Using A Master’s Tools For Justice – September 25

A sermon based on Luke 16: 1-13
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 25, 2022
by Rev. Scott Elliott

The Scripture reading we just heard is as difficult and disturbing for pastors and academic theologians as it is for folks out in the pews. Which is why many pastors skip over it and choose one of the other three Lectionary texts when it comes around. I know, because this is the first time I recall preaching on the lesson that Kasie just read so well. The lesson was set for last week and moved to this week because of my bout with Covid.

And truthfully, when I sat down to finally work on this sermon I had to ask myself why I chose this text? The honest answer is that a few months ago when I made out the July to December sermon plans for the staff, I felt nudged by the Holy Spirit to pick it. As much as I wanted to second guess the choice and set the lesson aside for another time, I decided to follow the Holy Spirit’s lead and bring it before us this morning. It wasn’t easy. I ended up doing more research, thinking and prayer than usual to find the good news in the lesson, because to be blunt, it’s a parable of Jesus’ that on its surface seems to encourage and reward dishonesty. I am pleased to report that the Spirit led me to good news in it. And it’s not that dishonesty is good and something to reward.

I thought of an event in my own life that helped me get some perspective on the good news in the lesson. My story’s a little odd, but it may help set the stage– it did for me. I played a lot of softball for maybe twenty-five or thirty years or so. The last time I played in my prime was on a city co-ed league in Oregon. The trouble with co-ed softball back in the day was that a few of the men seemed to feel the need to act more macho to, I guess, try and impress women. The level of testosterone those guys brought to the game and their strutting around like roosters in a barnyard took away a lot of the fun for me, which is why that was my last year of co-ed softball, way back when.

The play that really made up my mind went down like this. I was playing first base. A burly bearded macho batter hit a ground ball that was easily fielded and thrown over to first, unfortunately the throw was off line toward home and I had to step off the bag and into the baseline to catch it with the burly guy barreling toward me. His face scowled as I crossed into his path to catch the ball and he yelled some kinda “I’m gonna knock you down” words as he lunged violently at me hoping he’d slam his big old solid self into me so I’d lose the ball as he’d very likely put me out cold. I’d played a lot of infield so I just instinctively stepped out of the baseline and held out my glove on the arc the macho guy’s lunging body was headed. The full force of his running lunge and anger happened to smack his face hard into my outstretched ball-filled glove. Thankfully he was not seriously injured, but he was out. (It may just be my imagination but, as I recall, none of the women were impressed with this fellow’s effort.) While I was completely unscathed, I decided that day that no plastic trophy was worth a father of four facing injury from violence like that in softball. So after the season I stopped playing. And I lived to see my children grow up.

Now, how the heck does that story relate to the lesson? Both involve using and avoiding the force of misdeeds by another to survive. Kinda like the self-defense martial arts form Akido that transforms offensive attacks into effective defensive moves. I let the macho man put himself out with his own misdeed in order to be safe and survive and succeed by getting an out for the team. Similarly (only much more shrewdly and without softball involved) the steward in Jesus’ parable uses the master’s own misdeeds to survive and succeed and help others out.

Here’s how the Jesus’ parable does that. First we need to have some context. The rich man in the story, the master, was a part of Rome’s power structure meaning he made his wealth off the backs of the poor. The rich are rarely ever a good guy in Jesus’ stories, because they were not good guys in the Roman Empire. Peasant audiences in Jesus and Luke’s day would have understood describing a character as “a rich man” meant he oppressed servants and peasants and made wealth off the misery of others. And that was a pretty accurate understanding of what the rich did to acquire and maintain wealth back then. In First Century Palestine, the very few who were rich were almost always corrupt men who preyed on the poor, including servants who managed their assets, and debtors who owed them money. The rich man in the story charged interest, which is forbidden by Jewish law. And managing servants (like the one in the story) probably made most of their living off of commissions from the successful collection of debts. Debts to the rich were a crushing aspect of life and failure to pay them could have terrifying consequences– including enslavement for debtors and their family.

Simply put, Jesus and his audience lived in a time and place when the rich were cruel and their dissatisfaction with work or debt repayment very often resulted in compounded oppression. We can see this in the beginning of the parable. On the vaguest of hearsay, the rich man comes barreling at his managing servant with an even vaguer question. “What is this I hear about you?” he asks without listing any accusations. The servant isn’t even offered the chance to reply before the rich man tells the servant his job is over once he gets together a final accounting. There is no solid evidence in the story that the servant had done anything wrong, but it’s clear that once the accounting is complete the rich man’s going to slam the servant with the loss of his job putting him out cold on the street. The servant knows he won’t be able to get another job and will be in great danger. It’s key that the servant so far is not yet on the street, he’s still employed as the manager. His authority has not yet been taken away. The ball’s in his glove, if you will, and knowing he is about to be run over by his master he steps out of line shrewdly holding out the remaining time as manager as a means to relieve the rich man’s debtors of a great deal of debt. At the same time he earned their favor to help himself survive when he’s booted out of his job.
And we can actually understand him to have relieved the debts in lawful ways. The Feasting on the Word (Cousar, p 95) commentary points out that the servant

“could have reduced the size of the indebtedness by excluding interest, forbidden by Deuteronomy 23:19-20. If so he could have been acting righteously as well as shrewdly. Or could the manager have acted wisely in reducing the indebtedness by the amount he would have made ? Thus he could have forfeited his commission but in the process saved his own face and gained the favor of the debtors. Each of these two options makes it easier to grasp the commendation of the master…”

Scholars think that Jesus very likely told this parable but ended with the master lauding and commending the servant. Scholars think the rest of the Lectionary text was added by Luke to soften the strangeness of story. If we go with Jesus’ likely ending, and also understand that the servant could have lowered the debt by cutting out illegal interest and/or cutting out his own take, we have righteous and legal machinations played out shrewdly by the servant. His acts on the way out rescue himself and others. He uses what he can to survive and help people. He goes out of the baselines of acceptable conduct of a rich man’s servant, but he helps the oppressed using the master’s own misconduct against him. It’s pretty cool if you think about it from a justice for the debtors and the unjustly treated manager’s perspectives.

We don’t expect it to be considered a cool move from a rich man’s perspective, but Jesus did not tell the story to a rich man. He told it to his peasant followers within earshot of some rich Pharisees– “Lovers of money” as Luke calls them. (v14). They appear to be secondary targets of Jesus’ story. But the “lovers of money” expecting the rich man to chastise the shrewd servant – as they would– are stunned when the rich man switches sides. The Rich man does what the peasant disciples would have done AND commends the servant for doing what was best for the oppressed which included himself and the master’s debtors. The ending twist in the story is that like the rich Pharisees we expect both the master and the storyteller (Jesus) to assert the rich man was ill served by the servant, but instead the rich man and Jesus both uplift the righteous rescue plan using the master’s tools and misdeeds against him and oppression.

The master’s misdeeds are plenty. His wealth comes from an oppressive empire he is a part of. He’s lashed out a servant. He’s ready to fire the servant without just cause and without hearing the servant’s side. He’s charged illegal interest. He’s oppressed debtors with penalties and an onerous commission system. The master, as a rich man in Rome, was a master of “dishonest wealth” having obtained and maintained it with a creditor system that gouged debtors and virtually enslaved servants. So it’s more than a little ironic when Jesus has a rich man praise a servant for being shrewd enough to outwit him with dishonesty to the extent he went beyond the lone duty charge his was given to do– an accounting. Jesus likely ended the story with the first part of verse 8 where he says “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he acted so shrewdly . . .”
In the verse that follows our reading the rich Pharisees have a fit after hearing Jesus’ end of the story. Verse 14 reads: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all of this , and they ridiculed [Jesus]. Jesus’ response in verse 15 is “You are those who justify yourself in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.”

Among the things prized by human beings in Jesus’ day was going along with the wealthy and powerful’s ways of oppression. In the parable one man turns those ways against a wealthy and powerful man to relieve some of the oppression for the well-being of himself and his neighbors . . . giving them hope and the listening peasants hope. That sounds like a good deed. The only odd part is that the rich man the victim of the servant’s rogue conduct, commends him for it . . . But there is hope in that too. Hope that oppressors can repent and be saved. AMEN.