At this uncertain time in our country’s politics, The Bishop of Winchester has asked us to help maintain the strong sense of hope within our communities and support reconciliation between those of divided opinion. Bishop Tim is encouraging us to actively pray using this prayer :
A Sermon preached by Canon Gary Philbrick at St Mary’s, Fordingbridge, and Sandleheath Uniting Church on Trinity 14, Sunday, September 22nd, 2019.
I Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13
Trying to explain Parables is rather
like trying to explain jokes – the risk is of ruination, rather than
And that’s particularly so when we
come to a Parable as tricky and as difficult to understand as the one we’ve
heard this morning – the so-called ‘Parable of the Unjust Steward’ from Luke
If you search on the internet for
this Parable, you’ll find articles like ‘Oh no! Is it really time for ‘The
Parable of the Dishonest Servant’’; or ‘The Strangest of them All’; or ‘The
Most Confusing Parable’.
So, if you’re puzzled about what
Jesus is trying to say in this Parable, you’re in good company. And if you’re not puzzled, you may just
possibly have missed something!
I wrote a dissertation on Parables
some years ago, called ‘Imagination and the Parables’, thinking about Jesus’
imagination in creating them, the imagination of the first hearers, and our
imagination in listening to them many times.
And one of my recommendations was that we need to try to illuminate the
Parables, without trying to explain them.
We need to discuss Parables in a way which enlarges the imagination,
rather than dampening it down – that’s my challenge for this morning.
And one of the chapters, a really
fascinating one to research, reflected on the titles of the Parables, and where
they came from – not from Jesus, of course – they started to be used once
Bibles started being printed at the time of the Reformation, initially as a
sort of index, at the top of the page or in the margin, and then rather more
polemically; and I also looked at what effect the titles of the Parables have
on the listener.
This Parable is generally called ‘The
Dishonest Steward’, or ‘The Unjust Steward’.
But is that what it’s really about? What effect would it have on us if we
thought of it as ‘The Parable of the Thoughtful Master’? Or ‘The Parable of the
Right Use of Money’? Or something else –
you could have a go at thinking of new titles for this Parable, and see what
effect it has on your imagination and understanding.
The next thing to understand is that
very few of the Parables are allegories.
That is, there aren’t many when you can say that something or someone
equals something or someone else. In
this case, thinking that the ‘rich man’ [v. 1] = God, or the ‘master’ [v. 8]
= Jesus. Allegories work by tying the
imagination down, by explaining what is going on in a story, and there are
examples of allegories and allegorical explanations in both the Old and New
But Parables generally work
differently – they are about expanding the imagination, about helping us to
think about God and ourselves in a different way, in a new way.
One or two background details about
Firstly, Jesus tends to use everyday
objects – yeast, wheat, seeds – and everyday stories – the lost sheep, the
sower going out to sow, and, quite possibly, in this case, an item from the
Galilee Journal about a dishonest manager.
He’s chosen a story from the everyday lives of his hearers – at this
point, his Disciples. I wonder whether
they’d heard such a piece of news, and been arguing amongst themselves – which
we know they did – about the ethical issues involved.
The rich man is very rich! The amounts of produce mentioned, the olive
oil and the wheat, indicate a large enterprise.
The man is very rich, and he can afford to carry large debts.
The Manager, the Steward, is an
important man. He is in effect the Chief
Operating Officer of the Estate, dealing with large amounts of money and
produce, and in a position of considerable trust and patronage. All his worries, expressed in verses 3 &
4, are genuine ones for a man in his exalted position. He is worried that he would be reduced to
manual labour, for which he is not constitutionally suited, and he’s worried
about where he’ll live – he’s living in tied accommodation, of course. And so he decides to use his patronage, and
his authority over his master’s assets, to buy himself friends, so that someone
will take him in when he’s turfed out of this job.
We might want to pause for a moment
to reflect on the likely success of this scheme. There may be someone who is grateful enough
at having his large debt reduced substantially, who might be happy to welcome
the Manager into his home; but I wonder how that might affect his relationship
with the Master, the rich man – to whom he still owes debts, even if they are
now much smaller. And I also wonder how
many others would think it a good idea to employ the Manager in a similar
position, given that he seems rather free with his master’s wealth.
The twist in the Parable, and there
is often a twist – the twist comes when the Master, in verse 8, commends the
Manager, not for his dishonesty, but for the shrewdness of his actions.
Now verse 8 is a particularly
interesting verse [See Green, Gospel of Luke, p.593f.]. As I read it, think
about who is speaking: ‘And his master commended the
dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age
are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of
light’. In the first half of the
sentence, it is the master who is speaking; in the second half, there is a very
swift sideways step, and it is Jesus who is commenting on the story. The master applauds the manager, not for his
dishonesty, but for his acuity. Jesus
the goes on to reflect on why he told the story. He seems to be saying, ‘[the] Children of
this age…understand how the world works and use it to their benefit; why do [the]
‘Children of Light’ not understand the ways of the Kingdom of God?’ [Ibid, adapted].
Jesus is drawing on the
image of time being divided into two ages – this age, and, as we say at the end
of the Creed, the age ‘of the world to come’.
‘That Jesus can speak of
the manager as one who is commended by one of his own generation for his having
prudently taken advantage of the systems of this world and as [dishonest] is…not
surprising. [The] wisdom on the part of
‘Children of Light’, on the other hand, would take its directives from
the new [age], the age [of the world] to come’ [Ibid, adapted].
That leaves us with the
question, what sort of wisdom should we, as children of light, the children of
the new age, be using? If the ‘children
of this age’ use money to buy influence, to save themselves, how should the
‘children of light’ use their money and possessions?
Verse 13, the famous
verse which used to be translated as ‘You cannot serve God and Mammon’, makes
it clear that we cannot have two masters – it’s not saying that we can’t have
money and be a Christian. It is saying
that we need to choose which of the two will be the master, and which will be
the servant. Is our money to be used in
the service of God, or are we going to try to use God in service of our wealth?
Verse 9, not an easy
verse to interpret, seems to be suggesting that we use what we have in ways
which lead to eternal life. And verses
10-12 reflect on faithful service – being faithful in small things, so that we
can be trusted with great things, the things of the Kingdom of Heaven, the
wisdom of the children of Light.
What might we take from
All of us, especially
those in the rich West, need to reflect on our relationship with our money and
possessions. What’s in charge of
what? How do we use what we have in
service of the present and coming Kingdom of God?
And what does it mean to
be faithful and honest in the small things of life, so that we develop habits
of faithfulness and trust for the large things in life?
And there is much else to
be mined from this, the strangest and most confusing of all Parables – which is
why you have it in Partners to take away with you and mull over during the
coming week. AMEN.