Trinity 9 – The Unjust Steward

Make for yourselves friends by means of unrighteous wealth;
so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.

[Lk 16:9]

This morning’s parable is considered by many to be the hardest parable to understand of all Jesus’ parables. When the Church of England came up with a series of Old Testament lessons to accompany the ancient lectionary that we use, they also provided an alternative gospel parable for this morning.  But let’s face the challenge today and try to extract some honey for our Lord’s words.

I want to suggest a certain interpretation that comes out of the location of the placement of this gospel in the overall scheme of readings during Trinity season.  This season is about our sanctification in Christ. And over the past several weeks the readings are related to the passions of the soul, strong emotions or thoughts or feelings that come upon us – very human reactions to situations, but because we are fallen, we often respond to in a way that is destructive to the life of holiness.

Foremost is pride (Trinity 3), followed by vainglory, dejection, wrath, sloth, greed – these are the result of passions in the soul gone awry and there are only two left.  Once we deal with the ordering of these passions, God can infill us more fully with a whole range of spiritual gifts – and this is what we will look at in the weeks to come, beginning next Sunday.

According to the ancient wisdom we have been directed to reflect on the more destructive passions first, and to finish off with the least destructive passions of the soul – gluttony and lust.  Whoever formed the lectionary, suggest we deal with these two passions together, because they are both related to desires of the body, like no other passion they engage of the senses most fully: sight, smell, taste, touch. And we deal with them together because the antidote to both passions is similar.

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In today’s Epistle reading, St Paul reminds us of the movement of God’s people Israel, out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. St Paul uses this Old Testament history as a kind of allegory of our movement out of slavery to sin to the new life in Christ.

The fault that Paul recalls is that “the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play”.  This is a veiled way of referring to their decision, when Moses was delayed on the holy mountain, to make a golden calf, the people then made a big feast to celebrate. In worshiping the beast they became beastly, less human, they ate and drank excessively, and engaged in sexual immorality. St Paul says they were overthrown in the wilderness, and that with most God was not pleased.

“Now these things were written for our instruction.” Not everything goes. We are given great responsibility to take care in the fulfilment of our desires in such a way that we are not destroyed by them.

In the modern Church we have great debates about where the line is crossed, about how narrow is the way (and I am unconvinced by modern arguments that suggest any change), but all agree that there is a line, that there must be a narrowing, that not everything we might want leads to life.  In Proverbs we are warned: There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end are the ways of death. [14:12]  Our own judgement about what seems right is not always a sure guide to what isright.  The Epistle is a warning to us that there are dangers in the spiritual life from excess in food and drink and from sexual immorality.

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T09 - Marinus van Reymerswales-gemaelde-entstand-um-15
Parable of the unjust steward, Marinus van Reymerswaele (1540)

In the Gospel, Jesus tells us a parable about a rich man who calls his steward or manager to account because he was wasting his possessions. I want to suggest to you that every one of us is a steward of the gifts of God. And it doesn’t take a lot of self-reflection to agree that every one of us is in some way wasting God’s possessions.

We get some sense of this in the debates about being environmentally friendly.  I think we would all agree that it is very hard to live in this life in the West in a way that is as green as we would want – we are contributing to the pollution of the planet: we buy more than we need, we throw out more than is sound – we can try to do our part, and we should, but we will never quite get it right until we radically change our lifestyles.

But I would like us to consider another kind of wastefulness, which is related – that is, of the grace that is poured out on us from above, and how we are using that. For example, God pours his love into our hearts and we can’t quite seem to spend it without wasting it. We are given desire by God to reach out to Him and to love our neighbour, and we satisfy that desire in ways unrelated to its true end.

God gives us a body with desires for food and sexual desire for procreation and for the uniting of married couples in a bond of love – and we are confused in the satisfying of these desires. The love poured into our hearts by God to lead us to enjoy him, and to enjoy our neighbour, is spent in ways that cannot meet the deep needs of our souls.  We are all surely unjust stewards and we will be called to account.

So what does Jesus suggest in this parable?  He never counsels us to despair, but rather, he gives us good news!  What is it?

And the manager said to himself, “What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me?”

This is a remarkable thing, if you think about it! God has given us life, he has given us love, he has given us everything we possess, and he watches to see how we deal with it in this life. That is a lot of authority to be given!

The unjust steward comes up with a plan – so that when I am removed from management, they may receive me into their homes. He calls the master’s debtors and gives them all a good deal – making them pay back some and letting them keep the rest of the debt for themselves.

Now obviously Jesus is not counselling us to be fraudulent.  So there must be some more hidden meaning in this parable he gave us.  What follows is an interpretation that suggests we view the debtors not as individuals outside ourselves, but the experience we have within our own soul.

The desires of the body are like the debtors in the parable.  For example, when you feel hungry, it is as though you owe your body some food. The depth of hunger we feel in our souls – for satisfaction, for contentment, for comfort – is more than can be satisfied by food alone, in fact we are made that way by God.  But if I we try to completely satisfy our hunger with food, we will be wasting some of the God given “hunger” or “desire” or love which is meant to lead us to seek out God.  And it is similar in the case of sexual desire.  [That our desire for God and desire for food are connected, can be proved by the fact that if we are hungry and in the middle of preparing a supper, and we are suddenly called to an emergency to help someone, we don’t hesitate – love compels us to act and we completely forget about our hunger (it may be for hours on end) until what we can do to help is finished.  Or if we become really engaged is some work that we are passionate about, we can completely forget about food for hours.  Or St Paul counsels couples to obtain from sexual relations from time to time by agreement for fasting and prayer, that is to redirect the same desire for one another physically to a desire for God spiritually (1 Cor 7:5).]

In this interpretation, Jesus is using the example of an unjust steward doing business deals to describe how we truly are already making decisions day-in-day-out, moment by moment, about how we spend desire, or love, which is what God is giving us to use for His glory. Desire from God becomes in us unrighteous wealth if we spend it inordinately on food or sexual intimacy.

T09 - Temperance - GiottoDiBondone 13c
Giotto Di Bondone 13c
T09 - Temperance - Ambrogio Lorenzetti 14c
Ambrogio Lorenzetti 14c

Jesus concludes by commending the unjust steward, not for his fraud, but for his attempt to try to satisfy the debtors and his master.

In relation to our own desires, I think he is telling us to be temperate!  That is, to respond to the bodily desires that come upon us, by not totally satisfying them in earthly ways.  Make deals:  I won’t give as much attention to food as my body may demand (gluttony is: too much or too often or too delicately (being overly picky)); I will respond to sexual desire in a chaste way (which means different things if we are single or married).

Following this interpretation, the parable concludes with a call to deal in this life with bodily desires in such a way that when they fail, in other words, when you die, they, the angels, will receive you into the eternal dwellings, into heaven.

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You might ask why does it really matter?

  • We and others are hurt in the present if we satisfy these desires intemperately (our bodies can suffer physically and our wills can be crippled, hearts hardened);
  • It matters because intemperance hinders our growth in Christ. It short circuits the stretching out of desire to lead us back to God, or to the true love of our neighbour as ourselves.
  • It matters, because God is waiting for us to show self-control, so he can pour out more fully his spiritual gifts upon us, otherwise, we would simply redirect the new gifts to satisfying an out of order bodily desire.  He wants to entrust us with even greater riches (Luke 16:10-11 if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to you the true riches?, and see also James 4:3).

There are great books written today and in the Tradition, bringing out the Biblical insights about where are the lines, about what is the narrow way, and about how to deal with these desires of the body – about being temperate and about being chaste.  [See for example:  Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies by Rebecca Konyndyk Deyoung, who does a wonderful summing up of insights from the past and present and with very practical advice; Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity by Lauren Winner; or, from the tradition, The Institutes by John Cassian, who gathered together the insights of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and whose work is commended by St Benedict in the last chapter of his Rule.]  [One of the greatest spiritual disciplines that is commended for both these disorders is fasting, and when it comes to sexual desire, that fasting could include a fasting from images (“pluck out your eye” Mt 5:29).]

I hope we all see ourselves as unjust stewards. This is not to denigrate everyone, but simply to be honest about where we all are – we are stumbling along – and Jesus knows it.  Paul assures us this morning that there is no temptation which is not common to us all – which is surely a comfort, we are in this together.  And he says that with the temptation, God will provide the way of escape, that we may be able to endure it.  We are to struggle with all these vices and our very temptations become the place for us to grow in our faith – where we form holy habits with Jesus’ help.

Jesus has shown us on the Cross, and by his gift of Holy Communion whereby we receive continually the benefits in our souls of His once for all sacrifice, both that he has mercy on us in our earthly pilgrimage and that he knows we face an ongoing battle.  He invites us to come forward today to this feast.  He wants us to put our full trust in his forgiveness and to be cleansed by His Body and Blood.  He wants us also to receive His risen life to make us wise in managing our desire in future and to give us the strength to seek Him out with that love.

Amen.