Sometimes thefts and perpetrators are easy to distinguish because they are very obvious. A few years back my work colleague and I were on a day time mobile police patrol when we received a radio call to go to an address where the owner of the house had come home to find that a break in had occurred. A number of items had been stolen including jewellery, DVD’s, and a television.
We started to head towards the address and as we drove there, we decided to drive past some notorious ‘known to police’ flats that weren’t too far from the crime. We felt like we were in a scene from a poorly scripted 1970’s cop show…. There walking up the street coming from the direction of the crime towards the notorious flats was one of our ‘frequent flyers’. He was dressed in black clothes, black beanie, heavily laden black back pack slung over one shoulder and carrying a TV. My comedian partner jumped out of the car and put on his best old bill style accent… “Allo, allo, what cha got there then?”
Today we have an intriguing story from Luke 16:1-13, which speaks about a dishonest steward. This is a story of what is sometimes a less obvious type of theft or embezzlement, in fact it is what is known as ‘Larceny as a Servant’. Sometimes in these cases the master or the boss doesn’t realise that his wealth is being stolen or squandered until others bring it to their attention.
It is very likely that the rich man in this story lives in a city or by the sea with a life of luxury made possible from the income of the estate that he owns. All of the work of planting and harvesting is done by peasants who work the land as tenant farmers, buying what they need from the rich man’s store with whatever is left over after the exorbitant rent is paid to the landowner.
The harvest is never enough and they are working harder and harder to pay what can’t be paid. The steward for the wealthy landowner is responsible for the buying and selling of goods on behalf of the master. He has control over the master’s business interests in the region. He takes his cut on the profits and lives it up.
Stories emerge that the steward is squandering the master’s wealth and he is called in and reprimanded. In desperation (and recognition that if he is sacked he isn’t fit to do manual labour and doesn’t want to beg), the steward hatches a scheme – so he visits all of the vendors who owe his employer money and he convinces them to falsify their invoices so it appears that they owe the master less than they do.
The manager in doing this ensures he develops a quid pro quo relationship: if he does the vendors a favour now by making it seem like they owe less than what they do, then they’ll be more likely to do him a favour later—like give him a job once he gets fired for corruption from his last job. And if they don’t, he can reveal their trade secret: that they falsified their invoices!
He reduces their vendor debts significantly, and that of the farmers, and they are indeed grateful and act favourably towards him. Of course, the steward had not told the farmers that he was fired, any more than he tells them that the landowner didn’t authorize any of what appeared to some as generosity.
The result is that the peasant 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 is also, by extension.
Sarah Dylan Breuer1 suggests that when the landowner comes for his customary visit to pick up the wealth the steward has collected for him, he gets a challenging surprise: 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.
When he finds out what the steward has done in telling the farmers that the landowner forgave their debts he has a choice to make but it is a choice of someone who is manipulated. 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 he’ll have to take the steward back. If he mistreats the steward, who brought such good news of the lord’s generous forgiveness in the future, the crowd might turn on him.
The steward in this parable is clearly dishonest but he was also confronted with a crisis and he acts decisively and in a manner that actually benefitted many.
The Master, surprisingly (or not) commends the steward for his actions and Jesus uses him in this parable as a positive example of how we might act and live. Suffice to say that scholars and others argue endlessly over this puzzling story and its implications.
One clear implication within the story is that the steward, out of self-interest, acts shrewdly and reverses the nature of the relationships between himself and those who are in debt to his Master. No longer do they relate through the power that debt imposes and implies but through mercy and even something approaching justice (even though the Steward doesn’t ever appeal to justice). There is a more genuine relationship between him and the clients.
His shrewd desperation restores something of their relationship, and he realises that relationships are more important to his future than money alone. He uses his resources to rebalance relationships and create a positive future – which, incidentally, benefits all people involved. This is the nature of God’s realm, a reversing of the power imbalances and a restoration of relationship between people and people.
Another implication is that Jesus’ praise of the manager is not an endorsement of unethical behaviour; rather, his praise of the manager is an affirmation of his personhood; of his identity as a beloved—albeit broken—part of the Body of Christ, and a builder of the Kingdom of God.
When we find ourselves caught off guard by someone’s unethical behaviour, when we have been a victim of lies, or someone stealing from us, we tend to second-guess their sincerity, and doubt the intentions behind their action, sometimes this is in an effort to insulate ourselves from the pain of being wronged. Sometimes we forget that someone who has wronged us is a person who made a mistake but we just view them as a bad person, forgetting that they are human too.
Somehow a person who commits a crime ceases to be a person and instead becomes a criminal or an inmate. A person who seeks asylum is reduced to an illegal immigrant. A person caught in the cycle of addiction disintegrates into being a ‘druggie’ or a drunk. The language we use to refer to people whose behaviour we find morally or ethically objectionable betrays us. They become something ‘less than’ a person; something unworthy or unfit for our care and concern.
So perhaps what Jesus is teaching us is that words matter. Perhaps he’s reminding us that shrewd, critical thinking does not betray the heart of Christianity. And at the end of the day, perhaps Jesus is calling us to second-guess ourselves; to re-evaluate our presuppositions and judgments.
If we do not see the desperate need for the restoration of relationships and learn to act shrewdly, we will suffer – or continue to suffer just as the earth struggles with changing climates, distorted ecosystems and the imbalance of relationships between humans and non-human creation.
The story from Luke invites us to shrewd restoration of relationships, if not for the well-being of all, then for our own self-interest that will also ultimately benefit all creation and bring peace to the earth.
We are also reminded in today’s other scripture reading in 1 Timothy 2:1-7 that there is one mediator between God and humankind, and that is Christ Jesus, himself human.
Christ Jesus himself also taught us how to pray to God and in the prayer that he taught us to say to our father, which was in our recent readings of Luke 11:4 we are reminded of forgiveness – to forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin (or debt) against us. Forgive.
Forgive – Because when we do that—when we err on the side of mercy and forgiveness—the Kingdom becomes just a little bigger, and the Body of Christ becomes just a little stronger.
Written by Delia Quigley
Delia is an elder at TUC and a leader at the monthly Rainbow Christian Alliance. She is also a leader in Kairos Outside ministry and in the Emmaus Walks.
Delia is a retired Federal Police officer and has served in several peacekeeping operations, and is a member of Presbytery Standing Committee.More from Delia Quigley