September 18, 2022 On Board the MS Zaandam at Quebec City
Amos 8:4-7 + Psalm 113 + 1 Timothy 2:1-8 + Luke 16:1-13
In preserving this parable for us, Luke proposes a new creative management strategy that seems a little “off” until you sit with it for a while. The steward and his boss both know that the debts owed to them would probably never be paid in full. Droughts, floods, plagues were all too normal catastrophes that ruined a sharecropper’s chances of getting out of debt. There might be enough to pay the boss, but the left-over for the one in debt would be minimal. The steward is very clever and Jesus recognizes this immediately.
The steward is a financial genius. He offers a big discount in return for immediate payment. The genius is that the discount is within the means of the debtors. The result is everybody wins even though there might be some question about the ethics. The advice of Jesus at the end speaks of the word “mammon”. It is a term unfamiliar to anyone not a scholar of scriptural languages. It means “surplus”, or more than one needs to live decently. A few lines later Jesus warns that none of us can serve both God and mammon suggesting that mammon has questionable value in itself, but can and should be used to do some good.
The people who heard this parable from the mouth of Jesus would have laughed at the situation. It is comical, but jokes in one language rarely seem funny in another language and usually leave people waiting for the punch line. That’s what happens with this comical parable. The corrupt steward is no fool. He knows that generosity is always appreciated and most often brings even more generosity in return. That is the punch-line or the purpose of this joke. If scoundrels recognize the value of generosity and forgiveness, then those who are would-be-disciples of Jesus ought to recognize their value all the more.
There is a very practical and ethical side to this parable worth a lot of thought in this world today. Imagine listening to this story from another culture. Let’s say we are sitting around sharing scriptural reflections with impoverished people in the Southern Hemisphere. Those people would be thinking, “That foxy guy really knew how to do it. The owner was never going to collect all those debts. How did he get to rich anyway? Giving the little guy a break is only fair” they would probably say.
Giving the little guy a break might just be what Jesus thinks we as his disciples should be about. There is no doubt that there is plenty of mammon around, or none of us would be floating down the Saint Lawrence River in this luxury. Jesus did not tell parables like comforting bed-time stories. Parables should wake us up to a new perspective. The first sign that we are hearing the message is that it makes us uncomfortable When we allow that to happen, the next step is to ask ourselves what we are to do about it. One certain sign that we have found a good answer is that there are changes for the better, for everyone, and especially for the poor. It only makes sense that when things are better for the poor, they are better for us all, and that’s the way this story goes: the owner gets something, the steward gets something, and the workers get something. Seems like a good plan, says Jesus.