Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Dishonest Steward

I've been thinking recently about the parable of the dishonest steward. This parable is one of the most curious parts of the Bible. It gives us an example of a man doing something that would be almost universally viewed as wrong, and then commends him for setting such a fine example. The only thing I can conclude is that Jesus wasn't a capitalist.

When it comes right down to it, we value fair play more than we value mercy, and so this parable just doesn't sit right with us. The steward forgives a portion of some large debts. This may have made an immense difference to the debtors. It may have saved the family farm. "But the debt wasn't owed to him," we say. "It's not right!" Reading the parable, I can't help but think that maybe Jesus just doesn't care about that.

I was curious to see what the Church does with this, so I looked to see where it falls in the lectionary. (I think we ought to start viewing the Revised Common Lectionary as if it were inspired by God, because those people made some fantastic pairings.) The Old Testament reading paired with this parable is from Amos:
Amos 8:4-7
Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat." The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
We want to make money, and we don't want religion getting in the way of that. This must be one of those cases I've heard so much about where the prophet was inspired to see beyond his own time and offered a message for people living in North America in the early 21st century.

The psalm paired with the parable in the lectionary is Psalm 113. It ends like this:
Psalm 113:5-9
Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the LORD!
Why should it surprise us to find Jesus praising a man who cheats a rich business man and helps out the rich man's debtors? Why do we need to allegorize it?

There's something else curious going on in this parable. In Luke 16:9, Jesus says, "And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes." The logic here is nearly heretical. Drawing a lesson from the parable, just as the dishonest steward helped out his master's debtors so that the debtors would provide for him in his time of need, we should help people with our wealth (interpreters seem to universally agree that Jesus means the poor) so that when it's gone (which I take when we're dead) they will welcome us into eternal homes!
How many images of the pearly gates have you seen that picture the poor as gatekeepers?

I was looking for some interpretations of this and I happened on one that was quoting the NIV. The NIV translation of this verse reads:
I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
Strange, I thought, is the NRSV taking liberties with the translation? Or maybe it's a textual variant? Now it happens that I have an NIV-based reverse interlinear, complete with parsing information. So I looked up this verse, and under the word "received" I find "dexontai" parsed as third person plural aorist middle subjunctive. Hmmm...third person plural = "you will be welcomed"? Somebody's got a theological bias.

Looking further, I found St. Augustine trying a different spin on it. He says that if we use our wealth to help the poor, Jesus will receive our help in the person of the poor (Matthew 25). Closer, but the parable still says "so that...they may welcome you...."

Am I reading too much into this, or is Jesus teaching us something here?


Steven Craig Miller said...

To: Andy,

Maybe you could try explaining this again, since I wasn't able to understand. What liberties do you suspect the NRSV was taking?

Andy said...

Well, it turned out that the NRSV wasn't taking any liberties at all -- the NIV was. I suspected the NRSV at first when I saw that they were different (foolish, I know), but I turned out to be wrong. I must humbly admit that I latched onto the NIV's translation because I could make more sense of it. The actual text is more challenging, theologically.

Steven Craig Miller said...

Ah ... I misunderstood. I shouldn't have been so lazy as to not pull down my copy of the NIV. I see it now. Thanks!