As we heard in the OT reading, the prophet Amos is remarkably forthright about justice in business dealings. In this country, ever since Magna Carta introduced national standards for weights and measures, we have taken these for granted, but in Amos’s day, about 8 centuries before Christ, there was no benchmark, and no redress against fraudulent measures. Only God heard the cry of the poor, and Amos declared that God never forgot abuses that brought the poor to ruin, a message that still rings true even today.
Then to this morning’s parable. It is notoriously the most problematic of all the stories Jesus told, one of the preacher’s nightmares, frankly, for in trying to undo its knots, it is very easy to tie yourself up in fresh ones. I wish it hadn’t been my turn on the rota today! But stay with me and let’s at least give it a go.
Even though the Jewish law forbade charging interest, by Jesus’ time there was endless scope for working round that prohibition, and business interest rates of up to 50 per cent were quite normal. Again, you don’t need to look very far to see the modern-day parallels. In the parable, Jesus builds on this theme with a story about huge volumes of goods and money: this was clearly a massive enterprise, and the level of trust the rich man had in his business manager had been equally enormous. Human nature doesn’t change much fundamentally, and the readings remind us that, although more sophisticated in nature, recent banking scandals are but one example of a dishonourable history of the misuse of other people’s money and the manipulation of facts and figures to secure financial advantage at other people’s expense. The manager in the parable was essentially squandering someone else’s property. Jesus is clear that the money was owed to his master: it was not simply unauthorised commission to line the manager’s pockets.
When called to account, the manager’s priority was to ensure that he would still have friends to go to after what we might call his own now inevitable ‘banking collapse’. His action in rewriting the legal documents, to reduce what was owed, was a wily way of achieving his stated ends, although far from an honest way of serving his master, who commended his shrewdness, note, not his honesty. In fact, we can almost imagine the master shaking his head in dumbfounded amazement at this latest twist to the tale, as he realised he had been out-manoeuvred, yet again, by his manager. When commending this manager’s approach, Jesus was undoubtedly speaking ironically, which we can very easily miss, because we can’t hear the tone of voice that he used. Let’s just say the jury is out on the issue of how dishonest the dishonest steward in fact was. To determine his culpability, you would need to have a familiarity with the quite complex Jewish laws of usury, and you might well consider life is a bit too short to acquire that!
However, what will resonate with many modern readers in the frenzied financial culture of the western world is the fact that the steward faces catastrophe unless he acts fast. This is a case of ‘crisis management’ before the term itself was ever invented. Nowadays, organisations are advised to have a ‘crisis management plan’ in place, and consultants receive handsome rewards for advising on them. Our contemporary dread of imminent crisis helps us identify with the dishonest manager: we are all in his shoes. The fear of what might overtake us as a society – whether it be further financial meltdown; the act of terror that could overshadow 9/11 or 7/7; the environmental catastrophe through which our abused planet will get its own back on us – our terror of these imminent judgements should make us take this disconcerting parable to heart.
Now, the experts say there are four stages to crisis management: the crisis must be identified, a response to it must be planned, the crisis must be confronted and then, and only then, can it be resolved. And the manager in the story takes all these four steps. He may have cheated and lied, but that isn’t the fundamental point of the story. What matters is that he isn’t unnerved by the dread of what threatens to overwhelm him. He responds quickly and effectively, and for that – not for his cooking of the books – he receives praise.
We also lose something significant in translation, because whereas the manager wanted to ensure that he would be received into people’s ‘homes’ after his impending downfall, Jesus used a different word the second time, and spoke instead of his being received not into people’s eternal homes, but rather into their eternal ‘tents’. More irony, and an oxymoron, a contradiction, for there is obviously nothing eternal about tents, and Jesus’ hearers would have picked up on the mockery: the manager wanted earthly security, but Jesus said, in effect, ‘Go ahead and do what the manager did; join the company of rogues and share their eternal insecurity.’ That would doubtless have caused a ripple of amusement in the crowd.
Another factor in appreciating this parable lies in the fact that we are held accountable for our stewardship of what belongs to others. A salient reminder here about the sort of world, environmental and political legacy we pass on to the generations that follow us. What we do with our own personal possessions, on the other hand, doesn’t normally involve such answerability to other people, so that any deceit there can easily go unchecked. We have to have our own internal moral standards, which we learn by being held responsible for our actions.
On the wider financial canvas, in his comment at the end of the parable, Jesus brings it down to what masters us: ‘You cannot serve God and wealth’. This comes as a particular challenge to those of us in this part of the world who are, on the global scale, relatively wealthy. On another occasion, Jesus said: ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’. It ties in with the parable as well, for the dishonest manager is asked by his rich boss to give an account of his management.
Here, too, the words resonate with us as to how we account for our own management of all the things at our disposal: our time; the social and political choices we make; the organisations we support (or don’t support); our buying power; our investments; our skills and talents and, not least, our money. To what extent are we prioritising the many needs of our world, particularly those of the poor, and how much vision do we have on behalf of succeeding generations who will have to live with the decisions we are making today? In the Gospel economy, there is no room whatsoever, it seems, for a ‘me first’ attitude here. Quite the reverse, in fact: it is actually ‘me last’. Not for the first or only time, the Gospel proves to be counter-cultural, putting before us difficult dilemmas only we can resolve, hard choices only we can make and tricky questions only we can answer.
Rabbinic parables about a master and a steward, or manager, are, in the end, always about God and Israel. Jesus regularly charges his contemporaries with being unfaithful to their calling. The chosen people, called to be the light of the world, have routinely not only kept the light to themselves, but they have even managed to turn it into darkness, by making themselves oblivious to the cry of the poor and the marginalised, while still looking after their own vested interests. The Gospel’s challenge to us is to live out our calling so that Jesus wouldn’t be able to level the same charges against us today. It is all summed up in the simple yet enormously difficult formula: love God, and love your neighbour as you love yourself. I can’t help reflecting that as individuals, as a church and as a society, we still have some way to go…