Two accountants are in a bank when armed robbers burst in. Several of the robbers take the money from the tellers while others line up the customers and start confiscating their wallets, watches and jewelry. Among those in the line up are two accountants. Seeing what’s going on, the first accountant jams something into the second accountant’s hand. Without looking down, the second accountant whispers, “What is this?” The first accountant replies, “It’s that $50 I owe you.”
Now that’s a shrewd accountant. You gotta’ admire that kind of quick thinking. Perhaps Jesus would too. I say that because of today’s Gospel reading where Jesus commends a very sharp dealing steward – not for his honesty or loyalty – but for his shrewdness.
This has to be one of the most difficult parables in the New Testament’! It’s troubled theologians for centuries. In fact, a Roman emperor used this parable to say that Jesus’ followers were taught to be liars and thieves. And at first blush, he might have a point.
You’ve got this a poorly performing manager who is fired by his master. So that manager takes advantage of a window of opportunity. He essentially buys himself a golden parachute. But he does it using his master’s money.
And Jesus commends this manager. Indeed, he holds this guy up as a model for his disciples. “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.” Is Jesus commending treachery?
When you look at this parable a little closer, you can see why Jesus praised the guy. It wasn’t for his dishonesty, but for his shrewdness. Jesus saw that this steward was astute.
The steward found himself in a pickle. He didn’t moan and groan about his situation. Instead, he assessed his situation. He considered his what assets were available to him. And then he used what he had to achieve his goal. That’s what Jesus praises and commends for his disciples. So let’s look closer to see the shrewdness that Jesus praised in this rascal.
First off, the steward was shrewd in accepting the reality. It all began when word got back to the Owner that his steward was wasting the Owner’s assets. The jig was up. It was curtains for the steward.
The owner calls him in, “What’s this I hear about you?” You, the owner is using a tactic. The steward has no idea what information has reached the owner. So he keeps his mouth shut. He offers no excuses, no explanations. He remains speechless and gives nothing away.
The Owner gives him the order: “Turn in the books!” He’s fired. His job is over. The steward doesn’t make excuses for himself, he doesn’t whine about the unfairness of it all. He accepts reality – “I’ve been fired!”
A lot of people have a hard time the accepting reality. This is especially true when it comes to money.A lot of people have a hard time accepting the reality of their finances. They see how others might live and they feel that they are entitled to live that way too. So they run up the credit card on expensive vacations, or clothes or more toys. They dig themselves deeper and deeper into debt until the bill collector comes knocking at the door.
For other people, the reality is an addiction. And you can take your pick – addiction is addiction be it alcohol, drugs, overeating, shopping, … the list goes on. They will deny it or make excuses for it. But they won’t accept the reality that they are addicted. And nothing will change for them until they accept reality.
It’s different with our steward. He is losing his job and faces a very grim future. He doesn’t deny it, he doesn’t make excuses for it, he doesn’t bemoan. He accepts it. Now he can deal with it.
The second shrewd thing our dishonest steward did was to make an honest assessment of his own abilities. When he was fired, the steward could have thought to himself: Your loss boss! Watch and see me get an even better job. I’ll show you. He didn’t. Instead, he 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.”
We see this same level of self honesty in Paul’s letter to Timothy. He says: “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.
So many times our pride is a block to our own success. We are very good at assessing others. We can hone right in on their faults. And, from our objective perspective, we’re usually pretty accurate …about others. Yet do we apply that same cold, dispassionate, objectivity to assess our own abilities?
A lot of young people today are constantly told how special they are or how deserving they are. Now I think it’s important for young people to grow up with good, self esteem. No kid should ever be anyone’s doormat. But I think kids as well as adults are well served when they take a more humble view.
We all have different strengths and talents. Not every kid is destined for Harvard. Not every kid is destined for a place on an NBA team And, sadly, society does not always reward our talents fairly.
But in God’s eyes, no one is more or less valued than anyone else. In God’s eyes, no one is more or less special than anyone else. In fact, in the eyes of our creator, we’re all miserable sinners in need of God’s grace. A shrewd person makes an honest assessment of his strengths, but also his weaknesses.
I think back to that commencement speech that David McCullough Jr. gave at Wellesley High School in 2012. Wellesley High School draws from an upscale community. And his audience was filled with parents who each believed that they were raising the next Nobel Prize winner. McCullough’s speech might have sounded like high heresy to this group. Hear what he told this collection of carefully, cultivated kids in one of America’s more affluent high schools.
You are not special. You are not exceptional. Contrary to what your U-9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.
I wish someone had given that speech at my high school graduation. Instead, I had to learn that lesson right in the middle of my corporate career. My section would get a new manager and I had been there long enough to be in a prime position for the spot. But when the boss presented the new organizational chart, the top spot for my section went to a young woman 10 years my junior.
After a few days to “adjust” to the news, I was able to think more …objectively. And when I made an honest assessment of my abilities compared to hers I realized that I was way out of her league. She was the brightest attorney in the whole department. Once I got over it, I didn’t resent her, I studied her. And then I learned from her. And that’s when my career took off.
The steward in our story might have been a scoundrel, but he was shrewd enough to make an honest assessment of his abilities. And Jesus commends that kind of shrewdness
Our steward was shrewd to accept reality and then to honestly assess himself. But here is where his shrewdness really kicked in. We have all been is situations where we really see no way out. Or we’ve been challenged with a task that we find impossible to meet. The foolish person throws up his hands and walks away. But the shrewd person will take this advice: Take what you have – Where you are – And do what you can.
Not unlike the parable of the talents. You remember in that story how the owner passed out 5 talents, 3 talents, and 1 talent to his three servants. The servant with the 1 talent was afraid to do anything, so he went and buried his talent. And the master chastised his for doing nothing with it.
Now take a look at our dishonest steward. He’s just lost his job, but what does he do. He takes what he has, where he is, and does what he can.
What does he have? Well, he has knowledge that the community thinks highly of the master. He knows this because someone came and told the master of the steward’s embezzlement.
That’s an important piece of information.
Here’s what else he has. He has the books! The Owner fired him, but he didn’t send him off to prison. Instead, he has asked for an accounting. The steward still has the books!
Now, we ask: “Where is the steward?” Well, the steward is still in the community with free rein to move about. And the steward knows that no one in the community knows that he has been fired. As bad as things look, he has a very brief window of opportunity.
Take what you have – he has the master’s books. Where you are – he’s free to move about the community who doesn’t know he;s been fired. And do what you can.
He summons the tenants one by one. It’s important to meet individually to tailor the interview to each debtor. “How much do you owe? Cut it by 50.” “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”
The debtors know what’s going on. Will any of them run and tell the owner what happened? No Way!! They can each maintain a public posture that they assumed the steward was just doing what the Owner instructed.
Here’s what follows. Each debtor will go home and share the good news with family and friends. Word will get around and a festive mood breaks out all over the village about the generosity of the Owner.
Now comes the Owner to collect the accounting from his steward. He looks at the altered books. It wouldn’t take long for the Owner to figure out what’s going on.
The Owner has two choices. Legally, he can cancel all the reductions. But that means he would go to the village where they are all singing his praises and explain that the steward had been fired and had no authority to grant those reductions. If he does that, his name will be mud.
Alternatively, he can suck it up, remain quiet, pay the price for the clever steward’s scheme and enjoy his reputation as a generous man. What would you do?
The Unjust Steward was banking on his master’s generous nature. He was shrewd enough to know that his only hope was to put his entire trust in the master’s mercy. The whole scheme depended upon it. The steward knew it and, more importantly, the master knew it.
Now let’s be clear. This is a fraud; but it is an ingenious fraud;. The steward is a rascal; but he is a wonderfully clever rascal.” And, the Unjust Steward is really a foil to reveal the goodness of the Master.
Jesus commends the Unjust Steward, but not for his ethics. He commends him for his shrewdness. The ability to cleverly assess and act in practical ways.To seize opportunities, to take risks, to: Take what you have – Where you are – And do what you can.
And Jesus wants his disciples to do the same thing. You can take a risk on God. The great missionary to China, Hudson Taylor, once said: “Unless there is an element of risk in our exploits for God, there is no need for faith”
When Peter stepped out of the boat in the middle of the Galilee, he took a risk. Saul of Damascus was a zealous Pharisee who was on the hunt for Christians. But when Ananaias opened his home to the blinded Saul, he took a risk.
There is nothing wrong with living with wisdom and planning for the future. But when it comes to faith, our security is not in ourselves but in the one who already paid for our eternity. So we can chose to take risks in life for the Good News. We can bank on God’s goodness.
The story has a happy ending. At the end of the day, the Unjust Steward and his master both become heroes of the community. The Owner will let the mark-downs stand. And the grateful villagers will find the steward a good job where will be gainfully employed for the rest of his life. BUT …..they will also keep a very close eye on him.