September 19, 2010
This parable is a rogues’ gallery of contemptible characters. The absentee landlord who takes no responsibility for the direct oversight of that which has been entrusted to him, the shrewd steward who embezzles and then draws would-be debtors into his labyrinth of deception—and their willingness to go along. All in all, the canon would have been just fine without these cameo appearances.
Nevertheless, here it is—and it is the gospel reading for today! What were they thinking? What was Jesus thinking? What was Luke thinking? We have some clues in the text. This story is sandwiched in the context of God’s searching for that which is lost (sheep, coin and sons) and a condemnation of the Pharisees who loved money and worried about appearances.
Jesus turns the tables; using an illustration too close to real life for our comfort, He warns about the preoccupation with acquisition and conspicuous consumption. This is the darker side of the American dream. Hedge funds risking the money of others for risky derivative investments, an economy built on debt and a survivalist mentality that scapegoats any personal responsibility for the welfare of the poor, the alien or the stranger.
No one in this parable admits to doing anything wrong. Apparently this was business as usual. Luke records Jesus drawing a contrast between the wisdom of the children of this economy and the relative naiveté of God’s children, but that’s hardly the point. The church ought to use good business sense, but that’s not the point.
So what is the point of this whole sordid shell game? We can’t serve two masters. We try. We compartmentalize our lives into business, family and social networks, then give what’s left to religion. That really doesn’t work. What we value most sooner or later will come to the surface.
Pretending a problem doesn’t exist won’t make it disappear. If anything, it gives the lie a more insidious hold on us. Like the steward and his co-conspirators, we become complicit in the lie and become enablers of a half-hearted attempt at keeping up appearances.
Some even preach a health-and-wealth gospel that flies in the face of the teaching and example of Jesus. Jesus calls us to love God supremely and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
In other words, we do have a responsibility to God that goes far beyond business as usual. True Kingdom values are exhibited when the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed and those in prison are shown hospitality.
Peace, in the fullest sense of the word, is not merely the absence of conflict, another form of keeping up appearances. Peace is wholeness. We are created for God and find our deepest fulfillment in God, but we can’t serve God and obsess about money on the side. God demands our whole lives be transformed.
That translates into a desire for righteousness in all our dealings. This parable serves as preamble to the “peace and justice” gospel feared by those who have yet to be freed from the servitude of money.
In the 1987 film Wall Street, the protagonist of the story, Gordon Gekko, proudly proclaims, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms: greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”
God is good. Greed is neither good or of God.