A sermon on Luke 16: 1-13 by Nathan Nettleton
This has got to be one of the most perplexing of all the parables of Jesus, because there are no good characters in it. It is a bit like the experience you have when you see a movie in which you don’t like the hero. All the characters are dislikable and you find yourself from minute to minute changing sides and never sure where you are, or even who you are supposed to be identifying with. However you look at it, the steward at the centre of this story, and who is evidently the one whose example we are supposed to learn from was a shrewd and unscrupulous business operator, and not at all the sort of person we expect Jesus to be commending to us.
I want to explain a couple of things about parables, and specifically about this parable before we get on with dealing with whatever the message of it is.
Firstly parables are not just simple moral examples. They are not just an illustration of a point that could have been made as a theoretical point. Jesus did not use parables because he didn’t have a proper theological education, and therefore the point of preaching on them is not just to turn them back into clear moral rules. Parables are more often snapshots of real life, with all the ambiguities and uncertainties of real life. And with all the surprises and ironic twists of real life. Jesus did not seek to portray an ideal fantasy world in which some person lives consistently by sound moral godly principles and every one else is a villain. He was more interested in how the world actually is, and enabling us to observe it and learn from it in all its messiness and confusion.
There are probably not too many of Jesus’ parables where that is more evident than this one. A wealthy man calls in his business manager and because of charges that the manager has mishandled the affairs he dismisses him and asks him to bring in the books. The manager goes out and doctors the books to sure up his own position before presenting them. And then blow me down, the boss commends him for the genius of his swindle.
Preachers have stumbled around over this one for a long time, doing some strange twists to try and domesticate it, or clean it up. And in fairness to those who have read it very differently from me, I need to make clear that there explanations that can make it a lot cleaner than it appears. The most plausible, although I don’t accept it, is put forward buy a scholar named Derrett. He points out that in the Jewish law there was a prohibition on the charging of interest on loans, and that business people commonly used various means to get around it. In a situation like this one, the business manager would be selling the masters goods, and the sales would often be on credit. So instead of charging interest on the money, you just overpriced the goods in the first place. $100 for cash, $150 for credit. Not really interest, but pretty close. And further more, in a situation like this the business manager would often have a cut for himself built into the difference to supplement his salary. So Derrett argues that what in fact happens in this story is that the manager in discounting the bills and doctoring the books to make friends for himself is actually just removing the interest component, and/or his own cut, and that therefore although he is probably acting against his masters will he is in fact bringing the transactions back into line with the spirit of the law.
Now that explanation certainly sanitizes the passage a bit, and gives us a character who is a bit more morally admirable, but I find it quite unsatisfactory. There is nothing clear in the parable to suggest that. It is also clear that the man’s motives were such that he was more likely to pull a swindle than to restore the moral order. It is all together too nice. Too unrealistic. The parable is a messy one and there is no satisfactory way of cleaning it up. The more common response of confused preachers has been to suggest that Jesus couldn’t have said it at all and that it must have got into the Bible some other way. But that doesn’t work either, because as study of the history of the Bible has shown, attempts to alter it have always been in order to clean it up and make it easier. The confusing and problematic nature of this passage pretty much proves its authenticity. No-one could have got away with adding this unless it was known that Jesus actually said it. So we have to deal with it as it stands.
How many people watched the two part series on ABC TV called Blue Murder in the last few weeks? It was a recreation of some of the events at the centre of corruption in the New South Wales Police Force in the eighties. One of the things that I found watching it, was that numerous times you weren’t quite sure who you were dealing with. A new character would come into the story line, and you weren’t always told whether this was a good cop or a corrupt cop. And of course several of the characters in the story were having the same problem. It reinforced for me, a sense of uncertainty about the world. You can never be quite sure who you can trust in a given situation. Sometimes the nicest most caring people turn out to be child molesters, and the cold suspicious dislikable people turn out to be reliable and trust worthy. The world is full of people who are capable of both good and evil, honesty and deception. That’s us, and the extent to which any of us express one side or the other is largely a matter of choice on our part.
In this parable we find ourselves unsure who to side with. Because we’re used to the ways parables go, when we hear at the start that there was a rich man, we automatically assume that he is the baddy, so we find our sympathies with the poor employee who is being convicted without trial by the master and kicked out of a job. We don’t mind that the little guy hasn’t been altogether honest, because we see him as a bit of a Robin Hood or a Ned Kelly, ripping off the rich to provide for the poor, and we always have a bit of a moral holiday in stories like that. But then we start to see the sleazy side of the little guy. He seems to have got rather used to his privileged lifestyle. He reckons he’s too soft to dig ditches and too full of himself to go on the welfare system. He’s starting to lose our sympathy. He devises a swindle, to set himself up at the boss’s expense after he’s sacked. He’s pretty much lost us now – we have a crooked, up-himself middle manager, pulling one more fraud to protect himself from having to go out and do an honest days work after he’s exposed.
But then just as our sympathies are back with the boss who’s been ripped off, the boss turns round and commends the quality of the swindle. You know the sort of attitude; “I may have been the victim, but jeez he was clever. You can’t help admiring that sort of genius. He got me good and proper, but anybody capable of pulling off a con job like that is my kind of man.” You almost get the feeling he was ready to reinstate him, although it doesn’t say that.
We’re left not sure who we are identifying with, and feeling decidedly uncomfortable whichever way we lean. It’s not an unusual feeling. Most of you have had times in your work places where someone you liked was doing something you didn’t like. And you feel torn between a sense of loyalty to the person and a sense of wanting to do the right thing and not compromise your own sense of moral integrity.
In such situations, Christians are often seen as the naive innocents, stumbling through with their heads in the clouds and quite unprepared for life in the real world. In that show “Blue Murder,” at one point one of the most corrupt cops described the blokes who were trying to bring him to justice as a couple of born again Christians who’ve never had to do a day’s “real” policing in their lives. That’s the sort of image we often have. Innocents who try to live as though earth was heaven, and who are therefore unable to cut it when the chips are down and the dirt is flying. Idealists who find the cut and thrust of business and politics unclean and beneath their sense of propriety.
And it’s a fair depiction of some Christians, and I think it is to such people that Jesus addressed this parable. Jesus says at the end of the story that the children of this age are more shrewd in their dealings with their own generation than are the children of the light. Ultimately I don’t think it is a parable about morality. It is a parable about shrewdness, about ability to deal creatively with the cards that life deals to us instead of pretending that the world is a perfect place. The parable is not putting up the manager’s dishonesty as an example, it is putting up his ingenuity. It is saying, if even those who are motivated only by money and status and “looking after number one” are this cunning in the way they operate, how much more should those of us who are committed to a greater cause and motivated by the Spirit of God be willing and able to make wise and creative use of our energy, time, resources and imagination in the service of the cause of justice and right in the world.
There may well be times when if you are fair dinkum about getting the right thing done you have to resort to means that would be unnecessary in an ideal world. But that is part of operating in the world. It is no use trying to get something done by appealing to high moral principle if you are dealing with a totally unprincipled person. I had a couple of times in the past when I was working for bosses who were doing the wrong thing in one way or another and I resorted to some somewhat underhand means to change or subvert the situation. In one case when I worked in a plaster factory in Richmond, they were packaging the same product in two different containers and selling it at two quite different prices. I had told the boss what I thought of that, but I was never likely to change his mind, but whenever I was working in the sales office, I would never sell the higher priced product. I would either tell the customer to use the cheaper one, or if the boss was in earshot, I would just charge them the lower price, knowing that the stock take system was not accurate enough to pick it up. In another work place, the boss refused to employ someone because she was a woman, and put my own job on the line to ensure that she got the job. Now it would be easy for me to claim all sorts of moral virtue and courage in that, but I knew that the boss couldn’t afford to lose me at that time and that I was basically blackmailing him into doing what I wanted him to do. There’s blackmail and there’s blackmail. Sometimes it’s an illegal and immoral act, and sometimes it’s shrewd strategy in a moral war.
Sure I’d have much rather been able to appeal to principle and win them over to my way of seeing things, but in the absence of that possibility I had to use the available means to get the best possible outcome. And you don’t get that by riding on your high horse and wishing the world was a better place so you didn’t have to get your hands dirty.
It’s a tough world that we live in. Those who don’t have the toughness to cope in it often don’t survive. If we are fair dinkum about committing ourselves to the struggle for a new age, an age of justice and peace and freedom for all, then we had better be tough enough to mix it with those who oppose those things and who stop at nothing to get their way. There is nothing admirable about being too holy or too wimpy to get blood on our hands and therefore letting the world just go on the way it is and never taking a stand. We follow the Christ who was tough enough to kick his way through the temple trading conspiracy, tough enough to take the blows at the cross when he knew that copping the injustice would in that situation break its power, and tough enough to not shy away from a messy, morally ambiguous story like this one. And if we’re to be followers of this Christ, and we want him to be with us when we’re confronting the raging storms of an angry world, then we’d better be tough enough to use our time, energy, resources and creative imagination to tackle all that stands in the way of the fullness of life he called us to champion.