This is a sermon I have used before. It is a study of this Sunday’s very difficult passage using Kenneth E Bailey’s approach:
Today’s Gospel reading, the story of the unjust steward, is one of those really difficult ones that have perplexed readers and scholars for generations. It seems to show Jesus commending the steward who cheats his master for being a thief and liar.
So we are going to tackle it today as a Bible Study – please grab hold of a Bible and turn to Luke 16:1-8, on page .
The first thing I want to point out is that the Bible wasn’t written with chapters and verses. A couple of hundred years or so after the books of the New Testament were written, they were divided into sections called titles and chapters. These divisions don’t bear much relation to what we have now. The chapter divisions that we know today were developed around A.D. 1227, by Stephen Langton, an Archbishop of Canterbury. Verse divisions didn’t happen until 1551.
However, from an early stage, a separation was made between our passage today, the first 8 verses of chapter 16, and what happens immediately before. Have a look and someone can tell me what it is.
The story of the Prodigal Son, or the Loving Father.
Because of the chapter division, we separate the two stories; we don’t think of them of having any relationship. In reality, the story of the Unjust Steward only makes sense when we see it in the light of the story of the Loving Father. One scholar calls it an “appendix to the parable of the Prodigal Son.”
That may surprise you, but the two parables share some common themes:
- Each has a noble master/father who shows amazing grace to a wayward employee/ son;
- In each story, there is an ignoble steward / son who wastes the master’s resources;
- Both the steward and the son reach a moment of truth about what they have done to incur the losses;
- In both stories, the steward / son throws himself on the mercy of the noble master;
- Both parables deal with broken trust and the problems arising from it.
Let’s look at it verse by verse:
v1: The steward was very likely a farm manager rather than a banker. In Jesus’ stories, if one person was ignoble, then the other person was noble. So if the steward was dishonest, then the Master in the story was honest and respected. We don’t know who told the Master about the dishonest steward. If the reports had come from other servants, the Master would have held an inquiry. The fact that he doesn’t tells you that he regarded the source of the information as reliable, probably his friends within the local community.
v2: The Master calls the steward and challenges him: “What is this I hear about you?” And he waits for an answer. Now the steward doesn’t know what has been said about him. If he is to answer the question, he would condemn himself. So he remains silent. And his silence is stunning – in a middle-eastern setting, a fired employee would be pleading with the master, but this steward says absolutely nothing. So the Master tells him to turn in the books. In other words, he is sacked on the spot. Everything the steward does from this point is illegal. Actually, the Master is behaving with great generosity – he could have sent the steward to jail or sold him and his family as slaves to recoup his losses, but he doesn’t do that.
v3: The Steward goes off to collect the books. He doesn’t have very long – a couple of hours at the most – before the Master will be expecting him back with the books. And we hear his monologue, thinking about his options. He is not up to working as a labourer, and his sense of honour prevents him from working as a beggar.
v4: Continues his reflections. He wants to be received into someone else’s house – in other words, he wants another job, managing another farm. He knows that when people know he has been sacked for corruption, no one will employ him. So he works out a ruse to show how clever he is and to make himself popular.
vv 5-7: So he calls in his master’s debtors one by one. They are people who are working the Master’s land and pay a proportion of their harvest as rent. The steward asks them what they are due to pay the Master come the harvest. He knows of course, because it is written in the book, but the negotiation starts with the question. He then tells them to change the account to a much reduced quantity of oil or wheat. Fifty measures of oil was worth 18 months wages to a farm worker. The debtors go home rejoicing and probably put on a party to celebrate.
v8: It is only then that the steward takes the books to the Master and the Master can see for himself the changes to the accounts. What is the Master to do now? He has two options:
- He could send another messenger to the debtors and tell them that the Steward got it wrong. If he does that, he will make himself very unpopular.
- Or, he can remain quiet and accept the situation, with the whole community celebrating his extraordinary generosity.
And that’s what he does. That is the risk that the steward has taken, that this generous and gracious Master would respond with even more generosity and grace. So the Master pays the price for the steward’s salvation. He praises the steward for his cleverness, for the way he trusted everything to the mercy of his Master. He is not praised for his ethics, but for understanding the nature of the Master. And he was willing to act on his perceptions, which took huge courage. He dispensed forgiveness to the debtors; he wiped off their debt. That is what God does for us.
And the question that leaves us is: do you recognise God’s generosity and grace? How far do you trust in God’s mercy? Can you believe in a God who has forgiven you everything? Do you behave according to your trust in God? Do you live as one who has been liberated from debt? Do you extend the grace you have received to others? Do you forgive the debts that others owe you?
That is the cleverness of the unjust steward. That is the cleverness that Jesus commends. That is the cleverness that he asks of us.