Grace only works on those it finds dead enough to raise. — Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus
We’ve heard maybe the toughest parable in the whole of the scriptures today. A shifty steward has been ripping off his boss; his boss finds out, and sacks him. Before it’s too late, the shifty steward fraudulently reduces the amount his boss’s clients owe him. Not only do the clients think he’s a great bloke but his boss praises him too. And Jesus says to us, Be like him! What on Earth?
I’ve heard that the great St Augustine once wrote about this parable, saying Jesus really oughtn’t to have said that. Or words to that effect. (Actually, what he said was in Latin, so it was much more profound.)
So let’s see what we can make of this parable.
First thing, and it’s really important to understand this: it comes straight after the parables in Luke 15 about lost things, the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost sons. Why did Luke put it here?
Here’s one reason: one word. That word is ‘squander’.
Now, I can go for weeks without saying ‘squander’. I’ve got nothing against the word, it just doesn’t come up that often. It was like that for Luke too. He only uses it twice: firstly in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, who squanders his inheritance; and in the very next parable, the Parable of the Shifty Steward, who fraudulently squanders his master’s money. Coincidence? I think not.
Let’s try and draw some more connections between these two parables.
The father in the prodigal story is benevolent. Kind. Generous, more generous that I would be if one of my sons approached me for his cut now. He allows his ungrateful son to make his own way in the world. On the other hand, the master in the steward tale is all business. The steward has been ripping him off? Get rid of him, good riddance to bad rubbish!
The prodigal ends up in the pits once he’s squandered his father’s money. He’s feeding pigs, a loathsome, demeaning job for a Jew. The steward is also facing a lean time after squandering his master’s money. He’s going to get the sack! What can he do?
The prodigal works out what to do. He’ll return home as a servant; he’ll tell the old man he’s no longer fit to be called a son. The steward also sees a way through: he’ll have a closing down sale. So the steward discounts the debts that people owe his master.
Surprisingly, the father welcomes the prodigal home not as a servant but as his son. He puts a ring on his finger and gives him a new robe to wear. He gets a feast ready for everyone to celebrate.
Also surprisingly—perhaps even more surprisingly still!—the master only has admiration for his shifty servant.
Both of these stories are parables of grace. It’s easier to see how it works in the Parable of the Prodigal Son: the father is the giver of grace, and so we associate him with God, the Source of all grace.
But how does grace work in the Parable of the Shifty Steward? If grace comes through the father in the Prodigal Son, who does it come through in the Parable of the Shifty Steward?
It’s Shifty himself who is the giver of grace in this parable.
Let’s see what he does:
He discounts the debts that various clients have not paid. They may be people who are slow to pay their debts, who don’t care if they keep the master waiting for his money. Or they are poor, and can’t afford to pay off their debt. Whatever, they jump at the chance to finalise their bills with a discount. They are very grateful to Shifty for his gracious (though fraudulent) offer.
What about the boss? Well, we could say this: he may have been looking at having to write these debts off. If so, he might have been glad to receive fifty or eighty cents in the dollar. If we look at it this way, the shifty steward was doing the master a favour too.
I’m not suggesting that we see the shifty steward as God. But we could see him as Jesus.
Hang on, you may say, but the shifty steward wasn’t at all respectable! Well, Jesus wasn’t respectable either.
Remember, this parable comes straight after three parables about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and two lost sons. And Luke (15.1–2) tells us just why Jesus told those parables:
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
They are scandalised that Jesus welcomes sinners. So What Does Jesus Do? He tells stories about how God welcomes sinners.
I mean, Jesus’ reputation was already down the tubes. It really was. What else do you expect from someone who said the last would be first, that prostitutes would enter God’s kingdom ahead of people like us, who enjoyed partying with all and sundry, and who would die a wretched death on Calvary, deserted by his friends? But all this was the way that grace flowed through him to others.
Where are the takeaways for us?
The main one is this: grace doesn’t flow through us when we emphasise our moral stand. Grace flows through us the way it flowed through the shifty steward, who is an image of Jesus:
By forgiveness: he (at least partly) forgave the debts of those who weren’t going to pay anyway.
By building relationships: he hoped that they would make a place for him in their lives when the master finally kicked him out.
By being committed to find a way through: he kept his eye on the goal and kept moving forwards. He was falling big time, and he found a way to bring life—to others as well as to himself.
The shifty steward was facing a grim future, and so are we. We are facing the greatest challenge ever faced by humanity, and it is our fault. Just as the steward’s problems were his fault. You may have guessed: I’m speaking of human-induced climate change. At this time, that is the very context in which we find ourselves.
Up to now, we’ve been looking at the parable’s context in Luke’s Gospel. Now, I want to look at the context of today in what I have to say from here on. I’m doing that only because we can’t ignore it.
Two days ago, there was a global climate strike which the President of the Uniting Church, Dr Deidre Palmer, endorsed. Over 20000 people marched in Brisbane, while over 300000 people marched across Australia. More than four million marched across the globe.
We know what is happening. The planet is heating up—last July was the hottest July ever recorded globally. If you are aged under your mid-thirties, you have never know a below-average global monthly temperature in your entire life.
Weather events are becoming more severe, more destructive. The planet is literally burning, including here in our own state of Queensland.
People speak of Earth Overshoot Day. This year, we used up all the resources we could replace on 29 July. From 30 July we started to use more resources than the planet could regenerate in a year. Earth Overshoot Day is getting earlier year by year. We’re in a global emergency. To illustrate that, let’s look at past Earth Overshoot Days:
1970 29 December
1980 4 November
1990 11 October
2000 23 September
2010 7 August
2019 29 July
At this rate, we’ll be into the first half of the year around five years from now.
Oh, but that’s only Earth Overshoot Day. In 2019, Overshoot Day in Australia was 31 March! We can’t keep on going this way.
We know why we as Christians need to be involved: God is the Creator, and we are undoing God’s handiwork. We have a responsibility. We are the stewards of the Earth, but we are like the shifty steward. We rob the Earth of its resources. We do not allow grace to flow through us to the Earth.
But how we are to be involved?
Of course, we can Reduce—Reuse—Recycle. There is lots of good advice around these days for what to do, and we should be putting it into practice as far as we can. And then challenge ourselves to take up the next step. And the next.
The churches need to be advocates for the Earth to a government that is failing to take the climate crisis seriously. That may mean that some may be involved in further civil disobedience and even get arrested. Some among us here have taken that step. (Remember: almost everyone, including Jesus, is arrested in the New Testament.)
I haven’t forgotten about the shifty steward! Maybe he can give us some help in what to do.
He forgave debts; forgiving debts as he did would be a good beginning: for example, rich nations can forgive the debts of developing nations so that they can prioritise renewable energy.
Like old Shifty, we could build relationships with other people. Now that takes a high degree of humility, and a willingness to listen. There are plenty of people of good will who we can join with in common cause. Not all are people of faith; some are followers of other faiths. No matter. We’re on the same side!
And also like Shifty, we must be committed to find a way through. We are called to keep on seeking justice, and we may upset some people as we do that. But the Earth is worth saving. God has only given us one planet to care for.
These are some of the ways we might step into the flow of grace, whoever we are. We may be like the upright father of the Prodigal Son, or we may be more like the disreputable Shifty Steward.
Whoever we are, God’s grace can flow through us until, in the words of the prophet Amos (5.24),
justice rolls down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.