Dave Hall is a young man Ive known of through my boys association with Synod Youth programs back in the 1990s. He wrote a piece for Cross Light recently concerning how his experience of meeting a "down and out" in the gardens had profoundly affected him. The man was dirty, he was agitated, he may have been affected by an addictive drug. Some one youd rather not know. But the encounter so affected him he was moved to write about it and to analyse his responses.
The dishonest steward in Jesus parable is one more person youd probably rather not know. He was crook, yet he is set up as a curious role model by Jesus. What are we to make of this? It is probably one of the most difficult parables to understand. To begin, remember this parable follows on from Ch15 where Jesus is criticised for receiving sinners and eating with them. This parable confronts us with another sinner, accused crook, whose actions at the end are not condemned by the Lord. To the Pharisees nothing good could come of mixing with these people because they were essentially no good. Jesus tells a story of man who was exposed for unspecified malpractice, and faced dismissal. Instead of the expected condemnation, Jesus finds something of value to hold up before his accusers. What is it that is different?
The mans behaviour is every justification for the unpleasant modern business protocol that when a persons job is terminated, they are supervised while they pack up their desk, and then escorted off the property. Brutal, callous? Maybe management read Jesus story and vowed it would never happen to them? The man makes one last heroic "cooking of the books", by discounting every debt owed to his boss. Commentaries suggest the intention was to curry favour with the people so that, when unemployed, he could call in favours. Another view is that he moved to set up his boss. The tenants were given discounts on their debts the boss could hardly go back on that his loss of face and bad image would not be worth it. Grudgingly he realises his steward is just as good at playing hard ball as he is and he realises he has been outplayed. We do not know if the man kept his job.
So what is Jesus saying? The corrupt steward demonstrates one quality that Jesus says is missing in his followers. The man gives thought to his future and that thinking shapes his present actions. He shows a heightened awareness of the immediacy of the need to address his future, and to act upon it now. That he does so by an act of dishonesty demonstrates that in his desperation he will use whatever means he can to achieve his objective.
So the surprise of this story is that even a reprobate can teach nice people a lesson about focussed desperate behaviour when your future is in the balance. It is a surprising that Jesus leaves aside the usual examples to shock and surprise. Even someone as bad as this whom you would rather not know - can teach us something.
If Jesus was questioning the urgency of response of his people, what would he make of the way we approach our faith today? As a matter of life and death? So urgent that we adopt a "whatever it takes" approach to ministry, discipleship and the way we deploy our resources?
How do we address opportunities and challenges in our life of faith? I find in old hymns and prayers suggestions of a consciousness of the fragility of life, and the nearness of eternity. Do we have too optimistic a view of our survival, and believe we are not candidates for heaven yet? If we are so relaxed about the future we do not see an imperative to hurry, or so particular about propriety that we analyse every action, assess risks, the moment may pass us by.
In personal faith Do we live in the mind we may only have one opportunity life is not a dress rehearsal? Saying our prayers, reading the bible, daring to share faith and talk about why a relationship with God through Jesus is important things we do now, or "do it next time" list. Ask what you are leaving for another day can you afford to? Does your soul depend upon it?
As a congregation I dislike glib labels but using a few here are we "risk takers", dare we "step outside the square" and TUC have really done this daring to start JMC, or UAT? But are we also preoccupied with due process, lest we do something that is not in the regulations. A lovely story is told of the late Rev Farquhar-Gunn, who once said to an enthusiastic and impatient young minister never mind about the process we can fix that up later.
You may not want to know the shrewd steward, but he knew all about acting like his life depended on it. With what urgency do you face the next moments of your life? Please consider. Amen.