The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once told a story about a make-believe country where only ducks lived. On Sunday morning, all the ducks came into church, waddled down the aisle, waddled into their pews, and squatted. Then the duck minister came in, took his place behind the pulpit, opened the Duck Bible, and read, “Ducks, you have wings, and with wings you can fly like eagles. You can soar into the skies! Ducks! You have wings!” All the ducks yelled “Amen!”… and then they all waddled home. No one flew or even tried.
In the gospel reading today, Jesus refers to us as “children of light”. Using the parable of a rascal manager, Jesus seems to be challenging us, as children of light, to see that it is time to quit “waddling.” It’s time for us to soar! Jesus wants us to be the people he praises because we saw something that needed to be done… and we did it. Jesus was sometimes dismayed that his own disciples lacked the will, the determination, and the resources to work as effectively for the Kingdom as nonbelievers worked for their own interests in the world. By implication, we are the stewards of the resources with which God has blessed each one of us.
There are many people who consider this parable the most challenging of all of the parables of Jesus. It appears that Jesus is holding up a dishonest and lazy man as a model for the Kingdom of God. When this failure of a money manager learns that he is about to be fired, he further defrauds his master of rightful collections from his creditors in order to gain friends… and a possible next job. But when the master discovers this latest treachery, rather than throw the scoundrel in jail, he commends him! Jesus then uses this crook as a positive example for Christian living.
I don’t think that Jesus is actually commending or encouraging dishonesty and fraud, for we know from other sayings that he did not condone dishonesty. But Jesus was not averse to using unsavory characters in his parables. This unjust steward is not the only example. He used a crooked judge refusing a widow’s plea as a parable about prayer. Jesus illustrated commitment to the Kingdom of God with a dishonorable real estate investor who purchased a field after he found buried treasure on it, and presumably without disclosing that new fact to the seller of the land. And in the parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids, which illustrated the need to be ready for the coming of God, the five “wise” bridesmaids refused to share any of their oil with the others—not a great example of generosity or sharing!
I suspect that Jesus uses these characters to illustrate positive aspects of his message because they made his parables ring more true to real life. Or maybe Jesus wanted to unsettle our minds, like a plow to the soil, in preparation to receive the seeds of a new harvest—a new way of seeing things. Or maybe he was reminding us that even the most unlikely person can still have redeeming qualities and potential, just as the most appealing character can harbor secret failures and flaws. You can see how those on the fringes of society (that Jesus reached out to regularly)—the prostitutes and tax collectors and others who felt stiff-armed by the religious establishment—might have found some connection, some gospel hope, in these unsavory characters being used in such a gracious way in the parables.
So what was Jesus trying to teach us with this unethical money manager? Jesus is simply making the point that we must be wise and prudent in our dealings, and that how we manage small matters has implications for how we will manage more important matters. Notice that this parable directly follows the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke’s gospel (that we heard last week.) Those who listen attentively will hear echoes of the son’s actions in those of the steward. Think about it: both son and steward act wrongfully to the one in authority over them. When their actions lead them to a dire situation, each thinks about how to survive. It seems that Jesus spoke in parables to tease the minds and hearts of his listeners so that they might come to know his surprising vision of the Kingdom of God. Luke leaves it up to his community—and to us today—to discover for ourselves what it means to follow the Master and his teaching.
The parable today begins with Jesus telling of a rich man (referring to God) who was angry with his steward for “squandering his property.” I found it interesting to ponder how Jesus might tell this parable today, or how we might have a serious and fruitful reflection on its teaching. What “property” has God entrusted us with as his stewards? For instance, I am always grateful to God for entrusting me with a body that generally works and a mind that is fairly decent. (I do want to talk with God in person someday about knees—I’m not sure it was the best design…) I sense deeply my stewardship over these gifts, and know that I should be going to the gym more and reading more to develop and protect these gifts as a good steward until I return them to God in the future. The same could be said of my “soul” or my capacity to develop my relationship with God and my inner divine life. Am I being a good steward of this gift, investing the time and focus that is necessary to really know, love, and serve God? Each of us here could ask these questions.
We could also collectively think about the “property” God has given us in the gift of creation—in the earth and the entire universe. Are we as human beings being good stewards of that amazing gift? There were protests all around the globe yesterday by young people who are concerned that those going before them are not caring sufficiently for the gift of the earth. They wonder if they themselves will have clean air and water when they get older. Pope Francis has echoed that same kind of concern in many of his teachings. World leaders have expressed concern about the clear-cutting and burning of the Amazon forest in Brazil. Is the “property” we have been given by God as stewards being squandered?
When Jesus refers to us in the gospel as “children of light,” he seems to be challenging us to see that it is time to quit “waddling” like ducks (to use Kierkegaard’s image.) Instead, it is time for us to soar! Jesus wants us to be the people he praises because we saw something that needed to be done… and we did it. He says, “No servant can serve two masters.” Are we serving God as good stewards over his gifts to us… or are we not?