The Dishonest Economist

A parable from Luke 16:1-13

We think of dishonesty is something that needs forgiveness.  In this parable forgiveness happened by means of dishonesty.  And that forgiveness has future consequences.  Luke is all about economics – Jesus never shies away from money – in fact plunges right in to the complexity of human relationship with money.  This is not the only parable he tells about masters and servants, employers and workers.  And this parable is probably one of the most troublesome and difficult for contemporary Christians to interpret.  I’m going to give it a shot.

The parable is about a steward.  A dishonest steward.  But although I don’t do this often, I actually consulted the Greek and I discovered that the word for ‘steward’ or ‘manager’ is oikonomos.  He is the economist – oikos (like the yogurt) is house, and that is where our English word economy comes from.  But he is the one who is managing the household finances of the absentee landlord.  he is the money handler.  And in that sense, we are all economists.    And I’ll get to that later.

But because this is a difficult parable to understand, I thought a little fleshing out might be helpful.  Pastor, blogger, Sarah Dylan Breuer does this better than I could, so I’ll use her words:

“A very, very rich man lives in a big city (a city like Jerusalem), with a lifestyle of luxury made possible from the income of the estate he owns in the countryside. He’s hired a manager (or steward – [or economist]) to run it while he parties in Jerusalem, and all of the work of planting and harvesting is done by peasants whose grandparents might have owned the land, had they not lost it in payment on a debt. So now the peasants work the land as tenant farmers, buying what they need from the company store (at prices far above what their grandparents paid for the same goods), with whatever is left over after they pay their exorbitant rent to the landowner. The harvest is never quite enough to pay the rent plus what each family needs, so the family is slipping further and further into debt, working harder and harder to pay what can’t be paid – there’s just no way to pay the kind of large debts that accrued under that system of tenant farming. The immediate face of this system is that of the steward — someone who might have come from the same families as the people who now suffer under his management, but who managed somehow to get the education needed to keep records and to lose the backbone needed to refuse to participate in something so clearly unjust.

At the very beginning of the parable, the landowner fires the steward because of rumors that the steward was squandering the landowner’s resources…So, having been fired, the steward is no longer authorized to do anything at all in the master’s name. The farmers from whom the steward probably came aren’t about to take him in either, given that up until now he’s allied himself with the landowner by taking a job that involves collecting exorbitant rents, running the company store, and generally dealing unjustly with the farmers. That kind of behavior is why the steward is called “the steward of unrighteousness” in verse 8 – [the dishonest economist]

So what does the steward do? Something extraordinarily clever. He gathers all of the farmers who owe the landowner money, and he tells them that their debts have been reduced from the rough equivalent of “a million bazillion kajillion dollars” to something that maybe could be repaid, (maybe) freeing the family to make choices about next steps. With quirks of how records were kept, the steward’s creative accounting involves a few subtle strokes of the (forger’s) pen – much like what students do in changing a handwritten ‘D’ to a ‘B’ on a report card, or in a crooked accountant’s deletion of a zero or two from the records.

The farmers think that the steward is still acting with the master’s authority in all of this; the steward doesn’t tell the farmers that he was fired any more than he tells them that the landowner didn’t authorize any of this generosity. The result is that the farmers believe the landowner is more generous than just about anyone else in his position would be. The landowner is now a hero in the farmers’ eyes – and the steward, by extension, is also.

The landowner comes for his customary visit to pick up the wealth the steward has collected for him, and he gets a surprise that is both exhilarating and challenging: The streets for miles before he reaches the estate are lined by cheering farmers. They’re shouting his name, telling him he’s a hero. [He learns that] his ex-steward has told the farmers that the landowner forgave their debts. Now he has a choice to make.

The landowner can go outside to the assembled crowd – the people shouting blessings upon him and all his family – and tell them that it was all a terrible mistake, that the steward’s generosity was an act of crookedness (or unrighteousness, depending on your perspective) and won’t hold water legally. The cheering will turn to boos … and I wouldn’t want to be the landowner then.

Alternatively, the landowner can go outside and take in the cheering of the crowd. He can take credit for the steward’s actions, in which case he’ll continue to take in the acclaim of the farmers; – but remember that the steward was the bearer of that good news. If the landowner wants to keep the crowd’s favor, he’ll have to take the steward back. Mistreat the steward, who brought such good news of the lord’s generous forgiveness, and the crowd might turn on him.  That’s quite a bind the steward has put the landowner in…from scab and scumbag to hero. When the steward retires, the farmers who formerly resented him will gladly take him in, if the landowner won’t.”

I don’t know how much Sarah Dylan Breuer embroidered.  Jesus’ parable are generally pretty spare and it’s hard to know what assumptions his listeners would have had.  But her treatment of the text does remind us that although we sometimes think of rampant consumerism and deep indebtedness to be a 20th and 21st Century phenomenon, the rich-poor gap was a chasm when Jesus told this story.  And, in fact, if you were to keep reading, Jesus elaborates on this chasm in the story of the rich man and Lazarus.  And Jesus himself was standing firmly in the stream of prophets like Amos, whose warning we heard this morning, who warned the rich against cheating the poor and playing the system at the expense of the oppressed.

We don’t actually know whether the steward was let go for once and for all, but well played, steward, well played.  Mary Schertz calls this a classic ‘how much more’ parable.  – if the crafty steward gets it, how much more should the children of light?  What does the steward ‘get’ about money?  Jesus says, “The children of this world are more astute in dealing with their own kind than are the children of light.  So I tell you: Make friends for yourselves through the use of this world’s goods, so that when they fail you, you’ll be welcomed into an eternal home.”

The difference between the dishonest economist and the deceitful dealers in Amos, is that the results of the steward’s dealing are forgiveness.  The There is no doubt that what the steward is doing is dishonest.  I didn’t actually count (go ahead and do it, if you have your bible open) but the word ‘dishonest’ is used frequently in these verses, both to describe the man and the money.  He cheated his employer, he misrepresented himself to the debtors, he was self-serving, he admitted to himself that he was above some kinds of work but he is commended for his astuteness with this worlds wealth.  Because when it comes down to it, he has forgiven debts and he has ‘made friends’ by using money.

So how much more should we, ‘the children of light’ be shrewd in our use of money, investing it in kingdom work so that we may be trusted with ‘true riches’ – that is both the reward of being united with God in the age to come and of ‘friendship’ – relationship – here in this age. I shared on my facebook wall this week a video (a commercial for a Thai telecom company) in which a young woman’s debt, which is brought on my her father’s serious illness – is completely forgiven because of a generous act of kindness that her father had done much earlier in her life.  ‘Giving is the truest communication’ is the tag line.  (Trust me when I tell you I can’t do it justice and it’s worth following the link!)

I can’t speak for all of us, but I think many of us have experienced debt as some point in our lives – may be in deep right now.  We know that so many people in this country right now are crippled by debt. Imagine as happened with the debtors in the parable, being let off the hook – even by half!  Even by 20 percent.  That is significant!  I think it possible that those of us who are in debt would welcome dealing with a manager like this, regardless of his motives.  To debtors, this is good news!  Gospel. They don’t care the reasons for the generosity.

The children of light should be the sharers and doers of this good news.  How much more should they be the bearers of this gospel that the dishonest steward, who’s motives were selfish and the wealth not even his own.

I confess.  I am very likely not the best person to bring a word about money, nor of the economy – my own finances are a mess, I don’t really understand what’s going on in nation and international markets and I have always trusted the congregation and other leaders among us to use their skill and expertise to make decisions about money and the resources of the congregation.  But this parable emboldens me somewhat.

The truth that debt forgiveness and generosity are kingdom investments is true personally and it is true corporately.  Some Christians are prone to spiritualize it into personal forgiveness – which is also important.  But this parable was about individuals’ wealth and debt.  It was about an individual’s generosity.  Both Amos and Jesus convict us as individuals to examine the way we use our wealth: you can’t serve God and money.  Christine Pohl, in her article on Amos asks: Would your financial decisions stand up to a publicity test?

I think Jesus parable recognizes the complexity of our relationship with money, wealth and stuff in general.  Every interaction is somehow tinged and stained by an unjust system in which some have and some don’t some owe and some own.  We children of light make choices oriented not to serve the wealth, but to serve God.

It’s perhaps a little easier to talk about corporate finances.  It’s budget prep time.  How does our spending reflect the shrewdness Jesus commends?  And also the ridiculous generosity?  We can’t serve God and money, but we can use money as a tool of the kingdom.  In two ways – makes ‘friends’ with the world’s money (and all money is the worlds!) and let our money do justice, make peace and stem oppression wherever possible in this complex world.  I hope we can make these kingdom investments a part of our conversation as we continue to discern where and how to spend (and earn) money.

But I actually think we can’t have a budget conversation without having a personal wealth conversation.  In our personal lives, and with our finances, we can’t serve God and money, but we can make our money serve the kingdom.  In this congregation, particularly because we have a large endowment, we haven’t really made accountability for giving from our personal resources a part of our end of year budget conversation or any other conversation.  But how are our own finances supporting the kingdom?  Now, I am not making a one to one equation of our congregation to the kingdom of God, but it’s worth thinking about all we spend money on and how.

The children of light should have a better understanding than a dishonest manager at how their own and others’ money serves God. It’s pretty easy to advocate for the church to spend its money when we have no personal stake in the outcome.  Jesus was speaking to his disciples, all of whom had their own relationships with economy – tax collectors, laborers, fishers.  They gave that up and they (and Jesus) counted on support of the generous.  we are also Jesus’ disciples and have to make our own examination.

Pope Francis said in an interview this week, “I often visited the Church of St. Louis of France, and I went there to contemplate the painting of ‘The Calling of St. Matthew,’ by Caravaggio…That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew.  It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.”  And yet Matthew became a follower of Jesus.

We are all on the road with Jesus.  And particular in these weeks as we listen to the stories that he tells on the road, we’re called to think about where we’ll come to at the end of this migration.  May the way we spend and the extend of our forgiveness and generosity be even more reflective of the kingdom’s economy than the dishonest economist.