Forgiving extravagantly

The Dishonest Steward

Luke 16:1-13

Jesus is in the middle of telling a series of parables about finding that which once was lost – parables of the lost sheep, lost coins, a lost son, all of which were easy to understand and cause for rejoicing – when he launches into yet another story, this time about a rich man’s steward caught with his hand in the till, and once again, we are set back on our heels and left to wonder:

Did he really just say what we think he said?

Did Jesus really just lavish praise on a thief, on a crooked manager, on a cheat?

And did he really just instruct his disciples – did he instruct us – to live by sly cunning in order to get ahead?

When you listen to Luke, it sure sounds that way.

The Parable of the Dishonest Steward – that’s what this story is called. It’s also called one of the most problematic parables in the Gospels, because the message is mixed and makes us feel … uncomfortable.

It’s the story of a steward, a manager of a rich man’s estates. The rich man hears that the steward was cheating him … we don’t know exactly how, other than the fact that the steward was squandering his master’s property. The rich man is royally upset by these reports – for who wants to hear that someone you trusted, somebody you put in power, is wastefully throwing away your money?

Squandering, remember, means to be wasteful … reckless … decadent. But its first definition is to be extravagant … which can be both positive and negative. As we hear this story, we need to remember: The main charge against the steward is that he is extravagant …

At any rate, when the rich man learns of this, he hauls the steward in and says, a la Donald Trump, “You’re fired! Give me an account of all you’ve done, and get out.”

The steward reacts as any of us would, with great dismay and extreme worry. “What am I going to do?” he asks himself. “I can’t dig (like all those poor people over whom I’ve had authority for all these years). And I refuse to beg – that’s too just too shameful.”

So the steward thinks for a while, and then he goes right back to what he’s been doing all along: He becomes extravagant again.

He calls in all those who owe money to the rich man and asks, “How much do you owe my master?”

[Now here’s something to think about … why would the steward, the man charged with keeping the accounts, not know how much each person owed? Could this be the reason he’s being fired? Not because he’s stealing, but because he’s stupid? A good steward should know these things off the top of his head … he should at least have some books, an accounting … he should be ready for an audit, at the drop of a hat. That’s what good stewards do … they do more than keep an eye on the business. They run the business. But not this steward. He’s been so extravagant with the master’s business that he doesn’t even know what’s going on!]

So he asks the first person he calls in: “How much do you owe?” The peasant says, “One hundred jugs of olive oil.” Now, my friends, you know that olive oil is expensive, right? Good olive oil runs up to six times what regular vegetable oil costs. So if this man owes 100 jugs of olive oil – gallons and gallons of it – he’s probably in hock to the master for the rest of his life! He’s an indentured servant and owes everything – every teeny, tiny thing of his life – to the rich man. There’s no way he can get out of this debt – because that’s how the system was designed.

And what does the steward do? Does he demand payment? No. Does he threaten the man (which is probably what the peasant was expecting; after all, this steward is the rich man’s representative, which gives him life and death power over the peasant …)? So does he do that? No.

Instead, he says, “Write down 50 jugs …” Half of what you say you owe. Which suddenly makes the debt reasonable. Which gives the peasant hope that one day, perhaps, he can get out from under this brutal debt, meaning his children and grandchildren won’t have to suffer from it as well …

Every person the steward calls in finds their debt cut … some by half, some by one-fifth …

In order to make his own life better, in order to make the peasants who probably have feared him forever now think better of him, perhaps even like him, the steward acts extravagantly, forgiving their debts by slicing them down to size.

Oh, he doesn’t erase the debts. That would be going too far – if he did that, the rich man would come back and say, “No way. I won’t stand for this.”

But by cutting each person’s debt to a reasonable size, by forgiving the outlandish portions of those debts, the steward makes the rich man look good. He makes himself look good. His own future suddenly looks good again, too – remember, the rich man ends up praising the steward.

All because, in sheer desperation, out of unbridled terror and unremitting pride, the steward forgave debts.

It’s important here to step back a bit and examine what this means to Jesus. Before Jesus told his disciples this parable, he taught them how to pray. In what we now call the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to say, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who owe us.” Translated another way: As we forgive everyone who is indebted to us. This is not how we translate the prayer. In the King James Version, we say, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And in the so-called “modern” translation, we say, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” But neither translation is accurate, for in both Matthew and Luke’s gospels, Jesus says, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who are in debt to us.” Jesus balances our sins against others’ debts … So Jesus is telling us, right in the prayer he taught us, that we are to forgive debt. Which is exactly what the steward did: He forgave debts.

• • •

I have a friend, a theologian, who spent more than a year working with this text. She thinks that the key to today’s Gospel is forgiving those who owe us.*

It doesn’t matter, Dylan says, how the steward got to that forgiveness, or even why he forgave. It doesn’t matter that he was only forgiving a portion of the debt, or that the debt wasn’t even owed to him.

What matters is that he forgave.

Forgiveness

That is what Jesus wants us to do: Forgive.

Jesus tells this parable, and praises this steward because, even though the steward did it for all the wrong reasons, he still showed mercy. He still forgave people.

And forgiveness is key to how we are called to live as disciples of Jesus. Not to hold on to debts, but to let them go.

How many times have we been in situations where a little forgiveness would go a long way … and we didn’t do it? And the situation got worse?

How many times have we been in situations where we didn’t feel in the least inclined to forgive, but we did so anyway, even just a little, with only half our hearts, and life was better, for us and for the people we forgave?

Jesus is very clear about this: We are called to be extravagant in our forgiveness. To squander our forgiveness. To scatter it hither and yon, when we want to, and when we don’t want to.

It simply does not matter how we get to forgiveness.

It does not even matter why we forgive.

It only matters that we forgive …

… the big things that get in the way of us living our lives fully devoted to God and God’s beloved creation: those times when our loved ones hurt us … when our friends fail us … when we are forgotten … when we are not appreciated …

… and the little things as well which, taken on their own may not mean much, but put together with all those other little things – squeezing the toothpaste from the middle … tossing our clothes on the floor … leaving dirty dishes in the sink … when those things combine to suddenly make our lives seem like nothing but an uphill struggle …

… all of these things and more …

… we are called to forgive.

Extravagantly.

With as open a heart as we can muster, at that given moment, with that particular person.

There’s a reason Jesus tells this particular story; there’s a reason Jesus showers praise on the steward.

Not because he was the best example out there.

But because even though he was a lousy example … he was dishonest, he wasn’t paying attention, he squandered his boss’ money … even though he wasn’t someone we want to emulate ourselves, he still managed to forgive.

Extravagantly.

And if someone as incompetent and dishonest as this steward can manage to do this, Jesus says, how much more can we – we who are his disciples, we who are children of the light – how much more can we forgive?

If the steward can be extravagant in his forgiveness, for all the wrong reasons, how much more can we be extravagant in our own forgiveness, for the right reasons?

“It boils down to the same thing,” my friend Dylan the theologian says. “Deluded or sane, selfish and/or unselfish, there is no bad reason to forgive. Extending the kind of grace God shows us in every possible arena … can only put us more deeply in touch with God’s grace.”

Even in the darkest of times, we who are children of the light are always called to forgive, and to do so extravagantly.

That’s really what Jesus wants to teach us today.

Amen.

* I am deeply indebted to Sarah Dylan Breuer’s exegesis, found sarahlaughed.net, http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2007/09/proper-20-year-.html, and http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2004/09/proper_20_year_.html.

A sermon preached on 19 September 2010, Christ Church, Millwood, Va.

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