The Season of Creation lectionary offers us the first part of our Gospel reading today, while the regular lectionary gives us the second part. The Season of Creation reading is what one might expect for Storm Sunday, Jesus stilling the storm on the lake, but that’s the trouble: it is what one expects. The regular lectionary, on the other hand, is most definitely not what one expects. St. Augustine wrote, “I can’t believe that this story came from the lips of our Lord.” Some Bible translations begin it with the heading, “The Unjust Steward,” because it’s about a manager who is rewarded for his efforts at cheating his boss.
It is no wonder this parable about a little guy cheating the master, and then being praised for it, has created confusion, controversy, embarrassment, and confounded scholars and preachers from very early times to the present. The story is a riddle, but as Jesus’ parables tend to do, it may take us in unexpected directions.
A parable is a story that always means more than it says. Jesus, in telling his stories, is trying to evoke the Truth which God has already implanted in us. He wants to stir us, shake us, shock us and jerk us in directions we don’t want to go, and this one certainly does this. So, in listening to a parable, look for the weird, the unexpected. Where is the new Truth?
So what shall we make of it. Neither of the characters in this story seems to conform to the standards of behaviour that, generally, are thought appropriate to the realm of God. When dismissed from his job, the steward goes to those who owe a debt to his master and drastically reduces their debt, i.e. denying his master of that which is properly owed to him in order to curry favour with his debtors.
But the steward’s master is no saint either, because the master has long been profiting from the steward’s shrewdness. It is particularly worrying because, Jesus’ parables, the master is usually assumed to be God. So what is the storyteller trying to tell us?
This is one of those ‘How Much More’ parables, as distinct from the ‘Go and Do Likewise’ type, meaning that if a dishonest steward can ensure his future with shrewdness, ‘how much more’ should Christians be astute and shrewd in advancing the cause of God? If, in the secular world, cleverness, ingenuity, aggressiveness, and risk-taking are axiomatic for success, how much more should those committed to the Realm of God be creative, aggressive, and willing to take risks to ensure the future of God’s creation?
William Barclay said as much: “the lesson is that the sons of this world are wiser than the sons of light. If only the Christian was as eager and ingenious in his attempt to attain goodness as man of the world is in his attempt to attain money, comfort, etc.”
Of course, we are to see ourselves as like the unjust steward, for we are God’s stewards, who have squandered what God has given us, not merely our individual talents and gifts, but especially relevant in this Season of Creation, the marvellous, life-sustaining gift of God’s creation that, way back in Genesis, we were charged with protecting. We, like the steward in the parable, are about to be fired.
The point of the parable is clear, despite the questions about the ethical issues: it is look ahead, be farsighted, know where you are heading. (We are about to be fired!) Will we do nothing and hope for the best, or will we respond shrewdly? We are to imitate not the Steward’s dishonesty; rather, his wisdom, prudence, foresight, shrewdness, etc. If even this unrighteous steward makes provisions for his future, how much more should we make provision for our future, and that of our children and their children.
The world has come to this place in history, where even the storms, which are a natural and life-giving aspect of God’s creation, are enhanced in magnitude because of our purposeful ineptitude as stewards of the earth. But Jesus, in his parables, offer a vision of a counter-world, a glimpse of an alternative, a revelation of potential. Just as Jesus quells the storm, he is creating a safe place into which the Roman Empire, and all the powerful forces of our time cannot intrude and dominate; where we are freed from the control of the ruthless, the religious zealots, the monied or what or whomever stands between us and doing God’s will.
This is good news if you are on the margins of church, of society, of the commercial, or political systems; less good if you happen to be one of the well-off and in control, or you are looking for security, a religion with answers, a set of rules, or a reward for regular attendance at worship. I hope you can begin to see this parable as something that you can call good news, but it is most likely going to be an unsettling process. This is how parables often work.
If nothing else, I hope that the difficulties found in this parable will engage your imaginations. I’m quite sure this is why Jesus taught in this form. How we imagine or re-imagine the world is the fundamental question. All we can do is to travel with Jesus and have faith with him that his re-imagined view – his glimpsed alternative – of the world, is OK.