The Shrewdness of the Dishonest Steward
Ordinary Sunday 25: 19th September, 2010
Fr Ian Morrison
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill
What is this 'shrewdness' for which the dishonest steward or manager is commended by his master?
At first glance the rich man may appear to have taken leave of his senses — for how can he praise someone who has squandered his property, and who then sets about discounting the debts owed to the rich man in an attempt to gain personal favour with those debtors?
Is this really a form of behaviour that Jesus is commending to us?
Is it shrewd to seek a better deal for ourselves at someone else's expense?
Recently we have been — becalmed — governmentally — as we waited for some independent members of Federal Parliament to announce which party they would support in the event of a no-confidence motion or supply bill. The pretext for their decision was to determine which party offered the most stable government in minority. The subtext, however, was to assess the best deal on offer. In third world countries, such bribery would be condemned as corrupt, and investigations launched. Such was the case with the dealings of the Australian Wheat Board in Iraq and the currency printing subsidiaries of the Reserve Bank in Africa. However when it occurs in our own parliament, we laugh it off as 'pork-barrelling' and throw in the offer of the speakership of the House of Representatives for good measure.
Is this an example of the shrewdness which the rich man commends in our Gospel story?
Our new parliament has not reconvened and yet our Prime Minister has already indicated that her party will not be honouring all its pre-election promises. Arguably, the necessities of minority coalition government means appeasing other interests.
Is this the shrewdness that our gospel favours?
The ever opportunistic Anglican Diocese of Sydney proposes to divorce itself financially from all decisions made by the Anglican Church of Australia with which the Sydney Diocese does not agree. Is this ecclesiastical blackmail a form of behaviour approved of in today's Gospel reading?
Just how can it be a shrewd move on the part of the steward to cheat his master out of part of the debts owed to him?
You will recall that the master 'hears' that his steward has been misappropriating funds, rather than discovering this breach for himself. The master's honour and status in the community is therefore already publically diminished as it appears that he cannot control his employees. He resolves to save face by immediately dismissing the employee.
The steward faces a crisis. Being a steward (or manager of other's property) is the only thing that he knows how to do. We are told that he doesn't like manual work and is too proud to beg. But the fact that he now has a reputation for dishonouring his master means that he will not be able to secure employment anywhere else as a steward.
He tries to get himself out of trouble by restoring his master's honour and salvaging his reputation as a good, loyal steward. He forgives a portion of the amount owed by his master's debtors. People would assume that the steward was acting on the master's orders, so these benevolent gestures would make the master look generous and charitable in the eyes of society. The prestige and honour gained by the steward's forgiveness of debts — which the steward has done in his master's name — would be seen as far outweighing the monetary loss to the master — as honour had a higher priority over wealth in the ancient world.
The master hears what the steward has done and praises him for his actions since they have resulted in the master's honour being restored. As a consequence, the steward is now in a position either to keep his position with this master or to secure one elsewhere, since his reputation for loyalty and good service has been recovered.
It is, to use a modern cliché: a win-win situation.
So what was the 'shrewdness' that compelled both the master's commendation and Jesus' telling of the parable?
It is the original misappropriation of funds for which the steward is called 'dishonest' or 'unjust', and not the steward's subsequent actions which effectively restore his master's honour in the community. The steward, in facing a crisis, showed mercy; he forgives large portions of the debts owed by his master's debtors. But this shrewdness would not be commendable in Jesus' eyes if it also represented at the same time vengeance on his master. Rather it is the steward's mercy to the debtors that also reflects on the master, and so it is also a means for restoring what his previous actions had diminished, that is, his master's honourable standing within the community. This is where our contemporary examples of shrewdness fall at the first hurdle.
A key theme for Luke is forgiveness of debts, and this parable is unique to Luke's Gospel.
The steward forgives. He forgives things that he had no right to forgive. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and to compensate for past misconduct. But this is the decisive action that he undertakes to redeem himself from a position from which it seemed he couldn't be reconciled — to the rich man any more than he could to the debtors.
Forgiveness is a moral of great emphasis for Luke. Forgive for any possible reason, or for no reason at all. Remember the parable of the debtor who was forgiven but who later refused to forgive someone who owed him money?
Shortly we will say the Lord's Prayer and we ask God to forgive us our sins. We ask for this, acknowledging that this is the same way that we forgive monetary debts owed to us by others (or at least that is how the Greek text of Luke's Gospel is translated).
Today's Gospel can be read in parallel with the story of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-21), who spends his time building barns to store up all his produce but when he has finished he dies before he can enjoy the wealth he has accumulated.
We so often approach our lives like the rich fool thinking ourselves in charge of our own lives instead of realising that we are but stewards of God's creation.
We store up treasures for ourselves, or for our own purposes, without being rich toward God. The Rich Fool is foolish by virtue of thinking himself the master instead of the steward. Those things which he had stored up were never his in the first place. They were always God's and will remain God's.
We can too easily aspire to be the Masters of our Destiny when we are called to be stewards of God's Creation.
At some point, God comes to us for an accounting of our stewardship, and we may be found wanting. The key to getting our lives back on track may be found in the forgiving of debts and in the rebuilding of relationships with fellow debtors. Even the master in the parable can see the wisdom in that. Can we, as the children of light see this as a shrewd move?