Creekside Church
Sermon of September 22, 2019

"Remain Calm and Share Your Bananas"
Luke 16:1-13

Betty Kelsey

 

Did anyone’s eyebrows twitch when Larry read the text about the crooked steward? They should have! There’s something very unsettling about a master commending a steward for his crooked business dealings!

The story is that a rich man gave management of his estate to a steward, with the authorization to transact all business for him. As far as the master knew, everything was going well and he trusted the steward with his affairs. Then he started hearing a little rumor here and there in the marketplace that made him question his steward. Crooked dealings could ruin the rich man’s reputation and estate! He immediately called in the steward, fired him, and demanded an accounting of all business dealings and an audit of the books.

The steward’s chief concern was not regret for mishandling the Master’s wealth, but for his own survival. What was he to do now that he was fired? He knew he wasn’t strong enough for physical labor and he had no intention of becoming a beggar. So he devised a plan that would benefit his own future. One by one, he called in each of his Master’s debtors and asked them what they owed him. In one case it was one hundred jugs of olive oil, and he reduced it to fifty. In another it was a hundred sacks of wheat, and he reduced it to eighty. He hoped by making friends of the debtors they would support him later when things got tough.

This scheme was wrong on two counts. If he was overseer of his master’s accounts, why didn’t he know how much the debtors owed? Looks like his incompetent bookkeeping was reason enough to be fired. And second, why was he forgiving debts that were owed to his Master, not him?

Having taken care of his plan, the steward reported back to the Master. This is where the parable gets weird. Instead of demanding a copy of the audit or becoming unglued that the steward gave away a chunk of his wealth, the master commends him for his ingenuity and initiative. The master praised the crooked steward!

I can hear the disciples say, “Wait a minute, Jesus. This doesn’t jibe with your other parables. You want people to be honest, right? The steward doesn’t deserve praise for this crooked mess. Surely you made a mistake.” Heretofore the disciples had received parables with a discernable truth, sort of like an “aha.” This one was shocking, wrong!

When I chose this text from the lectionary, I knew I chose a tough one. I read commentaries and sermons to see how others interpreted it. But every commentary I read called this the most puzzling, difficult, confounding, and unorthodox parable of them all. Lloyd Ogilvie says, “There is no parable with as many enticing dead-end possibilities as this one.” Jesus left enough ambiguity to make us deliberate and wrestle with its meaning. So, hang on and let’s see where this study takes us.

It’s possible that even Luke struggled to understand Jesus’ meaning, because it appears he attempted to explain it three times. 1) Verse 8 in The Message says, “The Master praised the crooked steward because he knew how to look after himself (NRSV says “acted shrewdly”). Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits.” Nah! I don’t think Luke was satisfied with that, so he spiritualized it a bit. 2) Verse 9 says, “I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival . . . and not just complacently get by on good behavior.” 3) Then thirdly, in verses 10-13 he added Jesus’ discourse on honesty and wealth. “If you’re not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store? No worker can serve two bosses . . . You can’t serve both God and the Bank.”Some commentators go a different direction. Here are two.

  • First, one reason the Master may have commended the steward relates to the aspects of honor and shame in their culture. “By forgiving the debt of the two tenants, the steward would have brought honor to the Master (i.e., showing mercy) and at the same time provided an opportunity for the tenants to restore their honor within the community (i.e., now debt-free).
  • Or second, the steward may have regularly inflated the debt owed in order to skim his part off the top. When he was caught, he simply reverted to the actual debt so it would appear as a gift.But why would Jesus tell this story? What’s the redeeming lesson to be learned?

The author of “Shrewd Christians” thinks Jesus is saying that we can manage possessions and money in ways that can lead to honoring God. Being “shrewd,” in this case, means using what we have for God’s purposes, rather than squandering what we have for selfish gain. That kind of “shrewdness” requires knowing what rules your heart, and knowing who you serve. Lloyd Ogilvie, former chaplain of the U.S. Senate, met one of America’s most successful businessmen on a cross-country flight. The businessman had risen from a humble background to immense wealth. Ogilvie asked him, “What’s your secret?”

“Shrewdness!” he replied. He went on to say that every waking hour he spent thinking, scheming, planning, developing and putting deals together. In everything he tried to be completely honest. Ogilvie couldn’t help but admire his single-mindedness and mused, “What could happen if the people of God put the same sort of “shrewdness” to work for the kingdom of God.”

Jesus is concerned with our relationship to wealth and how that affects our relationships with others. Perhaps in the moment of desperation the steward was able to use his financial savvy to make friends rather than enemies. Working Preacher suggests that while “he once acted in a dishonest way to enrich himself, he now acts to enrich others and thereby establish a relationship of mutual benefit.”

Another writer says Jesus is conveying the idea of a just steward rather than an unjust one. “The unjust steward saw his master’s resources as a means of personal enjoyment and advancement. But Jesus wants his followers to be righteous stewards. If we understand that everything we own is a gift from God, then we realize that God is the owner and we are God’s stewards. We are to use the master’s resources to further the master’s goals, not our own. We are to be generous with our wealth and use it for the benefit of others, because as Jesus said, 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.”

I give kudos to the commentator who looked beyond verse 13 and saw a fuller context. Verses 1-13 are the parable and Luke’s explanations. But verses 14-15 add:

“When the Pharisees, a money-obsessed bunch, heard him say these things, they rolled their eyes, dismissing him as hopelessly out of touch. So Jesus spoke to them: “You are masters at making yourselves look good in front of others, but God knows what’s behind the appearance.”

You see, the Pharisees were hanging around to see if they could catch Jesus in some infraction of the law. Instead, Jesus caught them. One writer suggests that Jesus played a joke on them. It looked like Jesus was talking to the disciples, but the message was really for the Pharisees who were hanging around. The Pharisees prided themselves for being shrewd and righteous, always looking out for themselves while trying to catch a law breaker, especially Jesus. Jesus tells us, “If you’re honest in small things, you’ll be honest in big things; if you’re a crook in small things, you’ll be a crook in big things. You can’t serve God and wealth.”

Melissa Bane Sevier adds, “Jesus doesn’t say it’ll be easy to do, this finding a balance [between God and money]. It will likely take a lifetime. but it’s worth the work of balancing. It’s worth the spiritual act of seeking money’s proper place in our lives and souls.”

Let me reread a part of the offertory statement Larry read this morning:

We have both the power to buy and the power to give.
The power we have is a gift from God.
We choose to give generously in the spirit of Christ.

The power we have is a gift from God. We choose to give . . . That’s the just steward Jesus is talking about. In a backward kind of way, it’s what this parable is all about.

Let me close with an insight from Anne Lamott. Anne tells the story of an experience in San Diego. On a bulletin board she saw a photo of Koko the Gorilla, who lives at the San Diego Zoo. Above it was a sign that read, “Mantra for the American Jungle: Remain calm and share your bananas.” It reminded her of Mother Teresa, talking about how in America we have this terrible spiritual poverty. In India, she said, you’ll see somebody in the gutter with a banana, and he’ll break it into thirds to share it with other people. In America, we stockpile our bananas so we have a bunch of them. Then we stuff the bananas in our mouths as fast as we can and come up with ways to make them ripen faster so we have more, more, more. When you do God’s work you just show up and love and serve. Greedy thinking doesn’t really lead to a lot of spiritual happiness.” Take Koko’s advice. Remain calm and share your bananas. Go take care of God’s other children.

 

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