A Sermon for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time (18/09/22): Who’s the Villain, the Steward or the Landowner?

Luke 16:1-13

Parables always need some extra information to make sense of them. Parables are stories, but it isn’t the surface meaning of the story that is necessarily important. Parables are stories that point to something else, they are metaphors or analogies. What is important is the relationship between the parable and the real world we experience. What matters is how Jesus’ stories challenge the stories we tell about ourselves and about the world around us. It is our interaction with Jesus’ stories which matters. So what we bring to the parable makes a great deal of difference to what the parable means. This is especially true of who we identify with in the story. When we read or hear the story we tend to assume a particular point of view. Whether we realise it or not we tend to identify with one of the characters in the story and see the action from their point of view. Perspective, and how we choose that perspective is decisive in what a parable might mean to us. The Parable of the Prodigal Son reads differently depending on whether we are looking from the point of view of the younger son who receives an unexpected welcome from his father, or from the perspective of the older son challenged to accept his brother’s return. Heroes and villains in the parables of course are critical to many parables. We choose a perspective which allows us to “boo” the villains and to “cheer” the heroes, perhaps even allowing ourselves to assume the role of the hero! As a rule we are reasonable confident that we know where Jesus expects us to be looking from. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, we are confident to assure ourselves that the priest and the Levite are the villains of the piece, and are therefore nothing like us. And we are sure that the Samaritan is the hero, so we are more than happy to read ourselves into that role. In this parable of course we never see ourselves as the one who we set upon by thieves at the beginning of the story. We don’t read that parable from the point of view of the victim who needs rescuing. That we choose to be the hero of the story, and don’t share the victim’s perspective actually says a great deal about what we bring to parables when we read them!

Then we come to the parable we have heard today, the Parable of the Unjust Steward or the Dishonest Manager. This parable is notoriously difficult to understand, precisely because we can’t tell whose perspective we are meant to share. Where are we supposed to stand to look at this story? What should be our point of view? We struggle to answer the question; who is the hero and who is the villain of this piece? The name that is given to the parable does push us in a particular direction; The unjust steward, or The dishonest manager. Those adjectives applied to one of the characters in the story are definitely negative. We are certain that Jesus, in his parable, cannot be commending injustice or dishonesty. So already we are reasonably confident that we know who the villain is going to be. Also when we are listening to Jesus telling his stories we are accustomed to assuming that fathers, kings, landowners, the figures with authority and the ownership, wealth and power that goes with it, must represent God. So we conclude that the hero of the story, the good guy, must be the landowner, and the villain, the bad guy must be the manager. So we read:
There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.
We already “know” that the landowner is good and the manager is bad. So we accept that the accusation as it is made, that the manager/steward is dishonest or unjust. We hear the echo of another parable, the Prodigal, who also squandered money. We accept the judgement against the manager and feel that the landowner is quite justified in dismissing him. So as you can see, because we have already assumed who the hero is, we have taken up a particular point of view. That extra piece of information has shaped how we read or hear the parable, what it means to us. We have taken up the perspective of the landowner, we are seeing this story play out through his eyes. But that is where the problems start. We hear next what the “dishonest” manager does about his impending dismissal:
…summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
Having squandered his master’s money, he now commits a further fraud by arbitrarily reducing the debts that owed to the landowner. This of course makes those debtors co-conspirators with the “unjust” steward, so they too are villains not heroes. At last the landowner, in whom we are already expecting to hear the voice of God, passes a final judgement against the manager/steward:
And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly
Wait, what? The landowner “commended” the manager? Our attempts to make this make sense come apart at this point. We try all kinds of interpretive gymnastics to get this to fit into our assumptions about how this parable should work, and about what know more broadly about Jesus’ teaching, and we come up short. I know when I have preached this parable before I have never been fully convinced of the justifications or explanations I have been able to make for it!

I have a sort of special relationship with this parable. My great great grandfather was a Methodist minister. He died in December 1914. By all accounts he was an impressive preacher. Only one of his sermons survives. I have his manuscript, written into a paper booklet, in a rather spidery hand. It would take almost three quarters of an hour to preach, and it is on this text, the Parable of the Dishonest Manager. He says of this parable: “It is like a skein of wool, if we pull at the wrong thread we will make the tangle worse.” Perhaps we have been pulling at the wrong thread all along. Something that we should never forget is that the names which we give to parables were not the names which Jesus himself gave to them. Just as the paragraph headings printed in many Bibles are not part of scripture themselves, they too are interpretation. And like any interpretation there is no absolute guarantee that they are not, in fact, misleading! Perhaps this parable would make more sense if we brought different information to it, and assumed a different point of view.

Something we almost never consider when looking at Jesus’ parables is the role of money and wealth. We assume, as we tend to in everyday life, that money is natural and neutral, neither good nor bad. It is just part of the scenery, like the trees and the flower and the weather. Money is just part of the setting of Jesus’ story, it is not a character, it doesn’t play a role of its own. But this overlooks Jesus’ attitude to wealth and money. He makes it pretty clear what he thinks, and what he thinks, to our ears, sounds very radical, which is why we usually filter it out. For Jesus, money is the product of Empire! In the famous scene when Jesus is asked about money he replies with a question:
Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?
To which his opponents reply:
The emperor’s.
So Jesus tells them:
Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s [Luke 20:24-25]
For Jesus money is the product of this world. It is part of this world’s domination over God’s children. Money is what permits the concentration of wealth and with it power. Money is not natural or neutral! Money and the debt which it is used to create and manage is what makes the rich powerful and the poor vulnerable. Which is something which Jesus and all the prophets consistently condemn.
And wealth from the point view of Jesus and the prophets serves only one purpose. Wealth only exists to be used for the benefit of the whole community. If wealth is not being used to relieve the suffering of the exile, the widow, the orphan, the dispossessed and the vulnerable, if wealth is not being used in that way, then it is dishonest wealth! Jesus’ attitude to wealth and money may be the key to unlock the meaning of this story. Perhaps this is the thread that we should be pulling on.

Just as one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, so too is one person’s squanderer is another person’s philanthropist. Maybe we have got the questions of heroes and villains in this story all wrong. What if the manager is a hero, and the landowner is a villain? Certainly Jesus’ first listeners would not have much sympathy with managers/stewards. They had no reason to like the middlemen who inflicted economic exploitation on them, any more than the had reason to like tax gathers. But they had more reason to dislike landowners. In the end they knew who their exploitation and oppression was really benefiting. Their point of view, when it arises in the story was probably that of the landowner’s debtors. Our assumption that the landowner is the hero, and therefore good, and therefore akin to God, has led us to assume that the manager’s “dishonesty” is a “crime.” If the landowner is good then the manager owes loyalty to him, and therefore his actions in “squandering” has master’s money is bad. What we don’t know is how the money was squandered. Like the prodigal’s older brother who accused him of spending his father’s money on prostitutes, we assume without evidence that the manager has wasted the money on himself. But from the landowner’s point of view it matters little how the money was squandered, all that he is concerned with is that he hasn’t received what he believes he is owed. And this is where Jesus’ attitude to money and wealth is important. If we assume money is neutral, and wealth is justified, then the landowner’s complaint is valid. But that would be to share the attitude that the world still tries to impose on us, not the attitude of Jesus. What if in squandering, what has actually happened is that the manager has stood between the landowner and his debtors and protected them from the worst of the landowner’s economic exploitation? What if the landowner’s “squandering” is the community’s “philanthropy”? This actually makes the manager’s response make more sense:
he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’
As his final act as steward, while he still has the means to do so, he lifts a little more of the burden of debt from his community. The landowner knows he has been swindled, but even he has to admit that the manager has acted in his own best interest:
And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.
The final act of the manager was to strengthen the community to which he belonged and upon which now he too had to depend. The steward is only unjust if we take the landowner’s point of view, and it is only he that calls the manager dishonest. The actions of the manager are bad only if we assume that he owed loyalty to the landowner, and that the way wealth and power are distributed in the world is valid and justified. And from Jesus’ perspective none of that is true.

Jesus interprets his own parable with a famous saying:
No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
Our difficulty in interpreting Jesus’ story has been that we have got the hero and the villain wrong. We were mistaken in assuming that when Jesus says “landowner” (or “father”, or “king”) in one of his stories he always means God. Yet to serve the landowner in this story would have meant that the steward would have been serving worldly wealth and power. What got the manager into trouble was his refusal to remain loyal to the landowner, the representative of the wealth and power of this world, and instead help out those in need who were under the power of that wealth. The parable is about Jesus attitude to how wealth and power are used in this world, and about how the kingdom of God demands something different. Jesus tells his hearers that they owe no loyalty to wealth and power as it is established in this world. Their, our, only duty is to use what opportunity we might have to subvert that wealth and power to relieve the suffering of those in need. Because no one can serve two masters, it is either the wealth and power of this world, or it is God!

Who’s the Villain, the Steward or the Landowner? by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

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