A win/win situation

Pentecost 18 – 2016

Luke 16:1-8

Marian Free

Dramatisation of the parable (Written by Juliet Quinlan)

The characters: Mr/Mrs Rich (R), owner of a chain of stores; (K) Kath/Kevin, supervisor of one of R’s stores.

 Part 1

R: Good morning K. Please sit down.

K: Good morning.

(Both sit down – two chairs facing each other at the front of the sanctuary.)

R: I’ll get straight to the point, K. This is the third time in three months I’ve had to call you in to my office to tell you that your performance isn’t what I’d expect from one of my store supervisors. There have been complaints from customers that you’re offhand with them, you’ve closed early on several occasions, the takings from your store are down…

K: (Shrugs) I’m sorry, I promise I’ll do better.

R: No, K, that’s not good enough. I’m very reluctant to do this, but I’m going to have to let you go. I’m losing money, and even worse, my reputation is being squandered. I’m willing to give you a month’s notice, but please try to leave the store in good shape. (Both stand up. R shakes K’s hand, looks sympathetic).

(K and R both exit.)

Part two

(K sits alone OR addresses the congregation.)

K: What am I going to do? I know I haven’t been efficient like I used to be. I’ve just got so bored with this place, that’s the problem. My heart hasn’t been in it. But how can I live now? I don’t want to be on the dole for the rest of my life. I need some inspiration…(Frowns, shakes head, looks anguished. Then straightens up, eyes wide open): OK, I’m beginning to get an idea…

Part three

(R beckons K into the office again. They remain standing. Would it be better if K presents herself to the office as it’s her last day?)

R: So this is your last day, K. I wonder why you’re looking so happy.

K: Oh well…

R: I know why you’re pleased with yourself. The accountant picked up an anomaly for this store. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?

(K shrugs shoulders)

R: For the last month the cash you’ve banked has been around half the amount the cash register says it should be. Can you explain how this could have happened?

K: I took the money.

R: So you thought it’d be smart to give yourself a bonus, did you?

K: No, I gave it all to charity.

R: Why? What was the point of that?

K: I told the Coordinator of my favourite charity that you wanted to make a large donation, and made an appointment to hand it over. We got talking and I told her how I’d love to help, and some ideas I have, and now they’ve agreed for me to work for them as a volunteer. Perhaps I might get paid work there eventually. And it’s something I’ll really like doing, something fulfilling for the rest of my life…

R: But it was my money.

K: Well you’ve sometimes said money isn’t everything, that your main goal is to make your customers happy. I know how concerned you are about the company’s public image and I’ve heard you give quite a lot away yourself.

R (stops, thinks, then starts to laugh): Well, I must say I’m amazed. You’ve been really clever. You’ve made me look good in the eyes of your charity, and made a positive plan for your future. Good luck to you! (Smiles, claps K on the shoulder, shakes hands). Off you go. And I hope the future gives you all that you hope for.

(Both exit)

 

Reading of Gospel: Luke 16:1-8

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 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.’ 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly;

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God of love, give us an openness to your word and a willingness to understand those things that challenge and confront us. Amen.

Today’s parable is one of (if not the) hardest of Jesus’ parables to come to grips with. We are able to accept most of Jesus’ eccentricities and teaching that demands us to welcome the marginalised and love the unlovable and even to forgive the unforgiveable – but for Jesus to commend dishonesty or injustice – that goes beyond the pale of good, respectable Christians.

The problem is that it is almost impossible for us to make sense of today’s parable unless we take ourselves back to the first century and to the culture of the time. In particular, we have to understand that honour and shame determined how society functioned and how people related to each other. Having honour took precedence over the desire for wealth, or love of friend and family. Everyone knew their place and everyone was concerned to maintain their position within the community. One way to retain or to increase honour was through generosity.

In previous stories Jesus subverted these values of honour and shame– “take the lower seat”, “invite those who can’t pay you back”, “welcome home the son who has shamed and disgraced you”. Now he tells a story that plays right into the hands of those who hold those values he uses the concepts of honour and shame to his advantage.

Another characteristic of first century society was a failure to plan for the future. Most people lived day-by-day, not considering how they might fare either in the earthly future and certainly not thinking about their eternal future.

A steward had a great deal of authority. Very often the landowner lived elsewhere, so the steward had the responsibility for the day-to-day running of the property. Whether a slave or a free man, a steward could make decision about loans and interest rates, make sales, forgive or pay off debts. He earned his living by commission and had a relatively high status in the community.

As well as trying to understand the first century Mediterranean culture, we have to remember that this is a story, a parable. It did not happen in real life. It is a story pure and simple. That means that it doesn’t have to be entirely logical, or that it has to provide all the detail[1]. Jesus is using this parable to make a point or to shock his hearers into a new way of understand. It is more important to look for the meaning behind the story rather than try to force the story make absolute sense.

We also have to determine where the parable begins and ends. Unless we are clear about this we will not know whether it is Jesus who commends the steward for his shrewd behaviour or the master who praises him. Does Jesus commend dishonesty or is it the master in the story who commends the steward?

Lastly we have to ignore the heading that bible translators have added to the in order to let the parable speak for itself. Most bibles give this section a title like “the unjust or dishonest steward” which leads to the assumption that the character of the steward is dishonest, whereas that label is only applied to the steward at the conclusion of the story. There is no evidence to suggest that the steward is inherently dishonest or that he has behaved dishonestly in the past.

So with all that in mind, let’s look at the parable in detail, beginning with the problem as to where the story begins and ends. Most scholars agree that the actual parable concludes at the beginning of verse 8a that means that the person who commends the steward’s behaviour is the steward’s master – not Jesus[2]. The structure of the parable looks like this:

Introduction 1a Jesus’ introduction, 1b Introduction to parable

Scene 1 v 2

Scene 2 v 3,4

Scene 3 v 5, 6 (in symmetry with 4)

Scene 4 v 7

Conclusion v 8a (symmetry with the beginning 1b)

The first thing to note is that we are not told why the steward is being dismissed. All that we know is that rumours have reached his master (that the steward is squandering the master’s property – not that he is dishonest). Rumours alone are sufficient to have caused embarrassment or shame to the landowner, so in his mind there is no choice but to dismiss the steward. The steward has no recourse. If he takes action against his master he will cause the landowner even more shame and therefore possibly find himself in a worse position. Verses three and four tell us two things: one is that the steward is not a slave. If he were he might lose his position, but he would not lose his home. They also remind us that the cultural norms of honour and shame affected all levels of society.

In the next verses, Luke uses the technique to interior dialogue to let us know what the steward is thinking. Scene four lets us see where the steward’s thinking has taken him, and his solution to the problem – he will gain himself both honour and friends if he reduces the amounts due to his master. At the same time he will be increasing his master’s honour, because those on the receiving end will understand that the generosity has been extended by the landowner.

Finally the landowner commends the actions of the steward – he has not only secured his own future, but at the same time he has restored and enhanced the honour of his master. It is a win/win situation.

In summary:

  • A steward is mismanaging the estate
  • Rumours of this reach his master
  • He is told he can’t manage any more
  • He comes up with a solution
  • He is praised for his wise (shrewd) action
  • Action/vs no action

In short we will all be called to account, but rather than thinking that there is no solution we are challenged to think about our eternal future and to take action which might be risky, but which has the potential to result in a good outcome all around[3].

 

 

 

 

[1] We don’t know for example the nature of the loans or to whom they were made. Both the items loaned and the quantities are unusual and we only hear of two whereas there were probably several others.

[2] Verses 8b and 9 are a commentary on the parable that suggests that embarrassment at the commendation of dishonesty was early.

 

[3] I am heavily indebted to Jeffrey Durkin whose insightful article has given me an appreciation of the parable that I would otherwise not have had.

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