Thursday, September 16, 2010

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, September 19, 2010:

Jeremiah 8:18–9:1
Psalm 79:1-9 (9)
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

Ah, the parable of the unjust steward. This parable may be one of the toughest to understand. Are we to understand this parable as a pro-cheating text? It seems that this tale is one of several types of unjustness, and it's hard to sort it all out. Let's try.

Much like the parable of the Prodigal Son, which sends up wails of protests about unfair treatment of undeserving children, this text makes one want to wail at first reading. There's the master, who believes the charges brought up against his steward, who seems prepared to dismiss him, based on those charges--let us remember that the charges may be false.

But the behavior of the steward seems slimy too; accused of unethical behavior, he seems to behave unethically, dismissing debt in an attempt to curry favor for a later time when he is dispossessed.

And then there's the surprise twist--the master approves of the steward's shrewdness.

There are several different approaches to this parable. The easiest approach is to look at the final lines of the Gospel, those familiar lines that so many of us would like to ignore, that we cannot serve God and money. This parable seems to suggest that it's hard to have dealings with money that don't leave us looking slimy.

We might ask ourselves how a stranger would view us if they looked at our budgets. On a personal level, the way we spend money shows our values. So if I say I'd like to wipe out childhood poverty, but I spend all of my extra money on wine, a stranger would question that. If I say that I value a Christ-centered economy, but I only give money to my retirement accounts, what would that stranger say? I will be the first to admit that I want to hoard my money, that it's hard for me to trust that God will provide.

We could ask similar questions about our institutional budgets. What does our church budget say about us? If we give more money to the upkeep of our buildings than to the poor, are we living the life that Christ commands us to live? These are tough questions, and I will honestly say that I haven't met many institutions, sacred or secular, that achieve balance very gracefully--especially not in economic hard times.

Parable scholars might caution us not to adopt the most obvious interpretation. Scholars would encourage us to see the parables in relation to each other. What are the parables that surround the one about the unjust steward?

In the text just before this one, we see the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coins, the lost sons (the Prodigal and his brother are equally lost boys). In the text after the parable of the unjust steward, we receive the story of poor Lazarus and the rich man, and you may remember that Lazarus has a tough life on earth, but a good life afterwards, and the rich man receives his reward early on, and goes to his tortures in the afterlife.

We might see this parable as one more cautionary tale about how we deal with wealth, as with the story of Lazarus. Or we might see the Prodigal Son's dad as similar in his mercy to the master of the shrewd steward--and of course, we could draw parallels to God, who gives us mercy, when we deserve rejection and to be left to our own devices.

It's hard to ignore the sense of urgency in all these texts. The steward must act swiftly, to dismiss debts while he still has the power to do so. The Prodigal Son's father doesn't have much time to decide how to act, once his son appears on the horizon. The rich man pleads with Abraham to be allowed to warn his brothers, and Abraham reminds him that they've had plenty of warning. The parables are interspersed with Christ's various admonitions to pay attention to the way we are living our lives.

Christ commands us not to lose sight of the true riches, the riches that our society doesn't comprehend fully (or at all). We are not our paychecks. There's so much more to us than our job titles. We have been entrusted with so much. We will be judged by how well we show stewardship of those resources.

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