The Unjust Steward
 
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The Unjust Steward
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THE PARABLE OF THE UNJUST STEWARD. (Lk16.8.)

(Delivered at Upavon on September 23rd, 2001)

"The children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light."

This parable has always puzzled people. At first sight it seems to show Jesus telling his disciples that it is a wise thing to be on the fiddle. So great was the difficulty, that in the 1928 Prayer Book, and alternative Gospel reading was provided to make things easier for the clergy!

So let's have another look at this unusual story. First of all, forget the usual title - 'The Unjust Steward'. Better to call it the Parable of the Clever Villain.

Remember too that Jesus, who told it, had a shrewd knowledge of the ways of the world, and who had a sense of humour. (Two of the less obvious qualities of our Lord!).

A rich man had given his steward his notice. The steward would be a slave, but not in the Roman sense. Both he and his master were Hebrews. If they had been Romans, the slave would not have feared dismissal - he would have been terrified of death or of mutilation as a punishment - but dismissal - that would have been the last thing that a Roman slave had to fear.

No, this man was a bailiff - something like Joseph at the court of Pharaoh. A slave he was, bound to his master's service, but he enjoyed much freedom and privilege. He had a great deal of freedom of action and was respected alike by his master and by his master's business associates.

In many ways his position was quite enviable. He lived a life of material luxury, and after six years of service, the law allowed him to receive his freedom or else continue in service for life. If he chose freedom, then the law insisted that he must be provided with a living- flocks and corn and wine. It was just as likely that he would wish to continue in service for love of his master and that master's family.

So getting the sack was the worst thing that could happen to him. He would lose his position and the comfortable life that went with it. With no references, he had the options of labouring or becoming a beggar.

What had he been doing to cause all this trouble? "Wasting his master's goods", we are told. Lashing out on the old expense account perhaps; using the firm's money to buy some luxuries above what was already amply provided for him; pulling the wool over the boss's eyes. Yes. it is most likely that that's the reason for his dismissal. A man may suffer being sponged upon when he knows about it, but being made a fool of - that's a different matter.

The steward had slipped up somewhere in allowing his scheme to leak out; but he was a clever man. This was a risk he had had to take. He knew his boss, and there was no going back, cap-in-hand. He had lost the confidence he once enjoyed. Repayment was out of the question. A slave had no property and no capital with which to repay. He never could have, whilst he remained in service.

But the situation might yet be saved. There might be those whom he could get on his side - whom he could use to turn the situation to his benefit. If he was being dismissed in any case, it might was well be for a pound as for a penny. He had not yet turned in his accounts.

So he took the promissory notes that the merchants had given him when they had bought corn and wine and oil from his master, and he sent for those merchants quietly in turn.

"Here's your note for eight hundred gallons of oil," he says to the first. "Only you and I know how much you had. Write another note quickly for half of it and we'll do a deal on the rest!"

And so on - with the fodder and the wine and with everything else outstanding, until he had quite a credit laid up with those merchants. Oh no! HE wouldn't have to dig or to beg - let the mugs do that. He could retire quietly on his credits - might even start a little business of his own - he had plenty of good-will.

An unlikely story? No, it has an authentic ring about it. It could have happened in almost any age. This man was a slick commercial operator. He was an expert in brinkmanship. He feathered his nest just when it seemed doomed. And his boss, after he had recovered from the first shock, but on a wry grin and commented, "What swift impudence!"

On the face of it, this all has little to do with Christian behaviour, and we can only ask again, 'was our Lord commending sharp practice ?

NO - he is commending prudence and forethought.

He is contrasting the prudence and forethought of the worldly man acting for his own ends, with the Christian acting for his.

The worshipper of Mammon - the god of riches - tries to be one jump ahead. He builds up capital in savings accounts, property, and stocks and shares. He takes out Insurance policies. All this so that neither he nor his family will ever have to beg for bodily necessities or comforts. Should a time of testing come, the worshipper of money is consistent, and bends all his talents to that which he worships.

Our Lord is asking, "What does the worshipper of God do?"

Mammon is concerned with this world only. The Christian is concerned also with the riches of the world to come. The worldly man bends all his energy to comfort and safety. Does the Christian, with equal energy, make provision for his SOUL?

The worldly man sees that his credit is good with his fellows. Is the Christian equally diligent in building up a relationship of trust with God?

How does the Christian TRAIN himself for the life which he professes he wants to live ('intend to lead a new life...) ?

A world cup player trains conscientiously day after day. Does the Christian with equal diligence, listen to his coach? (That's one way of looking at prayer).

The salesman wants to build up his commission, so he talks until you are tired about some gadget.

The Christian rarely mentions Christ. Yet if what he believes means anything to the Christian, should he not seek God more eagerly than the man of the world seeks his goal?

How much longer have we got of this world's comforts? Should we not be building up our capital in the world to come? Yes, the sons of this world often appear to be wiser in their generation than do the children of light.

Our Lord finishes the story with another enigmatic saying - "Make friends for yourselves by means of the Mammon of unrighteousness, that when it shall fail they may receive you into the eternal habitations."

He recognises that we cannot get along without money, and 'this world's goods' - in THIS world, and whilst we are stewards of this world's goods. But he tells us to use our ration of riches, which includes all our skills and wisdom as well as our money - in such a way as to make friends. Not only to make friends of our fellow men, but also to to become a friend of God himself - and of all those who have gone before us into his eternal kingdom. So, when we are dismissed from this world, and our riches fail to comfort us, then we may be received with joy into our new-found freedom.

The Estate of William John Green, 2004