There was a certain rich man who had a steward…
As we get into the details of this parable, perhaps certain themes will emerge that help us understand the whole parable. The whole concept of “the steward” or “stewardship” is a promising area to begin, because it’s clearly foundational to the greater meaning of the parable.
Interesting, but Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ teaching on stewards all begins in chapter 12 with the episode of the man asking Jesus to tell his brother to divide his inheritance with him. Jesus says, “Man, who made Me a judge or an arbitrator over you?” At which point Jesus added, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.”
From there Jesus teaches the parable of the man who build extra barns, hoarding his wealth. That night his soul was required of God. Jesus concludes saying, “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” The interesting detail here is that, to be rich toward God is to not “lay up treasures” for oneself. To be rich toward God is to be rich toward others. Or more generally, God gives wealth to be given to others. It goes back to Jesus’ other words in Luke, “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.”
Immediately after that parable, Jesus begins teaching about worry. We don’t have to worry, He says, because “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Seek first the kingdom of God, and all the things we see will be added unto us. This section He concludes saying, “Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
So, a quick check on learning. Instead of worrying about what we possess through covetousness – like the brother worried about not getting the inheritance – we should seek first kingdom of God. We should have a giving attitude about our goods, giving them away to the poor (alms), while having money bags that don’t grow old, a treasure in heaven awaiting us. This is what it means to be rich toward God.
Next, Jesus now talks about stewards. The steward should be found ready as they wait for their master to come back from the wedding. They should be awake and alert. We wonder what this means to be awake and alert, and Peter asks if Jesus intended this parable for all people, or just for them. So there are two questions hanging.
Jesus then teaches about stewards who are set over the household, suggesting strongly that Jesus was in fact just talking about the apostles, those sent out. Or in today’s terms, He’s talking about ministers. The “faithful and wise” steward, apostle, or minister is the one who, as Jesus says, will “give them their portion of food in due season.” The faithless steward, by contrast, because he believes the master is delayed in his coming, “begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and be drunk.” At the accounting, he will be cut in two.
So, to be alert and awake is to be faithful in administering the master’s food and goods for the whole household. This follows the context of “being rich toward God” rather than laying up treasures for oneself. The minister is to be abundant with the heavenly riches Christ has attained for His “household.” That’s what it means to be a good steward.
This merely supports everything we’ve been studying during these first nine weeks in the Trinity season. It parallels Jesus’ teaching that the altar must be a place of abundant forgiveness. It echos the behavior of the father who operated by non-mammon rules when he gave his son his inheritance before his death, only to have it squandered, but then embraced him in abundant grace. The feeding of the household with abundance, stewarded by the disciples, is exactly what happened in the feeding of the 4,000. Finally we have the whole teaching on “be merciful, judge not, condemn not, give, and forgive.”
St. Paul was a companion of St. Luke, so it shouldn’t surprise us if he uses the idea of “steward” similarly – to refer to the apostolic ministry – when he writes, “Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful.”
To Titus he describes the steward, “For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable.” We note here the parallels to what Jesus teaches about stewards. Not greedy for money and drink, or self-willed (like the foolish man who build treasures to himself), but hospitable, giving, and open with the Lord’s gifts.
Finally, we have St. Peter, who perhaps has the best general teaching on what exactly a steward is and does: “And above all things have fervent love for one another, for ‘love will cover a multitude of sins.’ Be hospitable to one another without grumbling. As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.”
Even if apostles and ministers are the “first” stewards of God (in order of grace delivery), we are all stewards of God’s “manifold grace.” Good stewardship means being hospitable. It means having fervent love for one another. What sort of love? The love that covers a multitude of sins.
The love, in other words, that forgives debts.
And that brings us back to the shrewd steward. Do we have any doubt about who or what he is, what he was stewarding, and to whom he was stewarding it to? Jesus could be teaching about ministers, or He could be teaching about any Christian, or perhaps even a specific church. The debtors are those indebted to the rich man, who is likely God.
Jesus commends the shrewd servant for erring on the side of generosity and debt-forgiveness toward the debtors. In fact He describes this as a faithful use of the situation. The servant didn’t beg or dig holes – he wouldn’t live by his own resources – but shrewdly set up networks of grace that he could fall back on, with the rich man’s generosity.
Perhaps Jesus is reminding us that sometimes the Christian faith is truly a “save your skin” religion. We might over-spiritualize or over-theologize the faith, thinking mundane emotions should be superceded by lofty sentiments about Christ or God. But sometimes the faith does come down to gross calculations.
I remember a convert from Catholicism to Lutheranism once helping out cleaning a church before Easter. After a hard day’s work, she exclaimed, “I wish you people had Purgatory so I had something I could be working out of!”
Perhaps that’s what Jesus is thinking of with the shrewd steward. If, out of gross calculations about our eternal security, we begin spilling forth with good gifts to others, gifts of our time, resources, and talents, are we still not reflecting our gracious Lord? Perhaps our motives are “shrewd,” but aren’t our motives always skewed by sin somehow? As Jeremiah the prophet says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?”
If that’s the case, and we muster our deceitful heart in the cause of giving to others for selfish intent, because we know in the end we have to give an account to God, and we know He’s a giving God and expects that of us, is that necessarily a bad thing?
Or, should we wait all day for our heart to be perfectly pure and rightly situated before doing good to others? And because we’ll be waiting forever for this moment, we never end up doing good.
I’m reminded of the theologian who said, “Puritans took people off the treadmill of indulgences and put them on the iron couch of introspection.”
In our context for today, the error of the “treadmill of indulgences” would be not realizing we have a gracious God. The error of the “iron couch of introspection” would be overthinking sanctification and doing good. The happy middle ground might be the cold calculation of the shrewd steward: Judgment Day is coming when you will give an account to a generous God; reflect that generosity!