Luke 16:1-13

“Called to Cheat?”
Sermon on Luke 16:1-13
Ordinary 25-C
Mistley Methodist Church (10:45 am)
September 19, 2004
The Rev. J. Curtis Goforth, O.S.L.

Before Jennifer and I came over here, I worked for the summer at a stained glass window company in my hometown.  It was my job there to draw the patterns used for the window images.  It is amazing how many different pictures are placed in these windows.  I would be given an order for a window, but usually it was up to me to choose the image from those in the files and to make it fit appropriately into the window.  Since no two windows are hardly ever the same dimensions, I would have to pick different backgrounds and fillers to fit the specific window.  So, in the course of the summer, I had seen just about every image of a stained glass window around.  We had sixteen filing cabinets overflowing with images for windows.

Windows depict virtually every scene in the Bible.  I have seen windows with images in them taken from stories so obscure that most ministers don’t recognize them; everything from the agony in the garden to Jesus holding a baby lamb in his arms surrounded by a few sheep.  I’ve even done a few windows for some Catholic and Orthodox churches featuring saints and other people not even mentioned in the Bible.  I tell you this because I don’t think there has ever been a stained glass window featuring this parable of the dishonest manager.  This is simply one of those Biblical passages most people wish wasn’t there.  It is hard, some would even say impossible, to understand.  Jesus praising a cheater!  And then, telling us to be like him!  Even if Jesus were to clarify his words, as every preacher in the world is trying to make him do this very minute, he would still be telling us to be as shrewd as the dishonest manager.  It can be a very difficult thing to try and get our minds around this sort of thing.

Despite the difficulty of this passage, it is one of my favorites.  I wisher there were stained glass windows in churches all over the world with this figure in them.  For centuries, these stained glass windows were the main way that illiterate persons were told the stories of the Bible.  It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words.  I think that is true.  I want you to do a little exercise with me this morning.  I want you to imagine for a moment that you are working in a stained glass window company.  You are a masterful artist, and you have been given the task of designing and drawing a large window based on this parable.  How would you draw it?  Would the embezzler be fat or skinny, short or tall?  What kind of clothes would he be wearing?  Who, if anybody, would you put around him in the window?  The way you answer these questions reveals a lot about what you think about this parable.

I will tell you what mine would look like.  First, I would make not one window, but two.  In the first window I would draw the unjust steward, and in the second I would draw the just steward.  They would both be the same figure seated at a table with a debtor on the opposite side.  In the first window I would have the steward wearing nice clothes, with a cluster of grapes on the table and maybe a leg of lamb, but visibly out of reach of the debtor.  Then I would show him with a scroll and a writing instrument with a gold signet ring on his finger.  He would have a debtor there placing a bag of coins on a scale, with one side of the scale against the table.  The manager would have a mean scowl on his face, and the debtor would look simply dejected.

But the second window would have him at the same desk with a debtor, but this time all the trimmings would be on the side of the table where the debtor was.  The debtor would have the most puzzled but joyous look on his face, gesturing with his finger to the bill, as in disbelief.  The steward too would have a kind demeanor in this window.  He would also be clothed differently, his garments would not be so nice in this second window, but they would still not be tattered.  He would no longer be wearing the signet ring, the scales on the table would be tilted in the opposite direction that they were in the previous window.  And, maybe just for effect, I would place the wife and child of the debtor in the background with smiles on their faces too.

Anyway, I think those images would make wonderful windows, even if I am a bit biased.  There is just one draw back to stained glass windows–they tell stories, but the can’t explain the difficult parts like a living person might be able to.  And this parable is full of difficult parts.  The main one being, why is Jesus telling us to be like that steward?  For that, we need to back up a little bit.

The rich man who employed the steward was most likely an absentee landlord who lived abroad in some villa.  Stewards were frequently hired to oversee the properties, but mostly to collect debts owed by the sharecroppers who lived and worked the land owned by the rich man.  These debtors would have been forced to give a portion of their crops to the rich landowner as payment.  It was common practice for the landowner to extend an ancient form of credit to the debtor with interest being charged, even though it was against the Mosaic law to do so.  The steward, like the tax collectors Luke tells us were in the crowd listening to Jesus tell this parable, would have also been allowed to assess a commission fee for their part in collecting the debt for the rich landowner.  And, like tax collectors, the steward would have been allowed to charge whatever he felt was a fair commission for collecting and processing that debt.

So, when the steward realizes that he is going to lose his job and that his entire life is going to be altered, he begins acting differently.  He starts worrying about what the regular folk think of him.  He starts being concerned with the proper way to treat people.  He re-orients his entire life on a different economic principle–instead of trying to get rich by whatever means he can, he decides to do right by whatever means he can.  He waives his commission on the debtor’s bill and he probably also removed any of the interest owed to the landowner.  He might have even gone so far as to shave the price to accommodate something like fair trade practices and pay the farmer a decent price for his goods; even though all this meant acting in a way that was not economically advantageous for his employer.

Basically, the dishonest steward starts operating on the basis of the economic principles of the kingdom of God instead of the economic principles of the kingdoms of earth.  For the first time, he is concerned for others in addition to himself.  He has nothing to lose and everything to gain now that he is no longer in what we might call “the rat race.”  He moves from being an unjust steward to being a just steward, from the first window to the second.  But there is one more important thing that I want you to notice and to notice well.  He is still cooking the books.  He is still cheating the rich landowner!  He is still being dishonest to the economics of this world that says accumulate, accumulate, accumulate.

For years of hearing this parable, I was simply too confused to understand what it meant.  I would just skip over it, especially verse 9 that talks about making friends for yourself by means of ill-gotten wealth!  That was just too much of a contradiction for the Jesus I knew to say something like that.  What this story tells us is that we should ac in the here and now as if it wasn’t the here and now.  We should act as though we were citizens of the kingdom of God, and as such, we would be forced to change the way we see everything, especially money.  Money is something that belongs to this world, and it can be used for unjust purposes (like the unjust steward in the first window).  Or, it can be used for just purposes (like the unjust steward in the second window).  The key to understanding this story lies in developing a proper understanding of justice.  Justice is not hunting down the perpetrator of a crime and punishing them for what they did wrong.  justice is treating all people like they are indeed the most important thing in the world–a beautiful creation of God!

So, the unjust steward who is praised by Jesus is just by the standards of God even if he is unjust by the standards of the world.  The justice of this world is self-centered.  “That is mine!  You stole this money from me!  I deserve to have this and that!”  But the justice of the kingdom of God is different.  It is poor-centered.  “This is more than I really need.  Maybe somebody else could use this more than me.  I really shouldn’t buy this thing because that money could be used for much more just purposes!”  Why do you think the first Christians we hear about in Acts had no private possessions!  Do you recall the really disturbing story in Acts 5 about Ananias and Sapphira?  That is another story I haven’t seen featured in a window!

I have just one minor adjustment to the picture in my window.  I would have the steward wearing an elaborate regal headpiece in the first window, but in the second window I would have him wearing a green hat with a feather in it in the hopes that someone might say, “Hey, this unjust steward is wearing a hat like Robin Hood’s!”  Robin Hood, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, whether he existed or not, is pretty close to the example of the unjust steward.  He too was unjust by the standards of the world.

I might have one more change in my windows, come to think of it.  While the pieces of glass have been cut and placed on the table but not yet leaded, the faces and the pieces that have to be painted are removed and clear glass in the same shape is inserted as a place holder.  I think I might choose to replace the face of the steward with clear glass.  That way, we could see better the faces of the poor and hungry outside the church windows who need the help of unjust stewards like ourselves.  We are all unjust stewards.  One day our job too as unjust stewards will be taken away.  What will you say when the kurios, the same term used in reference to the rich landowner and to Jesus, asks you, “What is this I hear about you?  Give me an accounting of your management!”  Amen.

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