Gospel explainer: the parable of the crafty steward

This Sunday's gospel reading was one of the more confusing ones for a couple of reasons. First, it includes a pretty hard-to-follow parable about a corrupt steward or manager whom Jesus seems to praise. Second, it gives us a long list of pithy aphorisms that Luke the evangelist strings together, as thought Jesus rattled these off one after another.

First the long list. Here is a list of Jesus's sayings, from verse 8 to 13 of Luke Chapter 16, separated into units that make logical sense:

1) “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light." This is actually the punch line of the parable, of which more to come soon.

2) "I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings." This one might belong with #1.

3) The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones.

4) "If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth?" Here we go with dishonest wealth again. This one might go with #3.

#5) "If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours?" This sounds a lot like #3, yes?

#6) "No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other,
or be devoted to one and despise the other."

#7) "You cannot serve both God and mammon.” Which could extend or compete #6.

Anyway, that's 7 separate lines, some of which relate to others and some of which must stand alone. One conclusion that the scripture student can make is that Jesus sure had lots to say about money. This "fireworks finale" of sayings seems to say this at the very least. That should give those Christians who equate wealth with sanctity a little bit to chew on. (Not that anything slows them down in their quest for self-justification!)

Our second bit of business relates to the parable, which I give here in its entirety:

Jesus said to his disciples,
“A rich man had a steward
who was reported to him for squandering his property.
He summoned him and said,
‘What is this I hear about you?
Prepare a full account of your stewardship,
because you can no longer be my steward.’
The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do,
now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me?
I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg.
I know what I shall do so that,
when I am removed from the stewardship,
they may welcome me into their homes.’
He called in his master’s debtors one by one.
To the first he said,
‘How much do you owe my master?’
He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’
He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note.
Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’
Then to another the steward said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’
He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’
The steward said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note;
write one for eighty.’
And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.
“For the children of this world
are more prudent in dealing with their own generation
than are the children of light.

What does this mean? Why is Jesus praising this shmoe, who not only screws his boss enough to get canned, but then continues to screw him while looking out only for #1?

The moral of the story (if you leave off the other 6 sayings) states right out that Jesus's disciples (the children of light, the good guys) can learn something even from evil people (the children of this world, or bad guys). Specifically, they need to be as clever, creative and resourceful when it comes to doing good as are evil people when they go to do evil.

Now cleverness and creativity means thinking outside the box and taking risks -- looking at things in ways you're not accustomed to. It also mean taking ownership and taking charge. It doesn't mean sitting around waiting for goodness to fall from the heavens.

I get a kick out the like it when the gospels show Jesus bustling about, getting people off their duffs. You get the impression that if Jesus had to tell a story like this, that he was dealing with a rather passive group of people. There are enough other examples in the gospels that showed the disciples hoping for the grand apocalypse to sweep them into glory and make their troubles disappear. "We want to sit on your left hand and your right hand when you come into power!" That kind of talk seemed to make Jesus grumpy. "Can you be baptized with my baptism?" he wants to know. Can you walk the walk and follow the path of suffering, rejection and pain that I am taking? Only when it came from the mouth of the thief on the cross next door, a man at the end of his rope and completely vulnerable in the presence of Christ, did a line like "Remember me when you come into your kingdom" merit a positive response.

The parable of the crafty steward is not told to inform Christians on ways to set up a killer pension plan. It's not about permission to screw our bosses to "get ours." It is about being willing to be creative, crafty, and work outside the rules to make goodness happen.

It's another example of how following Christ is not a matter of being nice, but of being and doing good.