of Sin gets a hold of us sometimes and we get that backwards. We act as if God gave us things/ money to love and people to use. Maybe the steward was creating his own “social security,” but he did put money to use, and in the service of relationships.
So here’s an idea.* Let’s take seriously that God gives us people to love, and that we are given resources to care for others as well as our own needs. And, as this parable signals there’s this: none of us know how much time we may have to do that.
In your bulletin there’s a envelope with a 3 x 5 card in it. After I conclude I’d like you to grab one of the pencils that’s in the pews. Write on the envelope, October 18, 2022. That’s a month from today.
On the card write the name of one person with whom you would like to improve or deepen a relationship and then put that card in the envelope, take it home, put it somewhere where you won’t forget it, and open it again in a month to see how you’ve done.
This is not a challenge or a test. No one will judge the outcome. It is simply an invitation to see those around us as God’s true gifts to us, the “honest wealth” and true riches of life in community.*
So the parable of the dishonest steward. I think I’ll call the story of a desperate man. If bewilderment can be a good teacher at times, and I hope it was today, desperation can at least sometimes also teach us a lot. We don’t have all the time in the world. Now is the time to live, now is the time to love, now is the time to forgive. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
*For this idea, of writing a name on the card, I am indebted to David Lose and his commentary on Luke 16: 1 – 13 at WorkingPreacher.com