Parables and moral stories have been told as long as there have been people who need to learn right from wrong. We know well the fairy tales: Cinderella, who is faithful in her work despite its injustice, is rewarded with a charming prince; in the Grimms Brothers’ stories, disobedient children are eaten and faithful children escape harm.
Jewish folklore was no different, it followed similar rules — just like all over the ancient world, you always bet on the oldest son, people who are less fortunate deserve it, the rich are winners, and the poor better be as faithful as they can.
The stories of Israelite patriarchs in our Old Testament upend these sensibilities — Jacob, the younger son, even the trickster, ends up winning the birthright of God’s blessing and becoming the father of many nations. Job’s friends know he must have done something really, really bad to deserve the horrible calamities that befall him — but we learn from reading Job’s story that his conduct was all faithfulness, his misfortune not a result of bad behavior. The God of Jacob and Job is a different sort of God than the world had ever seen.
Fast forward to today’s parable in Luke’s Gospel. The infamous parable of the dishonest steward. It’s a terribly unsatisfying story.
“There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.”
A ha. The listeners’ eyes light up; we know what’s going to happen — this good-for-nothing’s going to be thrown out, and Jesus will affirm the justice of the owner’s action. You just can’t go around being lazy with what you’ve been entrusted to manage.
Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me?”
Rather than facing the consequences of his laziness, he gathers up all the cards he can find to play, and carefully puts them on the table, playing like nothing is wrong. He finds his master’s vendors and cuts their debts, thinking that people would welcome him into their homes if he gave them a special deal. He would still be able to eat, and who cared about what his current employer thought of him? Clearly that bridge was already burned.
The listeners’ horror (and maybe delight) grows — it’s even worse than we thought at first, and perhaps we even permit ourselves a smile — this steward must be really, really dumb. He’s breaking all the rules, he’ll get what’s coming to him. The excitement builds in your chest; what’s the owner going to say to him when he finds out what’s happened?! Will he be hanged? Sent into the outer darkness? Oh, that steward is really going to get it.
“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
It’s really a one-two punch; not only is the steward affirmed, but Jesus lifts up “the children of this age” over the “children of light.”
I want to say, “wait a second, Jesus. I don’t steal, I don’t lie, I don’t swindle, or even cajole. I try to avoid anything that has even a shadow about it. I do things the right way. Where’s my commendation? Where’s my medal? It’s not easy staying in all the lines!”
I have some bad news, friends.
The parable directly before this, right at the end of chapter 15, is the parable of the Prodigal Son. What happens in that story, but the one who behaved badly, the one who squandered, ends up winning it all — at least, he is welcomed back to the family despite his faults and mistakes and sins, and the old brother is disgusted, saying,
“Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
Suddenly, this parable of the dishonest manager is sounding awfully familiar. The excitement in my stomach has turned to knots. I recognize the speech the older brother gave; I just gave it myself a few minutes ago. This parable has hit too close to home; it’s not some far-off, objective example like the Prodigal Son; it plays on the easily-guessed assumptions of self-righteous listeners like me.
That’s why it’s so puzzling, why we can’t figure out what it means — those who always stay close to the mothership and who only ever play within well-worn boundaries may do so because they’re afraid, or they’re eager to please by following the rules, but Jesus showed in his life and ministry just as God showed in the narrative arc of the Old Testament, that the well-worn boundaries of whatever culture in which we find ourselves is not the same as the boundaries that God has set
Not that I’m preaching that Jesus condones stealing. More than once, Jesus crosses lines of cultural acceptability and even his own understanding of justice to make a point about the exorbitant grace that he embodies. Back in chapter 11, there’s the man who went to his neighbor to ask for some sugar late at night when unexpected visitors came into town. The neighbor grumpily agrees, and Jesus says, “How much more is your heavenly Father willing to give you good things?” Later in chapter 18, Jesus tells the parable of the unjust judge, with the persistent widow who receives what she asks because of her own faithfulness, despite the miserly man on the bench. “How much more,” Jesus says, “will your Heavenly Father give you justice?”
Just like in the parable of the Prodigal Son, it’s not that God celebrates the squandered fortune or the life with prostitutes, or the selfish way the young son has behaved, but how much more does God delight in those who find their way around obstacles, not allowing imminent defeat curtail their drive? Jesus seems to say with this parable, “Hey man, I like your hustle. Why don’t you come and play for my team?”
How much more could the dishonest steward do with the priceless gift of salvation through Jesus Christ than the few scraps of social capital he manages to gather on his way out the door?
How much more could we, possessors as we are of eternal life, do with the true riches we’ve been given, if only we’d give scrappiness and creativity a try?
And isn’t this exactly what has happened with St. Augustine’s? This experiment of melding long-established faith communities to find one parish together? It’s not well-trod territory; as Fr. Paul told me once, the book on how to do this hasn’t been written. Rather than an excuse to rest on our innovative church-planting laurels, though, I believe that we have a mandate, hemmed only by God’s own culture, as it’s written in Scripture, written in our hearts, and written in creation itself.
May we not become puffed up, patting ourselves on the back for our craftiness and our sensitivity to the Spirit’s leading; as we see throughout the history of the world, not least in God’s relationship with his people Israel itself, humanity as a species is particularly prone to lethargy and falling into a rut, to falling asleep at the wheel, allowing culture to just wash over us until we’re formed by it like the water that made the Grand Canyon.
This is why our worship matters, why our conversations with each other matter, why the books we read and the way we spend our time is of eternal significance. As we’ve seen, spending all our time with church people isn’t even always the best way to cultivate holiness and scrappiness. It’s God’s culture in which we need to be formed.
My junior year of high school, a new student showed up about halfway through our first semester. In our small, close-knit Christian school, this young man with a barely-regulation haircut and a pierced ear caused quite a stir. He came in under a shadow — the rumor was that he’d rear-ended a school bus in his girlfriend’s car while he was high, and the judge required he become part of our community, or face jail time.
Whether the second part of the rumor was true, I don’t know, but he had gotten into an accident while under the influence, and my best friend told me in her wisest 16-year-old voice that we shouldn’t spend time around those kinds of people. I was just ornery enough to furrow my brow and wonder aloud if he wasn’t exactly the sort of person we should be hanging out with. One of the two is still a contact in my cellphone. Most recently, he and his wife helped start a church in DC. How much more he did with the great gift of grace he was given.
So what will you do with the great gift of grace that has been dropped into your lap, that perhaps you’ve possessed for most of your life? If it’s been squandered, there’s good news, God is ready to forgive, just like the father of the Prodigal Son. And even more good news — it seems that God wouldn’t mind if you took to cajoling and creative means of bringing more precious people into his eternal Kingdom.