Proper 20C Sermon (2001)

Proper 20 (September 18-24)
Texts: Luke 16:1-13;
1 Tim. 2:1-7; Amos 8:4-7

COMPASSION AT A TIME OF CRISIS

The United States is facing a crisis. The horrifying terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has threatened our way of life. We are faced with the crisis of trying to stop terrorism. And twelve days into this new era in our history we also seem to be on the verge of facing an economic crisis. There are many signs from this first week that make us nervous. Everything having to do with flying and travel is in a tailspin right now. The airlines and airports, the hotels and convention centers, rental cars. You could land a plane down Main Street in places like Disney World because no one is there. Our stock market took a dive of historic proportions this week. America is facing a crisis.

The dishonest steward in this morning’s parable from Jesus faces a crisis. He’s been sacked. Fired. He doesn’t know how to do anything else but be a steward. Apparently, he’s too frail or weak or lazy to do hard physical labor. Yet he comes up with a plan and coolly executes it in the face of his crisis, and the shrewdness of his actions win him a commendation from his master. Not only that, but in even telling us this parable, and with some of the things he says afterwards, Jesus seems to approve of what this steward did. Perhaps we need to take a closer look at what the steward did in facing his crisis, as we face one ourselves.

The puzzling thing about this parable is that the steward is openly called dishonest. And to us in the twentieth century it sure looks like the steward is dishonest again in his solution to the crisis. He calls his master’s debtors in and forgives large portions of their debt. Isn’t he being dishonest again? How could Jesus be commending him? I have been among those who have really struggled with this parable, searching from many different angles to try to make sense of it. Something must be missing. There must be something lost in the translation from Jesus’ first century audience, probably mostly peasants, to us middle class folks of the twentieth century.

I think there is something missing, and I think we’ve finally found it. And the story in finding what’s missing is itself a pretty interesting story, but I’ll try to keep it short. I found a paper by two men on the Internet. It’s a reading of this parable by David Landry of the University of St. Thomas (wherever that is!) and by Ben May of the University of Minnesota-Duluth Medical School. [Elaborate a bit on how found this story on the Internet.]

The key to their interpretation is to understand the missing piece from that part of the ancient world: that in those days, a person of authority like this rich man valued his honor more than his wealth. Landry and May then back their claim from a number of sources both ancient and modern.

So here’s their summary of this parable:

1. A master hears that his steward has been misappropriating funds. His honor and status in the community are threatened by the public perception that he cannot control his employees, so he resolves to save face by immediately dismissing the employee.2. The steward faces a crisis. Being a steward is the only thing that he knows how to do, but the fact that he now has a reputation for dishonoring his master means that he will not be able to secure employment anywhere else as a steward. He tries to get himself out of trouble by restoring his master’s honor and salvaging his reputation as a good, loyal steward. He forgives a portion of the amount owed by his master’s debtors. People would assume that the steward was acting on the master’s orders, so these gestures would make the master look generous and charitable in the eyes of society. The prestige and honor gained by such benefaction would far outweigh the monetary loss to the master.

3. The master hears what the steward has done and praises him for his actions since his honor has been restored. Moreover, the steward is now in a position either to keep his position with this master or to secure one elsewhere, since his reputation for loyalty and good service has been recovered.

Now, does this parable make more sense? The steward hasn’t cheated his master in response to his crisis. He’s made a move to help restore the honor of his master in the community, an honor he had smudged by his previous dishonesty. We can see why his master commended him.

But I think we should look even a bit deeper and a bit wider to see why Jesus commends him. At least he isn’t commending dishonest actions. But exactly what is Jesus commending? Simply his shrewdness in the face of his actions? I think it’s a bit deeper matter if we look a bit wider to the surrounding context of this parable. All the way to the Parable of the Good Samaritan we have been talking about compassion. Jesus’ emphasis on compassion peaks, then, in the parable that comes right before this one, the parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus would have us see that the reigning reality in God’s household is the kind of compassion we see in the father who welcomes home his prodigal son.

The parable of the unjust steward follows immediate after the Prodigal Son, and what is the steward using to repair the reputation of his master? Acts of apparent compassion. He is making it look like his master is having compassion on his debtors. Being creative in making the master look good, after he had previously made him look bad, is what the master is commending. And Jesus is presumably commending the actions of this steward to the extent that he is using acts of compassion. If this guy can use acts of compassion in such a self-serving way, then how much more should ‘children of light’ be able to use acts of compassion.

I’d like to close by simply noticing how much compassion has been featured in the responses to our national crisis. If ever I were to pick out the epitome of “children of this age,” a good pick might be those involved in the entertainment industry, sports included. Baseball players, in recent years, have been painted as selfish, money-grubbing characters; and yet in the first day of a fund for special donations by major league baseball players, they donated $10 million! And did you see the special on Friday night? Musicians and movie stars donated several hours of their time to hold a telethon for the relief efforts. Some of the biggest stars in Hollywood were sitting at the telephones for hours taking pledges.

I mentioned last week that there is much I will be uncomfortable with in our responses to this terrible tragedy, but we also need to commend all the responses that fall in the category of showing compassion. Perhaps they can even eventually overwhelm the other kinds of responses. Compassion thus far has certainly been the silver lining in the dark cloud of this national crisis. We can keep praying that God’s Holy Spirit of mercy might continue to shine in the darkness. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, September 23, 2001

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