A bit of a problem

The Parable of the Untrustworthy Steward or Shrewd Manager has always been seen as a bit of a problem – on the face of it Jesus tells a story in which the principal character is downright dishonest, and congratulates him for his behaviour! It’s a puzzle which has confused so many Christians that most people leave it alone. Yet, if we can manage to tease out the details – and the standard translations aren’t always helpful – if we can manage to tease out the details we can find a meaning which doesn’t have to twist the text and at the same time offers us some teaching.

The Steward is his master’s agent – trusted with the complete management of his wealth and his estate. The word “squandering” is a mistranslation: the literal meaning of the word in question is to “scatter around”. What the Steward appears to have been doing is a clever wheeze to get round the biblical prohibition on usury – lending money at interest. The lawyers had come up with the idea that it was perfectly in order to lend a neighbour grain or oil, provided they already possessed some – the sort of thing that would be done for a family that could run out of one of the necessities of life before the harvest. However, this interpretation was often stretched, so other loans of cash were recorded as quantities of grain or oil and thus circumvented the ban on charging interest on sums of money. Looking at the amount of interest being charged on the two loans mentioned – 100% and 25% - and the quantities involved in the original loans – 50 bath of oil (barrels rather than “jugs”) or 400 gallons, 80 kor of wheat (at ten sacks to the kor, 800 sacks is a good lorry-load) – it is clear that these weren’t loans of necessities to tide a family over until the next harvest. They are large-scale financial transactions.

Whether the Master knew and approved of this practice or not, what the Steward did was a breach of the Mosaic Law, and stretched to the limit and beyond the Rabbinic interpretation of that law. It is likely that it would have damaged his Master’s reputation for keeping the Law. The Master is either sacking him as a scapegoat or sacking him because he has dragged his name through the mud. The Steward acts quickly and decisively: he undoes the wrong by striking out the interest on the loans, an act the rabbis would regard as extremely charitable. The Master can’t do anything about it because the interest was unlawful. The Steward has ingratiated himself with the various debtors. He has unwound the interest element of the loans that was affecting his Master’s reputation. The Master can only commend his shrewdness!

However, making the parable understandable doesn’t help us with understanding what Jesus was trying to tell us. There would seem to be a dig at the nit-picking way that the Mosaic Law was circumvented, but how can Jesus be seen as effectively endorsing fraud?

The first point is that the Steward is faced with a crisis. He acts immediately and decisively. That is not the way of the church. It is said of the church that it “does nothing quickly”: its immediate response is to do nothing, and it is slow to produce any decisive response to a crisis. “Let’s form a committee, let’s have a meeting” – anything rather than address the issue with speed and determination. The crisis of mission, the crisis of finance, the crisis of confidence, none of these crises are in any way new, but we still haven’t got our act together and acted decisively or effectively.

The second point is that we are human beings in community. Friendship, however gathered, is important. The Steward realises he needs friends urgently if he is to rebuild his life. True friends are those who will help us out, do us a favour when we need it. The Church needs friends. We need friends because we operate now in a more hostile atmosphere of aggressive secularism than ever before. It’s not just fundamentalist atheists like Richard Dawkins, it’s the constant negative pressure in the media and society. We have to be careful not to alienate our friends by hypocritical excessive moralising, by holier-than-thou exclusivity or by failing to relate properly to the world in which we and they live and move and have our being. Today, more than any time since the early Roman Empire, the Church needs friends.

The third point is about money. Money has always been a problem for Christians. Luke, at the beginning of Acts, paints a rather idyllic picture of the early Church. The earliest Christians took very seriously Jesus’ advice on sitting lightly to their possessions; in somewhat erroneous anticipation of Jesus’ swift return, they sold all they had, and wound up as what Paul describes as “the poor of Jerusalem”. Paul – the original self-supporting minister – Paul later had to defend himself against the claim that he was being paid for his leadership of the church. We all know how “the love of money is the root of all evil” – and we should note that it is the “love of money”, rather than money itself that is at issue. We are in a world where we have progressed beyond the barter economy. Money makes everything possible, makes everything work. Money is not intrinsically evil. Despite those who would have us never talk about it, even the church needs money to keep going. This strange parable centres on a worldly-wise Steward who is astute about money. What Jesus is commending is the wise and proper use of money.

Jesus’ punch line – “you cannot serve God and Mammon” reminds us that we must not let the pursuit of money control our lives: as followers of Christ, our principal duty is to love God. Money is an incidental, albeit a necessary incidental. We are enjoined to be astute with it, be honest with it, make friends with it, be generous with it. This parable, after all, is about stewardship, isn’t it!