Monday, January 9, 2017

Re-examining the parable of the unjust steward


 
1 And he said also unto his disciples, There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods. 
2 And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship ; for thou mayest be no longer steward. 
3 Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. 
4 I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. 
5 So he called every one of his lord’s debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? 
6 And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. 
7 Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore. 
8 And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light .  (Luke 16:1-8)

I was reading through this parable and I noticed some things that I hadn’t noticed before. 

First it came to me that the debts the steward forgives might represent sins that need repenting. (Sins are represented as debts in other parables, so this is not farfetched.)

Next, it came to me that the steward might be a stand-in for church leaders responsible for church discipline, since part of what the steward is responsible for is overseeing those who are indebted to the master.

The parable of the unjust steward comes right after the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son, and therefore might be considered to be another parable dealing with finding the lost and receiving them back.

The steward was accused of wasting the master’s goods.  It may be that the steward was allowing the forgiveness available to go unused, or he was claiming mercy liberally for himself and not extending it to others.

Someone accused the steward of wasting the master’s goods, and the master lowers the boom and asks for accounts from the steward as a means of finding out the facts, along with a blanket condemnation that the steward will be out of the position regardless.

When the steward realizes he will be cast out of the stewardship and he can’t dig or he’s ashamed to beg, it may be that he’s realizing how dependent he really is upon his master. Without his master, he is nothing.  All the power and authority he thought he had, all the riches, didn’t really belong to him.  (Likewise, without the mercy and atonement of God, church leaders are themselves nothing.) 

In the process of studying his master’s financial records in order to prepare to give an account of his actions, the steward discovers the way he can make things better for himself.  So he goes through the accounts of who is indebted and forgives parts of the debts in order to gain their goodwill. His plan is that the debtors’ gratitude will inspire them to help him in his coming difficulties.  He also reasons that partially forgiving the debts will bring honor to his master as a merciful man in a way that can’t be argued with or undone.

The master can’t complain about the steward of partially forgiving debts without making himself appear stingy and ungenerous to the debtors in comparison to the steward.  So the master lets the steward’s acts stand as valid.

This is also in line with one of Jesus’s pronouncements else’s where:

Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.” (John 20:23)

One features in this parable is that the steward forgave part of the debts owed the master in order to ingratiate himself with them and increase the honor of his master as a merciful man.  The message is that stewards over the household of God should forgive part of the sins immediately so as to increase the honor of God as a God of mercy. 

When Jesus advises his disciples to make friends of the unrighteous mammon, He can be understood to be advising those who act as dispensers of church discipline to make friends of those who are going through the repentance process so as to help and support them along the way. 

When it says the mammon of unrighteousness may welcome Christ’s stewards into everlasting habitations after having made friends of them, that means that the initial offering of partial forgiveness generates goodwill and gratitude that helps the debtors reach for the rest of that forgiveness.  Eventually they are saved in heaven and therefore are able to welcome the steward into heaven and enjoy glory with him.

It is possible that better understanding of this parable would have done a lot to help members in the early church.  I have read that in the early church that there arose a tradition of requiring a long and painful repentance process on those who repudiated their testimony under intense persecution.   The process could last over a year, and this led to people preferring not to be baptized when young because they feared they would sin and require that painful repentance process.  This also led to people choosing to not be baptized until near death.

I personally felt this kind of mercy was extended to me when I was a debtor, and I’m very thankful for it.