When I read this story on Monday, I felt like my head was spinning. How are we supposed to preach this? Be dishonest and you will be rewarded? What does it mean? Is it actually commending dishonesty? Really? I began to imagine what it was like to be the steward, what might have been the rest of the story, and greater clarity began to come. So, let me tell it another way.
There was once a rich man with a staff to manage his property. One day someone accused the steward of wasting the owner’s resources. The word for ‘waste’ or ‘squander’ literally means ‘scatter.’ The steward was scattering the owner’s money far and wide! His problem may have been that he was a nice guy – too nice to say no. So, he put too much of the owner’s property out on loan, so much that it might be impossible to get it all back from over-burdened debtors. The other staff finally become whistle-blowers and called out the steward to the owner: “He is mismanaging your funds, investing in bad loans. He is going to set you up for some big losses.”
The owner believes the whistle-blowers, because he calls in the steward and demands a detailed audit. After the audit, the steward would be relieved of his duties.
But the steward is aging and not in the best health, so he can’t go out and get just any job, especially when he has been fired for mismanagement. But there are all these people to whom he has loaned money. They still appreciate him. He helped them out when they needed a loan. So he decided to visit all the debtors and deepen the loyalty they have to him. He went out and slashed the amount owed, according to his assessment of what they could bear to repay promptly – sometimes cutting the bill in half, sometimes just a 20% reduction. At least this way the owner would get most of his property back, even if there would be no interest earned. He may have even told the debtors that this was on the master’s instruction. He and the debtors changed all the bills. The steward put the new bills in the files before the auditors came so things would look better for him.
It doesn’t say he actually collected any of the debt. But he put repayment within reach of the debtors – something he had not done when he made the loans.
It reminds me of the mortgage crisis of ten years ago when lenders were giving loans far beyond the ability of people to repay, with special up-front discounts. We know from the crash that this was a disaster, but I am sure that many of the face to face loan officers believed they were doing a good thing when they saw the happy faces of all the new homeowners. This may have been what the steward was doing too.
Was he intentionally dishonest? Was he unwise in spreading around the master’s investment? Was he simply incompetent? We don’t really know.
But when he got in trouble, what he did was really creative! He cooked the books in such a way that people would owe him, and not just the master. And he would be able to survive on this personal debt of loyalty.
The owner wasn’t stupid. He saw what the steward had done. And he was impressed! You have more creativity in you than I imagined. Did he relent and keep him on, loving his emerging creativity? Jesus doesn’t tell us. But I think he did. He wanted creative energy like that around him. And he probably put a bit closer supervision on him at the same time.
It is easy to get tangled up with the steward character and forget to notice the hero of the story, the God-figure. The owner, knowing what was done, could have thrown the steward in prison, or just gone back and restored all those old bills. But he didn’t. And in this way, the owner too may have been shrewd. The fact that he did not do either of these things meant that, to the debtors, he was accepting the compromise, thus extending mercy to them as well. He would be known as merciful with his community.
So, what can we learn from this perplexing story?
First, I think Jesus asks the disciples to think about what is more important, relationships or money. The steward wins commendation from his boss by putting relationships first. The word the NRSV translates as dishonest wealth, is actually that word, ‘mammon,’ which in the old King James was left untranslated. It does not necessarily mean ‘dishonest wealth.’ Mammon is a word for wealth as an evil influence or false object of worship and devotion. To serve mammon is to be all about money. Mammon is greed, money-focus, the desire to acquire. Jesus sums it up: one cannot serve God and money. Being all about money is not being all about God.
So, the point of the parable is to get the desire for money out of your heart, like the steward did when he rewrote his risky loans and made friends of the debtors.
This weekend I attended meetings of the Presbytery Leadership Commission. We began our time together with this same parable, which was a bit ironic since it was the meeting when we would adopt the budget for 2020. We were going to talk about money. So, I found myself considering how the presbytery budget process might be more about relationships than money. I made some interesting observations. I wonder if the presbytery is beginning to think more like the steward than we used to do.
The priority of former times had been to collect reserves and protect them diligently. But we are re-thinking that. People gave us that money to be used for ministry. We should use it. When we let it out, scatter it, (remember that is the word for squander in this parable) it is like the sower throwing out seed generously over the field, so that some will bear fruit. Will every seed grow and produce a crop? No. But if we don’t scatter the seed, nothing will have a chance to grow. The presbytery has made a plan to invest some of the reserves in ministry, rather than keeping it in the bank to perpetuate the organization as long as possible.
It is outside-the-box thinking. It is a different kind of economics. It is investing in future relationships built by ministry and trusting that the people reached will figure out ways to make our connections work long into the future. Sometimes we are the best stewards when we give it all away. It is not so much about money – how much we have – as about relationships. Risky? Yes, but it gets our hearts in the right place, out of money-focused mammon heart.
For MTPC, opening our building to partners and the community at large was a choice to “give away the farm” in order to build relationships, to welcome the stranger. It was a choice of relationships over money. The Taborspace Gala has made a similar decision in their planning for this year. The priority is to get as many people into the celebration as possible. Fill our space with friends, energy, good things, and the money will follow. It is an act of trust. Build relationships, build bridges and what happens next will emerge with the energy that shows up. After all, we know the owner is a very rich and resourceful and merciful God.
So, a lesson for the being a bridge-building congregation is that relationships come before money. And then we trust the owner of the property – God – to be merciful and gracious and even generous in building the kingdom of God.
A second lesson is that God is merciful. The good news not to be missed in this story is that when we recognize that our actions have been self-indulgent or even exploitative, and we come to ourselves and make a change, God is merciful. The owner, in the end, reverses direction and extends grace.
We are the steward character in the parable. Jesus repeatedly talks about his followers as stewards. We don’t own the blessings we hold. We simply manage them for the good of God’s kingdom. I love that our building is not something any of us sitting here built. It has clearly been handed down to us by those who went before, to continue to steward it as God has need.
Jesus ends this parable with a very clear statement: you cannot serve God and money. How un-American! But in God’s economy the slashing of debts is an everyday practice. We ask God to forgive out debts every single Sunday – and God does!
What is more important, money or relationships? What matters most to us? This is a question which can accompany us at every step of our journey, whether in the church or in our personal lives.
Our presbytery has decided to become a Matthew 25 presbytery. What is that? Several years ago our presbytery sent an overture to General Assembly that Presbyterians become known for the kinds of actions described in Matthew 25 – “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:35-36). As Brian Heron, our presbytery staff person went around to each church in our presbytery, he observed that every one of our 96 churches is doing these things. It is what we are about. And it is time that we make this our focus, not a side job, not something in the shadows, but the main thing. Congregations are being encouraged to set their focus on being a Matthew 25 congregation. It is all about putting relationships – or as we use the term, “building bridges” – before money.
Then, like the steward, like the blessed of God’s kingdom, we hear the mercy of God pronounced: “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).