Luke 16. 1-13
There are some passages in the Bible which make a preacher’s heart sink, and this week’s Gospel reading is one of them. The parable of the dishonest steward. What on earth is this all about? A man who defrauds his master in order to get himself out of a hole. And Jesus seems to be holding him up as an example to follow. Surely that can’t be right!
Some preachers try to suggest that there is an innocent explanation for the steward’s behaviour, that these debts were perhaps unjust in the first place, but I don’t think that’ll do. If Jesus meant to say that I’m sure he would have done so. I also think that the story, read as it is, has a message that we need to hear.
But there are two things we need to be aware of, if we are going to be able to hear that message. The first is that this is a story. There’s an unfortunate tendency today to read the Bible as if it was an instruction manual, full of straightforward rules for living. It’s actually a post-Enlightenment attitude – a side effect of our modern scientific mindset. But Jesus and his listeners didn’t think that way. They lived in a world of stories and symbols, a much more subtle world, in a way. They knew that a story isn’t an instruction manual: it is something which evokes an emotional response, something you can step into, try out for size. You might identify with some of the characters in it, but that doesn’t mean you’re supposed to copy them. The story of Cinderella reminds us that deep down we all want to have the ashes washed away and our true selves recognised; it doesn’t tell us we need a pair of glass slippers to make that happen.
So to Jesus’ hearers this was a story – just a story – which helped them think about what it feels like to be cast out, accused – justly or unjustly – and regarded as in being the wrong.
And that brings me to my second point, because “in the wrong” was just how the first Christians were regarded. We are used to thinking of Christianity as a force for good, and of Jesus as a good man, but that wasn’t how it was then.
Many of the first Christians had probably been pillars of their society – good Jews, good Romans – but now they were following someone who’d been crucified as a troublemaker. Jesus had been seen as a traitor to his Jewish faith and a challenge to the good order of the Romans; that’s why they killed him. His followers too were often accused of squandering the riches of their traditions, treating the values of their society with disdain and contempt. Whether that was fair or not is neither here nor there. If everyone else thinks you are guilty, it’s hard not to internalise that to some extent. In Jesus’ story we aren’t told whether the initial accusations made against the steward are true or false. What mattered was that people believed them. And I’m willing to bet that those first Christians often felt pretty rotten about turning away from the faith and customs they’d been brought up with too, especially if their families started to suffer by association.
So what were they to do? The temptation must have been huge to turn back from the path they were on, try to cut a deal with their old lives, keep things the way they were and follow Jesus privately in ways that made no real difference to those around them. The alternative was to accept that they would find themselves cast out – as this steward was – catapulted into the wasteland where the world’s outsiders lived, having to make a new life for themselves there.
This parable encourages them to see that route not as a disaster, but as a new beginning, with new relationships and new opportunities. The early church was a radically new experience for them, where slaves and slave owners, men and women, Jews and Gentiles were on an equal footing. It was a challenge, but they also found new friends, new joy, energy and life in it.
And for us? I think the challenges we face are the same. Though we don’t face the persecution those early Christians faced, the path Jesus calls us on is not necessarily the path the rest of the world is taking. Swimming against the tide is hard work. It is tempting simply to treat Christian faith as a bolt-on – the ultimate gift for the person who has everything. But sometimes God calls us not to fit in but to stand out. In every generation Christians have made that choice and suffered the consequences. Those who campaigned against the slave trade met fierce opposition because the economy was so tied up with it. Those who advocated universal education were warned that educating the poor would make them unhappy with their lot in life and cause social dissent. Modern campaigns for racial equality, fair trade or environmental justice – in which many Christians have been involved – can take some guts to be part of, provoking harsh reactions from those who feel threatened by them. Any battle against injustice means risking the disapproval of those who’d know they are profiting from the status quo.
I like fitting in, and I expect you do too. I like it when people like me, and I expect you do too. But do we want that approval more than we want the kingdom of God, a kingdom where all his children can know they are loved? That’s the question from this strange story I invite you to ponder tonight.