The parable of the dishonest steward is one of the most difficult of the stories Jesus told, so let’s put it on ice for a moment and look at our OT reading. The Book of Amos is very interesting. Amos came from Tekoa, in Judah, and was a shepherd, or at least owned or looked after animals. But the message or prophecy he received from God was about Israel, not Judah, and it was to Israel that he went in order to deliver it. He wasn’t welcome at King Jeroboam’s court, because his prophecy against Israel was pretty damning. At the heart of Israel’s wrongdoing was the fact that her people subverted the Law in order to oppress the poor and enrich themselves. Today’s OT reading sounds like a mixture of the horsemeat in beef burgers scandal and modern slavery.
So, how can this throw light on the Gospel reading? Money often shows what we are like; mean or generous, shrewd or silly, trustworthy or untrustworthy. The Jews were forbidden to lend money to each other at interest, but they got round this in a number of ways. The most common was by lending in kind. Two top commodities for lending were wheat and oil. These products were also used to pay rent to landlords. It could be that the unjust steward had been lending his master’s produce and charging a high rate of interest. What he deducted from the bill was the interest he had charged, so his master would still be repaid what was owed to him. This remedy would delight both master and debtors! One way or another the steward had cooked the books, and used for his own gain what was not really his, but when faced with his own wrongdoing he does something which many of us familiar with modern management have also done on occasions, a bit of deft crisis management.
Crisis management is a growth industry in our own time. Contingency planning is a modern ‘must do’, and highly paid consultants are eager to advise. It all started with the fear of imminent electronic shutdown at the millennium, and from there on we’ve had plans to contend with global flu epidemics, acts of terrorism, environmental catastrophe and financial meltdown. There are four stages to crisis management, so the experts tell us, the crisis must be identified, the response must be planned, the crisis must be confronted, and only then can it actually be resolved. The steward in our parable takes all four steps. He may have cheated and lied, but that’s not the point of the story. The point is that he is not unnerved by the dread of what threatens to befall him. He holds his nerve and responds to the crisis speedily and effectively, relieving the indebted of their burden in the process. That is what he’s congratulated for.
Jesus sees us as stewards of God’s world. We are not the owners. It’s not ours to possess and we cannot keep it for ever. When we give help in cash or kind to relieve poverty or feed the hungry, we are simply giving away what was never ours to keep in the first place. It’s ours on loan to use for the benefit of others as well as ourselves, and to the praise and glory of God. Yet, like the steward in the story, we tend to use most things for our own ends. We invest more time and energy in gaining and keeping than we do in giving and sharing. We probably spend even less time in praying and praising. If you doubt this, think for a moment about how much time you invest in work, sport, shopping, using your smartphone, tablet or laptop and watching TV, and how much time you spend in prayer and on developing your relationship with God. It’s amazing how many Christians never mature in faith because, although they learn all sorts of complex things in life, they remain unskilled and weak in developing their relationship with God.
The steward is called to account, as will we all be. We misdirect our worship to things of the earth and neglect the things of the spirit, the spiritual life, at our peril, because it’s the spirit that’s eternal, that’s the bit that lives on when the body dies.
Jason (not his real name) started as a junior in the sales department of a large firm. It was soon discovered that he had a flair for sales, and in time he became head of the sales department. So crucial was he to the whole sales and marketing enterprise, that he negotiated a percentage of each sale for himself, and became well-off. He had a wonderful home, expensive cars, probably even a hot tub in the garden, and a good deal of shares in the business. Eventually he was given a seat on the board of directors. Yet something told Jason that all was not well. One night, returning from a sales conference, he was involved in a serious road accident, and whilst unconscious, he had a clear recollection of someone telling him that he had missed the point of life by concentrating on the material, and missing out on the spiritual.
Jason made a full recovery, but life was never the same again. He and his wife started to go to church, and Jason began to realise that, although he was rich in material terms, he was poor in spirit. He had a lot to learn, and he embarked on it with all the passion that he gave to his work. Eventually, Jason trained for ministry, and after ordination and two curacies, he moved to Africa with his wife and family, where he worked with a relief agency. When asked about his wealth, most of which, by then, he had given away, he said, ‘I was never as rich as I am now.’
John the Baptist was never a man to mince his words. ‘The axe is about to fall at the root of the tree’ he yells to his audience in the desert. ‘Flee from the wrath to come.’ Amos had a similar message to deliver at the court of King Jeroboam. I’ve no reason to believe that our generation is any less wicked or less fixated on worldly things. We are told in the closing verses of today’s Gospel reading that we cannot serve God and wealth. So we need to decide which one we’re going to prioritise. Amen.