“The parable of the dishonest steward is notoriously the most problematic of all the stories Jesus told. In trying to undo its knots, scholars tie themselves in fresh ones. Commentators are bewildered by it. Those preaching on it yearn for the last hymn.”
The Revd John Pridmore
Church Times 21.09.07
What a very strange parable this is. What on earth are we to make of it?
It starts off fairly straight forward. A rich man employs someone to manage his property. The manager turns out to be dishonest and wasteful of his master’s wealth. The rich man gets wind of what’s going on and calls in the manager.
Like a first century Sir Alan Sugar he sits at his desk, glares at the manager and says
“I’ve been hearing all sorts of things about your behaviour and I don’t like what I hear. You’re going to account to me for all your dealings and, what’s more, you’re fired”
Ok. So far the story is still going along expected lines.
Next we see the dishonest manager plotting his next move and embarking on what looks suspiciously like creative accounting or “cooking the books”. Again, that’s ok. This dishonest man is acting in character, no surprises here.
But then the whole story is de-railed.
Surely it ought to end with the rich man finding out about this latest dishonesty and punishing the manager much more harshly, perhaps with a flogging and exile or
something to do with weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth!
But it doesn’t. The rich man finds out what the manager is doing now and commends him for his shrewdness. Which suggests that Jesus, in some way,
also commends the manager.
All the various commentaries I’ve read seem to agree that this is the main point of the parable, this is the teaching that Jesus is trying to get across.
We’re not meant to try and work out who the rich man and the manager represent,
what their relationship symbolises and what their actions have to do with the people of Israel. You can try working those things out but none of them really fit and in any case you always come across that verse which trips you up every time:
“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly”
Jesus seems to be saying that his followers, the children of light, have much to learn from this cynical man of the world who always looks after number one.
So what can we, as followers of Jesus today, learn from this dishonest but shrewd manager?
First he is realistic about the problem he faces and confronts it head-on.
I’m going to be fired – I will have no livelihood.
I’m out of shape and in no condition to go digging.
There’s no way I’m going to be seen begging.
I need a home and food.
He sees a solution:
I need friends who will welcome me into their homes
or at least who will feel obliged
to shelter and feed me.
Having focused his intelligence and energy on this problem he comes up with a creative way of achieving what he wants:
He amends the invoices of various debtors
so they end up owing less than they did.
Now the debtors will either think he’s generous himself or that he has persuaded his rich master to reduce the amounts owing.
Either way he’s made friends
or at least established that these debtors
owe him a favour.
- He faces up to his problem.
- He identifies a solution.
- He thinks creatively “outside the box”
- He puts his plan into action energetically to get what he wants.
These are the things his rich master commends. And Jesus seems to be suggesting that we should act likewise, only honestly and for good things.
How are we doing?
Here at St Andrew’s, how are we doing for shrewdness problem solving, creative thinking and energetic action?
I think we’re doing well.
I think we can be encouraged
by what’s happening in our church.
We’ve recognised and faced our problems:
Oil stained walls
We’ve identified our needs:
Provision for children at our services.
People to offer pastoral care for those who are bereaved
Different people among us have taken or are taking initiatives, giving time, money and effort, using their gifts to move us on. We can keep doing that. We have among us so many gifts, so many talents, so much loyalty, commitment and generosity. that I reckon we’re up to any challenges God puts in our way.
Each one of us has something to offer – we must never diminish our own contribution by saying “all I can do is …….” If that really is all you can do then you are doing as much, if not more than others. “all you can do” is what God asks of us.
The dishonest manager went out to make friends for himself by dishonest means.
Our calling is to go out and be friends to the people who need friends. Perhaps this is our next challenge, how we go about being a church that really does serve God in this community.
We can make a start on that challenge today. We have our harvest festival leaflets
ready to be delivered. It would be great if in two weeks’ time we can tell Jim that everyone in the parish has been told about his arrival and been invited to our harvest service
Please help to meet that challenge to let people around us know they will be welcomed here.
And what about making friends with the people who don’t come to our services?
We’ll do it by going out to meet people, listening to what they have to say, asking what they would like us to do for them, being willing to do a bit of creative thinking,
to act shrewdly, to use our imaginations and to take risks.
I think that between us we can do all that, and I think we should go for it because wherever we go God will be there already waiting for us to catch up and join him.