Fr Duncan's Sermon of the Unjust Steward
Here is Fr Duncan’s first Sunday sermon which he preached on 18 September. When reading the sermon, please remember that Fr Duncan writes his sermons for speaking so that there may be some grammatical idioms only suited for speaking.
Luke 16:1-10 25th Sunday Trinity 14
Today’s Gospel reading is a fascinating and challenging passage. It helps to understand some of the context of the passage before we delve into its meaning.
Firstly, a little bit of early church history. As many of you will know, during the first 400 or so years of our Christian heritage, our scriptures were not complete in the canonical form we know of today. The early church was, in fact, biblically chaotic. They had a core set of Jewish texts, basically the Old Testament, and these are the texts Jesus is referring to when we hear him speak of scripture. But the texts which form our New Testament were not yet collated. There were literally hundreds of letters and books which described the life and ministry of Jesus. There were various attempts along the way to get a consensus on what should be considered as definitively scriptural, but it wasn’t until the ecumenical councils of Nicaea in 325 AD and later, Constantinople, in 381 that decisions were finally made which formulated our current bible. The bishops who attended the councils decided that a book should only be included in what we now call the New Testament if it met the following criteria:
Written by one of Jesus' disciples, someone who was a witness to Jesus' ministry, such as Peter, or someone who interviewed witnesses, such as Luke.
Written in the first century AD, meaning that books written long after the events of Jesus' life and the first decades of the church weren't included.
Consistent with other portions of the Bible known to be valid, meaning the book couldn't contradict a trusted element of Scripture.
Now this is very good news for us because the results of the work the early church did mean that we can have a sense of the gravitas, depth and importance of our current texts. But it does leave us with a problem; by the fourth century the Parable of the Unjust Steward, which we have read today was separated, from the sequence of parables which exist previously in Chapter 15. This is because the original texts had been edited. We know this because modern scholars have analysed the various original codices and have discovered inaccuracies in both translation and structure.
So that’s the history lesson over, but the reason it matters is because our passage today, which we often call The Parable of the Unjust Steward, almost certainly belongs back in chapter 15 with the far more well know parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son. Somewhere along the way in the first 381 years of the church’s history, an early scholar, most likely a monk, decided that the “lost” parables should be separated from the Parable of the Unjust Steward. On the face of it one can understand why, after all, the three “lost” parable share a common theme and the Unjust Steward just seems very odd.
But we know that Jesus taught using these parables together in a sequential form. How do we know? Because the original Greek translation of the first verse of Chapter 16 states
“and he also said unto the students”.
Of course, there are different translations of the Greek, but this is mine and I consider it authentic. It links the first three parables in Chapter 15 directly to the Unjust Steward in Chapter 16, and tells us that Jesus taught using them together.
Now we need to understand the local context. Earlier, in Chapter 14, Jesus visits the house of a local Pharisee for dinner. The Pharisees were wary of Jesus by this point, and he decided to try and tackle them head on in their own territory, so to speak. The only hint we have that there is a change from this setting is when the text tells us that Jesus was speaking to great multitudes, including Publicans and Sinners. So clearly he is no longer eating dinner in the house of a Pharisee. But the narrative is seamless – it suggests that there is a close link between the settings, and it also continues to mention Pharisees as being part of the audience.
And note that he is speaking to a group which includes Publicans and Sinners, and the theme of our passage is that of the unjust steward, which seems very relevant to an audience which includes publicans. It points to the fact that Jesus dovetails his teaching to his audience. In this parable he is addressing a wider audience that includes religious leaders, but is not exclusive to them. He also includes commoners.
And this will have thrown the Pharisees; they were used to being treated as important; they saw themselves as educated, intelligent and worthy of respect; they believed were above the unwashed masses. Yet Jesus, fed up of trying to get his message through to them directly, decides to preach to a wider group and let them look on. This becomes an ongoing theme of his ministry, he will speak to anyone, anywhere; he will mix with sinners, thieves and prostitutes; his message is for everyone.
Given the audience Jesus is talking to, it is not surprising that he speaks in financial terms. He is speaking to people who understand the importance of money. It is a currency they are fluent in and their everyday lives revolve around making it.
The parable begins with a rich man calling his steward before him to inform him that he will be relieving him of his duties for mismanaging his master’s resources. A steward is a person who manages the resources of another. The steward had authority over all of the master’s resources and could transact business in his name. This requires the utmost level of trust in the steward.
Now, it may not be apparent at this point in the parable (but is made more evident later on), but the master is probably not aware of the steward’s dishonesty. The steward is being released for apparent mismanagement, not fraud. This explains why he is able to conduct a few more transactions before he is released and why he is not immediately tossed out on the street or executed.
The steward, realizing that he will soon be without a job, makes some shrewd deals behind his master’s back by reducing the debt owed by several of the master’s debtors in exchange for shelter when he is eventually put out. When the master becomes aware of what the wicked servant had done, he commends him for his “shrewdness”. Jesus, as he explains the text in the remaining verses begins by saying, “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8). So Jesus is drawing a contrast between the “sons of the world” (i.e., unbelievers) and the “sons of light” (believers). Unbelievers are wiser in the things of this world than believers are about the things of the world to come. The unjust steward, once he knew he was about to be put out, maneuvered to collect some quick cash, cheat his master (who more than likely was cheating his customers), and make friends of his master’s debtors—who would then be obligated to care for him once he lost his job. So, the principle that Jesus is trying to convey is one of a just steward rather than an unjust one. The unjust steward saw his master’s resources as a means for his own personal enjoyment and advancement. Conversely, Jesus wants His followers to be just, righteous stewards. If we understand the principle that everything we own is a gift from God, then we realize that God is the owner of everything and that we are His stewards. As such, we are to use the Master’s resources to further the Master’s goals. In this specific case, we are to be generous with our wealth and use it for the benefit of others. Jesus then goes on to expand in verses 10–13 the principle given in verse 9. If one is faithful in “little” (i.e. “unrighteous” wealth), then one will be faithful in much. Similarly, if one is dishonest in little, he will also be dishonest in much. If we can’t be faithful with earthly wealth, which isn’t even ours to begin with, then how can we be entrusted with “true riches”? The “true riches” here is referring to stewardship and responsibility in God’s kingdom along with all the accompanying heavenly rewards. The climax of Jesus’ application is verse 13: “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (see also Matthew 6:24). If God is our Master, then our wealth will be at His disposal. In other words, the faithful and just steward whose Master is God will employ that wealth in building up the kingdom of God.
At the beginning of my sermon I explained that this parable should be read alongside the “lost” parables of chapter 15. When we consider these together in a block, we can see an arc that helps us understand God’s will for us in terms of relationships, possessions and money. So as we consider our worldly wealth we should bear in mind the story of the unjust steward. And we should consider how much we concentrate on the things of today, when we should perhaps consider how our actions will affect all our tomorrows.