The apostle Paul said that the love of money is the root of all evil. In and of itself money is amoral; the same dollar bill can purchase a Bible or a Budweiser or both. It is, rather, our attitude toward money, or mammon, or material goods that renders it either good or bad. Jesus said that we cannot serve money and God, which is to say we can love one or the other but not both. Either money owns us or God owns us; it cannot be that both own us.
This parable traditionally named for the dishonest steward is, oddly enough, not about poor stewardship. Rather it is a story about the attitudes of two different persons toward money. One character loves people and uses money. The other loves money and uses people. Before each of us decides upon the level of his or her financial contribution to the church, we need first to examine our attitude toward money. The value we attach to money may determine our attitude toward giving to the building of God’s kingdom in the lives of others. In considering our level of financial commitment to God and in reading this story we need to decide if we are the rich man or the selfish steward.
I. Loving People and Using Things
From the outset we see that this is a story about a rich man. What can we say about the rich man?. He is very rich — after Donald Trump’s own heart! The accounts receivable ledger of his company shows him to be financially secure. One man owes him one hundred measures of oil, which is the rough equivalent of three years’ wages for the average worker at that time. Today that debt would be about $45,000, assuming the yearly wage to be $15,000.1 The other man owed him the equivalent of 1100 bushes of wheat, the produce of about 100 acres which is about the equivalent of 7 1/2 year’s income, well over $100,000 in today’s currency!2
I recently met someone who said, “I am so poor I can’t even pay attention.” Well, the man in our parable is so rich that he can afford to hire someone to pay attention to his business affairs. One might think, however, that with all this wealth the rich man would watch his possessions like a hawk. One might imagine that he would keep the checkbook under lock and key.
Such is not the case. The rich man entrusts this steward with the management of his business affairs. Moreover, this man totally trusts the steward, for we read that someone else tells the rich man that his steward has not been doing his job (
We get another glimpse into how trusting this rich man is in
What can we say about this rich Man? He is rich. He is a trusting type. But what about his attitude towards his money? Does he own his money, or does it own him? The story seems to suggest that this rich man is not a slave to his mammon. The story makes it fairly clear that the rich man is not as concerned with his possessions as he is with his relationship to the steward whom he trusted to manage his business affairs. We can infer from the text that he uses his money to make more money, to build his empire; however, he is like Edgar in Shakespeare’s King Lear, “whose nature is so far from doing harm that he suspects no one.”
The rich man dismisses the steward, not because he is no longer useful but because he can no longer be trusted. The rich man appears to be grieved more by the loss of this human relationship than by the embezzlement of some of his fortune. What can we say about the rich man? He loves people and uses things.
II. Loving Things and Using People
What can we say about the steward? The word “steward” is not the one Jesus used. It is the word the King James translators used to describe the most commonly used Greek word found in the New Testament, oikonomos. The steward was one who handled the property or administered the affairs of another. The story suggests he is not such a faithful employee. The word that is used to describe what he has done with his employer’s money, dieskorpisen, is the same word used to describe what the prodigal son did with his father’s money; he squandered it, which literally means that he scattered it. The steward was not responsible with the property that had been assigned to him to administer.
Consider the qualities that characterize this man. He is incompetent, for he has squandered his master’s goods. He is also selfish, for when caught with his hand in the cookie jar, he thinks only of himself. “What am I to do?”, he selfishly inquired. He gives no consideration to his master whom he has defrauded. He is also irresponsible, for he does not own up to his own mistake and sin; he puts the responsibility for his firing in his employer’s hands (“since my master is taking the stewardship away from me”). Seemingly removed from feelings of guilt or shame, the steward is what M. Scott Peck would call, “a person of the lie.”
What else can we say about this man? He is weak and proud (“not strong enough to dig, and ashamed to beg”). At least he is partially honest! He is also a freeloader, hoping that people will take him into their homes, letting him sponge off them. Finally, we can say that he is a calculating opportunist with little sense of responsibility to others. He is a survivor who incarnates the maxim, “look out for number one.”
It becomes apparent that the steward represents the flip side of the rich man. While the rich man loves people and uses money, the steward loves money and uses people. The steward sees the world through only utilitarian lenses; people and things are viewed only in terms of their usefulness to him.
We usually find our nature revealed in one or several characters in a story. A parable is a story meant to turn our safe, selfish worlds upside down. It is meant to challenge the way we think about our neighbor, our self, and our God. With which character or characters in this parable do you connect? When you look in the mirror of this story, do you see the rich man or the selfish steward?
The story reminds us that we do not have to be rich in order to make money our master. The rich man is not the proverbial bad guy in this story. The one who worships the material is the one with considerably less income. The love of money is not necessarily the pastime of the idle rich. It can also be the hobby of those on a limited or fixed income.
What is your attitude toward your “things”? Do you own them or do they own you? Each of us needs to ask this question before we decide our role in the mission of our church this coming year for our giving — to a large extent — will be determined by our attitude toward not only the money we give, but also by our concern for those for whom our money can provide shelter, food, medical attention, and the healing Word of the gospel.
The story is told of the man who tried to swim to safety from a wrecked ship. About his waist he tied a belt containing two hundred pounds in gold, money which he could not bring himself to leave behind. Unable to reach shore with the extra weight, he sank and was drowned. Let me ask you a question. As he was sinking, did this man have the gold, or did the gold have him?
Let me ask you another question. Do you have your gold or does your gold have you? I recently visited an 88-year-old member of this church who changed my attitude about my gold. Mrs. Shipp’s only apparent sources of income are welfare and Social Security. Ill in a nursing home for three years, her husband died earlier this year. As I stood on the porch of her home preparing to leave, she cleared her throat and quietly asked, “Mr. Ramsey, could you please check and see if the church can stop sending the (offering) envelopes for my husband? I just don’t think I can keep sending a tithe for both of us.”
Rudyard Kipling once told a group of graduates, “Be certain that you do not care too much for the material, because some day you will meet someone who does not care for it at all. Then you will recognize just how poor you really are.” Driving home that afternoon from Mrs. Shipp’s and reflecting upon our conversation, I realized just how poor I really was.
1. James Breech, The Silence of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), p. 102.
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