The parable of the unjust steward is not new to me. I’ve spent almost my whole life as a regular church attender, hearing sermons based on scripture passages, week in and week out. I can’t say that I remember any one sermon focused on this parable, it’s not one of the favorites of preachers, I guess, but I do know the story and have known it for some time. You’ve got an accountant type who is cheating the boss; moving numbers around on the books to cover up his own embezzlement from the company. The boss finds out and gives the accountant two weeks to clean out his desk and be gone.
The accountant, who is too weak to dig and – contrary to the Temptations’ hit song – is too proud to beg, immediately considers his own dire situation and acts immediately to create for himself a soft landing. He calls the company’s debtors and gives them big breaks, thinking that they’ll remember his kindness when he is out of a job.
No surprise there. The punch line is in the reaction of the boss. Instead of coming down even harder on the accountant, the boss praises him. There are some commentators who suggest that the accountant wasn’t really cheating the boss in this. What he was doing, they argue, is merely subtracting his own cut from what the debtors owed.
I have a couple of problems with that interpretation. First, who believes that the accountant’s share of the incoming revenue would be that high? Fifty percent on the olive-oil bill and twenty percent on the wheat bill. Good night. Private law firms working on contingency would not get that big a cut. More importantly, if the accountant had really gone straight and was only cutting his own commissions, the boss might have been appropriately pleased, but his pleasure would not have been surprising.
In fact, if we would read the parable to mean that the accountant merely subtracted his own share from the accounts receivable, then the story becomes quite tame. What we have is a moralistic tale that would have fit right in with the audience’s expectation: crooked dealer gets caught red-handed, goes straight and is praised by the boss for learning his lesson and accordingly falling in to line. Now there is a story that might be told by Mr. Roberts.
It occurs to me that if an interpretation of one of our Lord’s parables makes that story acceptable for the Mr. Robert’s show, then that interpretation is wrong – way wrong. Jesus did not use parables in an effort to reinforce what his hearers already believed. He told the stories to shake his hearers – disciples and Pharisees both – to change their thinking.
(I challenge any of you readers to point to one place in the New Testament where Jesus tells a story or makes a statement and his hearers look around at each other smugly and say: “See, it’s just as we thought it was.” Ain’t gonna happen. If He’d been telling that kind of story, He’d never have gotten into the trouble that He did.)
So what is the point of the parable then? If it is not just a nice little story to show us how we can learn from our mistakes – or, better yet, from getting caught in our mistakes – then what is it?
And here is one of the reasons I embarked on this essay. Most standard translations I have read don’t do much in terms of explaining the meaning of the story. The ESV, in verse nine, says:
And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.
On the other hand, when we read Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message, we get this:
Now here’s a surprise. The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens.
Now we are talking. But it gets better:
They [the “streetwise people] are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits.
Amen to that. I have spent a career as a federal prosecutor, chasing down fraudsters and schemers in southern West Virginia, and I know just what is being said here. There are men in these little counties with little education and no real technical skill who get filthy rich and they do it by playing angles and taking advantage of every little opening the world – and the sleepy, unassuming community around them– affords. Sometimes they don’t even have to break the law. They are always just looking around, making wise judgments about their situations and the real value of things around them.
Peterson continues to translate:
I want you to be smart in the same way – but for what is right – using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.
Wow. That resonates. For one thing, this must be how the operators of the world, be they crooked or straight, look at the rest of us. They look at the nine-to-fivers commuting all around them and shake their heads and wonder how anyone could be satisfied with such an existence. No adventure. No risk. No drama. No reward. No payoff. Life becomes mere habit; mere routine. Is that all they want?
These guys I am talking about do in fact focus like a laser on the “bare essentials.” They know by hard experience and animal instinct what it takes to make things work and that is what they keep their minds set on. I remember watching a college basketball game on television twenty years ago when Coach John Wooden was doing some of the commentary. The other announcers were doing their usual thing, talking in jargon, talking about players “utilizing their physicality” and on and on and when Wooden – the greatest basketball mind of all time – got a chance to put a word in edgewise, his analysis was profoundly simple, perfectly expressed and absolutely right.
How many people are writing today and drawing big followings by telling us, in this particular or that, that we are living like some herd-driven creatures, playing the sucker to the advertisers and as a result are ruining our health and our finances and our relationships. Think of Mr. Money Mustache. How many people has he converted to the idea, expressed more directly in the movie “Fight Club” that the mass of men spend their lives:
Working at jobs they hate to get money to buy [things] that they don’t need.
Of course, Jesus here is taking about The Gospel and not directly about personal finance or diet and fitness and lifestyle. I get that. But if we have not “sold everything and given all to the poor” and most of us haven’t and never will, then personal finance, diet and lifestyle and all of that is all one piece. It’s all of a piece. Our finances, our diet, our lifestyle, it all has to do with our possession of real life or not. It is all a part of discipleship. Creative survival!
And so, and so, this parable is telling us to wake up to our own situation; to come out from under the blankets of insulation that the advertisers and society try to cover us up with.
To realize and be concerned with essentials, not appearances.