The gospel reading for this Sunday is one of the stranger passages in the New Testament. The steward is identified as both unrighteous and clever. In addition, it looks like the master who tells his steward that he is being fired for embezzlement then commends him a few verses later for fraud. It gets worse. When Jesus says that you cannot serve God and wealth it would seem that in the parable we are invited to see the master as God. As you might imagine, this passage invites a lot of scholarly gymnastics.
Let us look a bit more closely at this. We have no reason to doubt that the initial charges against the steward are true. He has been squandering the wealth of the household. Indeed, the same Greek verb is used to describe the actions of the younger son in the story of the prodigal son, which immediately precedes this story. Once he has been caught, he makes an honest appraisal of his gifts and skills. He is not strong enough to work as a manual laborer and he is too proud to beg. He is a schemer, however, and lands upon a plan. He will defraud his master by manipulating the books so that those who owe the master will have their debts sharply reduced. The point of this is to establish a network of social debts between the steward and the debtors so that they will welcome him into their homes once he is fired.
For this, the steward is “commended,” and the entire story is summarized in the closing admonition, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Of course, the question to be asked is this: “Where will the eternal homes of those who enter into such relationships based on theft and fraud be?” If there are any questions about this, one need only look at the eternal home of the rich man in the very next parable. The irony of the story is that the result is exactly what the steward intends. He will be welcomed into the houses of those “friends” who have become debtors to him because of his fraud. Unfortunately, these will not be the homes one wants to live in for eternity.
In Luke’s gospel, this story lands right between the story of the prodigal son and the story of Lazarus and the rich man. Although different from each other, all these stories explore the fact that our approach to wealth shapes both our character and our relationships with others. As the manager of the master’s wealth, the steward stands in a relationship to the master, a relationship in which he is ultimately unfaithful. He also understands that wealth can be used to foster a network of social obligations that can serve his advantage. These relationships of obligation might even masquerade as friendships.
Given the way the gospel passage ends, we certainly are invited to see this story as an example of serving wealth rather than God. This invites some further reflection. Take, for example, the OT reading from Amos 8. The systemic commercial cheating that Amos describes and its effects on the poorest members of society seem like very clear cases of serving wealth rather than God. The avarice and dishonesty that Amos describes indicate a comprehensive devotion to wealth. The steward in Luke 16 displays something different.
Like those addressed in Amos, the steward certainly is dishonest. Rather than making wealth his over-arching goal, however, the steward seeks to use wealth to control and manipulate social situations to his advantage. I would suggest that rather than avarice, the steward’s actions are driven by fear. He fears that he will not find mercy should he confess and ask for forgiveness. He is afraid that his friends will not take care of him unless they are bound to him by debts of obligation. He is afraid to recognize his true state as a servant, that he is not fully in control of things. At his core, the steward must be afraid that there is no genuine mercy, no grace, no true love or affection apart from that which wealth can generate. He is convinced that wealth influences and controls all events and people.
The shop keepers and merchants in Amos 8 serve wealth in a way that is straightforward and easy to recognize and criticize. The steward’s service to wealth is, like the passage as a whole, deeply ironic. The steward thinks that he is in control of the situation, that he can use wealth rather than serve it. In the end, however, his actions show his deep service and devotion to the standards and practices of a world that sees wealth as the most powerful force in relationships. This is much more subtle and much more dangerous for us in the church. When our fears drive us to use wealth or power or anything else to manipulate situations to our own advantage we are most likely to end up serving what we first sought to use and our clever actions are likely to lead us to places we don’t want to end up.