We are the dishonest steward

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- All of them seem to me to centre on the important remark in 1 Timothy (2:1-8). “God wants everyone to be saved and reach full knowledge of the truth. For there is only one God, and there is only one mediator between God and mankind, himself a man, Christ Jesus, who sacrificed himself as a ransom for them all.

St Luke wrote his Gospel to emphasise precisely this point, and in our Gospel passage today, he labours in quite outrageous fashion to illustrate what this means. (Luke 16:1-13). This is not a parable for the unenlightened literalist; indeed, it is not a story really rooted in earthly matters at all. We need to look at its context, following as it does immediately after the story of the Prodigal Son and the Loving Father, again an outrageous story, and one aimed deliberately to shock and make Jesus’ hearers rethink both his identity and what he was about. All these stories take place in the context of Jesus’ savage attack on the scribes and Pharisees, in short on the heart of the Jewish religious system. Ours today is a story once more about God and his gift of himself to us in Christ.

It was moreover an hilarious tale, engineered by Jesus to get his hearers to collapse in laughter, for throughout it is deeply subversive. First of all, we have the respected landowner and his shifty steward whom he dismisses on the spot after receiving evidence of his dishonesty. This in itself would have raised a laugh, for stewards were frequently slaves, raised up by the system with the promise of ultimate freedom and a place in society. It all hung on their loyalty. Any steward caught with his hand in the till could expect to be sent back to the fields in chains or sold to the galleys as a rower or sent to the mines. His own family would be sold off and their entire life ruined, so the scenario in which his Lord invites him to send in his account books is just daft.

This however gives the steward the opportunity to play one last and spectacular swindle. As the tenants do not yet know of his dismissal, he calls them to his presence, thereby acting as one in command, and then acts as their master and patron by reducing their debts to the actual master. Now this means that the real master has been put in a spot; if he simply rejects these arrangements, remarking that typically the crook has just compounded his misdeeds, he himself would lose face in the community. The tenants acted in good faith and the dismissed steward has taken the debts on himself, thereby upping his status in society. The real master, facing the fact that he has been thoroughly trounced, accepts the situation and with humour goes along with the swindle.

Now clearly the righteous scribes and Pharisees would have been outraged at this parable, but how so? Is it merely its immorality they object to, or is there something deeper? It is usual for us to read the Loving Father of the Prodigal Son as God and see the parable there as one of divine redemption. I suspect that it is the same here too, though perhaps with even greater emphasis and impact. Are we meant to see this as a small ‘Passion play’ in which the master is God, in this case one who allows himself to be thoroughly outclassed by his reprobate steward?

What we have then is a picture of God, one who knows us through and through, and sees that we are beyond hope of redemption, yet whose solicitude for us is so great that he will allow himself to be swindled rather than lose any part of his beloved creation. It is a picture of God the Father who, in Jesus, casts aside divinity and all that it means, to join us to himself, utterly disregarding his own status and the way in which we, his ungrateful sons and daughters behave. There we are, impossibly flawed, incapable and unworthy of sharing his divinity; and such is his grace that, continually outsmarted by our avarice and wickedness, God will quite simply choose to disregard it all and with the grace and humour which is the mark of his true status, receive us in his arms. He is not the loser, but we are forever the gainers, in this immense and improbable game.

Our Reading from Amos, (8:4-7) prophet of the 8th century BC and the Assyrian destruction of the Northern Kingdom comes from a time when people thought in very simplistic terms, in which the God of Israel was said to reward good behaviour and punish bad. Amos was a social commentator on the evils of the time and could therefore see the expansionist policy of Samaria into Syria as destructive and evil, shortly after it would suffer under the invasions of the Assyrians. Amos would understand these events as justifiable punishment for evils inflicted by Jews on their fellows and on the countries round about. We cannot be so sanguine, for we now realise the implications of our involvement in systems of corruption and evil which previously we could never have envisaged ourselves being involved in, such as the use of British armaments in Middle Eastern conflicts. No, we are, all of us up to our necks in exploitative systems in so many ways. What we have to throw our lot in with, is the outrageous and unfathomable mercy of God, and perhaps for His sake, do it with his humour and grace.