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Shrewd Stewardship

If you as old as I am, you will remember how inconvenient it once was to withdraw cash from your checking account. You had to write a check and go to a bank or a grocery store and cash it. Automatic teller machines (ATMs) have made it much more convenient. However, crooks have become ingenious in their efforts to separate you from your money. They can phish for your financial information by posing as your bank requesting your card and PIN numbers. They can use skimmers, devices which are attached to the card readers to capture your card numbers. Several years ago, in the 1980s before skimmers were developed, two enterprising men decided to build their own ATM from scratch and installed it into a wall on a public street. When the card was inserted, the customer received an error message and the card was ejected…but, not before the card details were recorded, which was used later by the crooks at a real ATM. Wow! What geniuses those two were!

One of the advantages of preaching periodically is that I can choose which readings I choose to preach on. Then why, you might ask, did I decide to preach on this Gospel, which many commentators described as “the most puzzling parable that Jesus ever spoke” (Barclay, 1999, p. 146) or “regularly avoided by preachers” (Borsch, 1988, p. 17)? After reflecting on the Gospel and reading a few commentaries, I found comfort in one interpretation; maybe you will, too.

The Gospel for today is known as the Parable of the Dishonest Steward. Occasionally, it is known as the Parable of the Prodigal Steward, especially since it immediately follows the Parable of the Prodigal Son. To be considered “prodigal” is to be wasteful with your money or other resources. It is a story of a manager who believes that the gig is up. He has been incompetent, irresponsible, and wasteful in managing his master’s resources, and now, he believes that he is being called on the carpet and will be fired. He is about to lose his income, his home, and his reputation. What is he to do? He is no good at manual labor and begging is beneath him.

Sweating one’s future is a good motivator. Suddenly, he has a flash of insight. You can almost see the lightbulb appear above his head. He decides to conspire with each of those who owes his master money. One by one, he tells each to cut their respective bills. (You, who owe $500, subtract $100 from it. And you who owe $1,000, change the debt to $500, and so forth.) Therefore, if the worse comes to pass and the steward is fired, he can go to those he helped and say, “Do you remember what I did for you? If you won’t help me, I will tell everyone that you refused.” This being an honor-shame culture, a refusal to help the steward would bring dishonor to that individual who refused.

Now that the steward has prepared the best as he can for his future, the stage is set. One can almost imagine the steward timidly approaching his master, sweating profusely, expecting to be fired. The disciples hearing this story are probably eager, too waiting for the steward to get his comeuppance. Now he is going to get his just desserts! However, Jesus’s parables do not always proceed as one expects. Rather than firing the steward, the master praises the employee for looking out for his own interests rather than his master’s business. Since the master in this and similar parables is a substitute for God, is God praising the steward for unscrupulous behavior? Is Jesus after completing the parable supporting such behavior when he states, “If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” What about my apparent support in the introduction? Was I praising the crooks who built the ATM machine and cheated the people out of their money?

The answer to all these questions is no. In both examples, the ATM scam and the parable, what is being praised is, not their morality, whether the behavior is the right or wrong, but their unwavering commitment and focused motivation to secure dishonest wealth. How many have ever heard a story of some ingenious con man and have responded, “If he or she would only apply that same ingenuity and motivation to do good, what a better person and world this would be.

So, if God is the master in this parable, who is the steward? The steward is each of us. The parable of the dishonest steward gives us an opportunity to reflect on all that God has given us and to evaluate what we have done with it. Are we serving God with the same single-minded devotion as we do in acquiring our treasures on Earth.

The Gospel ends, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” The King James translation for this gospel substitutes the word “mammon” for “wealth.” These two terms are essentially the same; however, wealth recalls the Christmas Story with Ebenezer Scrooge in his counting house greedily counting his money, which limits how I believe our gospel writer defines “wealth.” Mammon is not only our material possessions, but it is also the rabid pursuit of worldly things and pleasures at the expense of our spiritual future. The Gospel of Matthew mirrors today’s Gospel from Luke with the scripture: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

(Luke 16:13)

So, have you been good stewards with your mammon, the riches of treasure, time, or talent? Or have we squandered what has been given to us by God? How have we used the good earth that God has given us? How have we treated our own bodies? How have we treated others? Have we respected “the dignity of every human being” (even those we do not particularly like) as we have affirmed in our baptismal covenant? Jesus’ parable of the dishonest or prodigal steward provides us an opportunity to reflect on how we have used what God has given us and if using as much single-minded devotion in building treasures in heaven as we doing in worshiping a “god” with a small “g.” “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. (Mt 6:19-21).


Works Cited:

Barclay, William. The Parables of Jesus. Westminster John Knox Press, 1970.

Borsch, Frederick Houk. Many Things in Parables: Extravagant Stories of New Community. Fortress Press, 1988.

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