By Matt Stromberg
All over the world this morning there are priests who will preach on the epistle. Why? Because this morning’s gospel lesson, what is sometimes called “the parable of the unrighteous steward,” is a real head-scratcher. I studied this passage earlier this week with some local clergy, all of them very capable interpreters of Scripture, but we all struggled with this one.
It may be helpful to first understand the setting of the story. It involves a rich man who owns a substantial piece of property that he rents to tenants, probably for agricultural purposes. It was common in those days for people to rent and work farmland, orchards, and vineyards, and in return give the owner an agreed-upon portion of the proceeds. It was also common for the owner to appoint a steward to oversee and manage this arrangement.
The hero in this story is the steward. His character is established from the beginning. He is untrustworthy and only interested in himself. Reports come to the owner that his steward is squandering his property, and he is called to account and fired on the spot. To get in good with the locals and cover his back, the sneaky steward goes behind the owner’s back and collects on all the accounts, lowering the debt to ingratiate himself with the people.
This puts the owner in a bind. No doubt he was being celebrated all over the land as a most generous manager. If he were to renege on the steward’s settlements and punish the steward, he would lose the people’s good will and instead appear harsh and unforgiving. The master can only commend the steward for his shrewdness. We are not told whether he was given his job back, but it seems to be implied.
The problem is that this irresponsible, self-serving, dishonest, and conniving individual is held up by Jesus to be admired and emulated. He says, “The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
A Roman emperor who rejected Christianity, Julian the Apostate, used this very story as evidence that Christians were liars, thieves, and con artists who were not to be trusted. He said this parable proves Jesus was a mere man, and not a particularly worthy man.
Is Jesus encouraging us to be the type of person who only looks out for himself? Far from it. We must remember that Jesus is a storyteller. When we read a novel or watch a film about a charming criminal who pulls off an ingenious heist, we might smile in admiration and slap our knee to see him get away with it, even though we would never approve or endorse such behavior in real life. We suspend our judgment. We understand, at least for the sake of the story, we are entering the world and the values of the characters, which may be very different from ours.
We should resist the urge to read Jesus’ parables as pious or moralistic illustrations, and instead approach them more as stories. When we tell stories we may playfully take on a persona of a character with opposite values in an ironic way. For instance, would you call Mark Twain racist because of the opinions expressed by characters in Huck Finn? Of course not, for he was being satirical.
Jesus often uses unsavory characters in his stories. This isn’t the only example. He uses surprising and paradoxical comparisons. He has a keen sense of wit and irony. Like other satirical storytellers, his purpose is to critique the status quo and create a new awareness in his listeners. He wants to turn our assumptions on their heads.
Do you know what Bizarro World is? Bizarro is a villain from Superman. He is a kind of evil doppelganger of Superman. In Bizarro World, everything is the opposite of how it is in this world. So, for instance, the S on Bizarro’s uniform is backward, as it would be in a mirror. He says “Goodbye” when he arrives and “Hello” when he leaves.
In Bizarro World, up is down and down is up and people love ugliness and hate beauty. The sitcom Seinfeld spoofed the idea in one episode, and since then in popular culture Bizarro World has come to mean a situation or setting that is strangely inverted or opposite of normal expectations.
But what if we live in Bizarro World? In our reading today, Jesus sets up a series of opposites that mirror one another. There is this world and there is the world to come, the kingdom of God. There are the people that belong to this age that is passing away and there are the children of light, those who belong to the kingdom. There is God and there is Mammon.
Who is Mammon? Some scholars identify Mammon with the Chaldean god of riches and wealth, like the Greek god Plutus. He is a personification of wealth and worldly gain, but is also associated with general excess and selfishness, with lust, power, gluttony, and pride. Mammon is the opposite of the self-sacrificing God of love revealed in Jesus Christ. In Bizarro World, people worship Mammon instead of God.
In the kingdom of God, everything is reversed. Those who humble themselves are exalted, the way to freedom is service to God and neighbor, the first is last and the last is first, the way to greater life is to take up one’s cross, and the way to store up riches for oneself is to give away all that you have in the service of others. This feels backward to us, but only because we live in Bizarro World.
In this morning’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells a story that takes place in Bizarro World, but it is really about the kingdom. He does this so that we can understand, like an adult who stoops down and baby talks to a toddler. Even though this steward lives in Bizarro World, he is shrewder than the children of light.
See how ingeniously he serves his god Mammon? He knows how to work the system and get just what he wants. Even though he is acting in the service of Mammon, of greed and self-interest, he ironically does the right thing for the wrong motives. He is generous to the debtors and has mercy on them, while bringing honor to their master.
In Bizarro World, the shrewd steward uses deeds of righteousness — or the forgiveness of debt — for his worldly advantage. What does that look like if we turn it the right side up? It is using worldly gain for the sake of righteousness. This is what Jesus means when he says, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.” The command is literally translated as “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon.” It refers to the riches of this world that are polluted by human sin and liable to be a snare to us.
Jesus is teaching us the proper use of wealth in this world. A person cannot serve God and Mammon. We must never allow ourselves to be captured by worldly wealth, but the shrewd child of light will find ways to use the things that she has in this life for the sake of the next.
If you have riches in this life, don’t hoard them for yourself, but give them away in the service of the kingdom. That way you will store up true treasures in heaven. If the rich are generous to the poor in this life, they will be blessed when the last become first and first become last. They will be welcomed into their eternal homes.
The Rev. Matthew Stromberg is a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Albany