What a story! I don’t think we can understand it without understanding its world. Imagine, if you will, a world in which a handful of people are impossibly wealthy, and in constant competition with each other. Most people are day laborers or tenant farmers, or slaves. Some are merchants. The impossibly wealthy need these folks to keep working and earn them money, so they employ a tiny class of retainers who can read and write and manage their businesses. The “manager” or steward in today’s story is one of these folks. Now, business is tricky, because if you really want to grow your wealth you don’t do it by selling goods but by lending at interest, and that’s illegal. Usury is forbidden. There is no usury in Rome. None. And by none, I mean it is rampant, hidden in the fees charged for goods. A gallon of olive oil might actually cost two gallons of olive oil—call it an Oil Purity Fee, since you could ostensibly cut the oil with something much cheaper. Eight pounds of wheat might actually cost you ten pounds of wheat—the Wheat Quality Assurance Fee is lower because it is harder to doctor loose grains. The steward’s job is to charge these exorbitant hidden fees (which are NOT usury, don’t you dare say that!) without getting his master in any trouble.
So everyone hates the steward. The master hates him because he’s got his hands all over the money and goods, and if he has any sense he is also collecting fees off the books to line his own pockets, and that’s money the master wishes he had. The debtors hate him because he is the guy they deal with when they borrow. So hated is the steward that any negative fluctuations in the market can serve as cause to fire him or an opportunity to blame him for things beyond his control. The accusations against him are, according to Luke’s vocabulary, false. Nobody cares. His time is up. He is going to be nobody, a “wasted human,” to recall Zygmunt Bauman’s term in last week’s sermon. He is a waste because no one will ever hire him for what he knows how to do, and since he is a household worker he is in no shape to compete for jobs requiring physical labor. He’s gonna die. Life is a desperate struggle to earn money without being destroyed by the elites or being hurled back into the heap of wasted humans, and the steward has just lost the fight.
The world today is very different from Jesus’ world, and we would be irresponsible to think that our highly technological late capitalist system full of digitized information was Jesus’ world or was what Jesus had in mind for us when he preached. For all of its differences, this world is frighteningly familiar. I will never forget in my first call we had a secretary whose…ah…gifts lay elsewhere. It wasn’t working. So members of the personnel committee said, “Oh, we’ll just revise her job description to make it impossible to do her job, and then when she doesn’t meet the standards we have cause to fire her.” I expressed discomfort, and I think they must have misinterpreted it because they assured me, “Oh, don’t worry; we do this at work all the time.” And soon, so did we. I vividly remember the day a few months later that the senior pastor called me into her office and told me it was time to revise my job description. Such is day to day life for many of us. The faith of Christ does not stand for this.
It is hard to say that the faith does not stand for this when a congregation acts like that one did. Humans being sinful, that sort of thing will crop up. So it is a fair question: Why be a part of Church? It is especially difficult because religion is an intensely private matter for us. Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan in 1668 that what was necessary to get into heaven was faith in Christ and obedience to civil laws, and that if the two seemed to be contradictory God will sort it out, now get back to believing privately in Christ and publicly following the law. So ubiquitous is this notion of private spirituality and public life today that we are forgiven for thinking that God set it up that way from the beginning. Yet God the Son, Jesus Christ, tells this difficult story and lifts up the “dishonest steward” of all people as the hero. It is a reminder that our expectations may not jibe with God’s reality.
Why does Jesus praise the steward? He calls in the debtors one by one, and removes all the fees he has so skillfully concealed in their bills. “Your Oil Purity Fee is waived. You can cut your bill in half.” “Your Wheat Quality Assurance Fee is canceled. You just saved 20% on grains!” From a position of radical weakness, the steward has in one fell swoop forgiven crushing debts and made the master look incredibly gracious. The shrewd steward has produced, even if only for a moment, genuine community.
Community in this sense is what Victor Turner defines as “society as an unstructured or rudimentarily structured and relatively undifferentiated…communion of equal individuals….” Such community is always in tension with prevailing society, which is a complex hierarchy of political, legal, and economic positions and multiple means of determining who has more or less. Social structure sees community and says, “Hey, guys! C’mon, you’re ignoring all of the stupid rules I worked so hard to write! I’m telling!” The steward has given us a glimpse of this. The one with everything—the master—is temporarily not set above anyone. The one on the margins—the steward about to be destroyed—holds tremendous power. The inferior—the debtors—are lifted up. For a moment, the characters in the story are simply humans, no one better or worse than the others.
The marginalized steward brings about community; the marginalized Christ brings about Christian community, as 1 Timothy says, by giving himself as ransom. In the cross of Christ, the powerful, the weak, and the marginalized, all move toward the center. God the father lowers himself, giving all of his power to some guy from Nazareth. God the son paradoxically holds all the power while dying marginalized on a cross. God the Spirit raises up us debtors. Our debts to God are canceled.
Such Christian community is to be public, not private. In our mad Hobbesian rush to privatize and spiritualize Christ it is easy to leave behind Christ’s story now that we’ve gotten to the familiar territory of justification by grace through faith. But Christ roots justification in this story. This is the same Christ who kicked off his ministry with the declaration that he, in his person, was “the year of the Lord’s favor,” the forgiveness debt. In Christian community, the Holy Spirit uses us to embody that year of the Lord’s favor.
So Christ, having praised the dishonest steward, urges us, “Make friends for yourself with the dishonest wealth, because you cannot serve both God and wealth.” Make friends. Make community. The shrewd steward works to make Christian community. Christian community can counter the social structure that otherwise grasps at everyone to pull them down into the heap of wasted humans. Christian community threatens injustice and inequality by being just and equal. We drive the world nuts by refusing to divide ourselves the way the world wants us to. Yes, alone in the privacy of your own thoughts you most certainly can believe and trust in your reconciliation to God through Christ…and eventually you have to move and act in a world that expects you to keep those thoughts to yourself and get on with the business of grasping for power, charging Oil Purity Fees and Wheat Quality Assurance Fees. Alone with our pious thoughts, we don’t stand a chance. As shrewd stewards together with Christ, we can drive the world crazy.
I see this every Sunday when the gifts come forward to the Table. We’ve come here from many places in the complex social structure, and our wealth enters a procession to join God’s work of building community. Whether the wealth was a flagon of wine, a loaf of bread, lot of money, a little money, or a box of noodles, it doesn’t matter. The noodles will be stacked beautifully, the money will be used for mission, and the bread and wine will flow freely. We’ll come up one by one and the shrewdest steward of them all will ask each of us, “What do you owe? No. Scratch that. This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you.” Regardless of whether this world considers you master, marginalized, or inferior, Christ feeds you and pulls you to the center. It’s impossible, right? Our society swears up and down that this cannot happen. May our community in Christ, and this meal at which Christ presides, continue to prove society wrong.