illustrating Luke 16:1-9 in the Bowyer Bible, Bolton, England.
Trinity 15 2019 ~ The (dis)honest Steward
The parable of the Dishonest Steward, as we might call him, is one of the most unusual: but this story of a debt collector who, seeing the writing on the wall, is generous to those who owe money in order to feather a nest for himself when he gets fired, actually makes more sense in today’s culture than in Jesus’ time.
Perhaps you have recently seen the BBC series, ‘A Matter of Life and Debt’. The North London Credit Union gets a starring role – the issue of debt is a significant one nowadays. Debt affects everyone, if only because every time we make a purchase or pay a bill, even if we are completely debt-free ourselves, we are paying for the defaulters, the bankruptcies, repossessions and IVAs that are part of our modern financial landscape. People in debt are effectively paying for some of the services the debt-free enjoy, and those who have savings are effectively subsidising those who are unable to repay their loans. This rather symbiotic relationship is closely regulated by the Financial Services Authority, and in most situations there are government safety nets for savers and borrowers alike. You will probably know about the PPI business of a few years ago, and the recent opportunities that the government put in place to rectify some dodgy dealing and mis-selling that related to it. Perhaps you even got something back yourselves.
Nowadays we do not live in a society where the phrase ‘never a borrower nor a lender be’ has any moral foothold or even legitimacy. We are all involved in debt, whether we like it or know it, or not. And this would seem to put us a very long way away from the context in which Jesus was telling his parable, whatever he meant by it, and whoever he was aiming it at. Remember that Jesus’ parables invariably have a meaning, but they also have a target.
The steward is introduced to us as a rascal. He was a slave, but he was nonetheless in charge of the running of his master’s estate. In Palestine there were many absentee landlords and his master may well have been one of these, and his business may well have been entrusted to this steward. He has followed a career of embezzlement, which, now that he has been caught, is going to cost him his job. We get that – that is easily transferrable to our day. The notion of a fraudulent banker, or even a rip-off lender is by no means alien to us. Indeed, some of them have been found out.
If we take the debtors in the story at face value, we might want to conclude that they are hardly innocent victims, but are rascals too. They are not tenants, notice (as they are in another of Jesus’ parables), they are debtors. They are in arrears – they are not keeping up their payments. This could be because they are really struggling, and are therefore already being exploited by the man who is about to let them off. They are, perhaps, victims of a financial hegemony that oppresses them. Maybe. Or, they are rascals too, not paying or avoiding their debts when they can perfectly well do so.
Whether they can afford to pay or not, the steward, imminently up against it himself, decides to help them, to help himself. So he offers them the next step below bankruptcy – a first century IVA. IVA - An Individual Voluntary Arrangement. You might know what they are - last year 50,000 people in the UK applied for these. Sitting somewhere on the spectrum between debt consolidation and bankruptcy it is an option for some people who are struggling with debt. An IVA is a legally-binding agreement between someone and their creditors writing off up to 90% of their debts. It means reaching a compromise with creditors to settle debts within a reasonable, fixed period of time and at the same time, avoids the consequences of bankruptcy. Most IVAs last for five or six years.
Sound familiar? It sounds exactly like what the dishonest steward did. Which might even raise a question as to whether we really want to call his actions dishonest. It might even be considered kind. Obviously his boss wasn’t going to like it, because he was going to lose money. Except, wait for it – what happens – the steward gets praised – much to his surprise, he is commended for it. And this is because, in modern parlance, he has negotiated IVAs for his master’s debtors, and has thereby enabled them to be financially liberated, while at the same time salvaging some return for his master. This is a win-win.
Consider the alternatives – the steward gets fired for surcharging the loans. The debtors will probably have to pay up anyway. The master has to chase the money. That’s a lose-lose situation – everyone loses out.
Or, the debtors don’t pay up at all, the steward is fired, the master gets nothing. That’s a win-lose situation – master and steward lose, debtors win.
But what the steward actually does is negotiate a financial settlement that includes everyone and makes everyone a winner. No-one loses out, for sure. It’s good financial management and that’s why he is commended for it.
Although there is that sting in the tail, puncturing the whole thing today as then: “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light”. Ouch. Serpentine wisdom springs to mind.
But the steward is faithful with the dishonest wealth – there is a kind of internal integrity here. And internal integrity serves here as a kind of test or trial. It’s as if to say, it doesn’t matter whose money it is, but what is important is how you handle it. And the steward passes the test. For if he had been mean with his master’s money, he would likely be mean with his own.
Of course, this parable is not about money, at all. As we saw last week with the parable of the lost coin, money, being the currency of life, understood in every age and place, is a universal metaphor. Everyone knows what money is, and everyone has a relationship with money, whether they are rich or poor, in credit or debt. Money was invented around 2000 BC when it was associated with grain stored in temple granaries in Sumer in ancient Mesopotamia, and then in Ancient Egypt. So, telling stories about money makes for something universally understood. Money, though, is a metaphor for salvation.
In these stories, money lost is salvation lost. Money found is salvation gained. So, what is money borrowed, stolen or even embezzled? The implication is that there is money – salvation – that is in the wrong hands, that may be a temporary gift, or against which a return is payable. Debts need to be redeemed – paid back. And we all have an interest in salvation. One of the original versions of the Lord’s Prayer speaks not of the forgiveness of sins or trespasses, but of debts. The Bible is so full of money language, that we sometimes don’t even notice.
So, in money and salvation terms, who is who in the parable? If the Master is God, then who is the steward? Is it Jesus? – presumably not. But could it be someone who thinks that they can control salvation, act as middleman, take a cut, and generally wheeler deal on behalf of a higher power to whom they are ultimately answerable, and of course, who will ultimately find them out and punish them? Perhaps Jesus, in telling this parable is having another dig at the prevalent pharisaical attitude that salvation is the preserve of a select few who have taken power to condemn and save upon themselves dishonestly. Salvation, like money, is their plaything, to use, exploit, benefit from, at the expense of others.
I’m not sure whether that is the case, and it is a confusing parable on many levels, and even though Jesus tells the story to the disciples, not to the scribes and pharisees, this is precisely the kind of attitude he frequently sought to undermine and challenge. Salvation is not to be kept in some purses and not others, it is not as commodity to be traded, it is not that some are rich and some poor, indeed, if you think you are rich in salvation, you are in fact poor, and vice versa. Jesus turns upside down thinking on money and on salvation.
And when it comes to our own salvation-accounts with God, we are all in debt – indebted because of sin - and so, in order to avoid utter bankruptcy we need to enter into individual voluntary arrangements with our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who will forgive us our debts. And, indeed, he invites us to commit to forgiving the debts of others too. Relationship with God is, after a voluntary, individual, arrangement.
We live in strange times at the moment, and the themes of dishonesty, prudence, finance and debt are big live issues not only in individual lives but nationally and internationally too. I’ve not mentioned Brexit this week… But you will know that one of the issues is how much money the UK ‘owes’ or otherwise pays or not to the EU. It’s not just a national, sovereignty or even immigration question, it is a financial one.
Our parable this morning concludes with those harsh words: “you cannot serve God and wealth”. I don’t think anyone disputes this, but the dilemma is how, in a financially driven age, this cashes out, if you’ll excuse the analogy. Some might say that one – we – can serve God with money. But there is a question of priority, as to which is more important - which is the driver of our lives, and which is the goal of our lives? There are no pockets in shrouds, so it is patently obvious that you can’t take it with you when you go, and even if you could – would you want to? Salvation is a different currency, not made of gold, and there is no exchange rate with the euro, pound, dollar, drachma or shekel. Brexit has no impact on salvation! There are more important matters in hand for each of us, and we need money. We need money not only to get by, but we need money to help us understand our salvation, to care for it, invest in it even.
So, my friends, whatever your financial situation, mind your money, but most of all, take an interest in your salvation, at any cost. And remember always the price of salvation, paid once and for all on the Cross by our Lord Jesus Christ, who died and rose again that we might have our debts of sin written off and repaid with eternal life. For each and every one of us, there can be no better voluntary, individual, arrangement than that.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 22/09/19