Holy Stewardship – The Rev. Michelle Meech
September 18, 2022
Today’s readings are not fun or comfortable readings. They don’t exist to make us feel warm and fuzzy on the inside. They are designed to challenge us and to help us see the difference between that which is passing away and that which shall endure. The focal point, of course, is always the Gospel. Today we have this curious parable from Luke – the Parable of the Unjust Steward. Because of the title, we are set up to be judgmental of the steward with the word “unjust.” So, let’s open this up a bit.
A steward is an estate manager… kind of like today’s property managers that take care of rental properties on behalf of absentee owners. And this steward is fired. Why? His employer has been receiving complaints. The text tells us that the steward has no other way of earning a living, so he decides to find a way to ensure his survival – he gets friendly with the debtors by helping them to cheat his employer. For this, he is not chastised, as we might expect, but commended by his former employer for “acting so shrewdly.”
Jesus then tells us that those who are distrustful in a little will be distrustful in much and those who are trustworthy in a little are trustworthy in much. The common reading in Western scholarship is to judge the steward by this standard. The steward acts distrustfully and, therefore, cannot be trusted with the true riches.
But Biblical scholars William Herzog and James Scott open up the parable to help us read this from a different viewpoint. The larger issue, they argue, is that the whole system is set up to take advantage of the vulnerable – the steward being the first among them. In other words, Jesus is saying, the whole system is corrupt.
The absent landowner who cares nothing about those who live on his land, manages his relationships with them through a third party – the steward. The steward isn’t paid much because it is expected that he will take a cut from the rents and moneys he collects. So, not an unjust steward but an unjust system. The peasants who live on the land become angry enough that they complain to the landowner. The landowner fires the steward in order to make a scapegoat of him. We know that the landowner has no moral issue with the steward because he ends up commending him for cheating him out of money… saying that he “acted shrewdly.”
It’s not the steward who is the focus. It’s the system that created the steward. The whole system is set up based on wealth so that money, not the God who is Love, is the medium through which the relationships are managed. We can blame the steward for not “being honest” but in a system where this person is expected to take a cut from the collected rents, is it really this person who is the issue?
This system, in other words, is serving wealth, not serving God. And this is not holy stewardship. Because you cannot serve wealth and serve God at the same time.
Holy stewardship begins at the manger, when we bring our power and our privilege and our wealth to kneel at the foot of the most vulnerable. When we use those worldly things in service to those who are marginalized and oppressed and we work to upend the system that created such inequality even though we might be one of the people who is a beneficiary of it. Wealth itself is not bad, you see. Money is energy. But we’re talking about a system built to take advantage of the people at the bottom of the system in order to keep the people at the top of the system comfortable.
When we become a disciple of Jesus, we are commanded 2 things: Love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus is clear when he gives us these commandments, that they are not separate commandments – the second one is like the first – they are interconnected. Because to love your neighbor is to love God. And to love God is to love your neighbor.
God who is Love, not wealth, must be the medium through which we understand our relationship with one another. If we attend to our relationships as though the people don’t matter but wealth does, we’re participating in a system of oppression. To serve wealth is to serve our own narrow self-interest.
But to serve God, means that we are stewards of this life, this breath that is connected to all of creation. This life force. We are called to be stewards of one another, especially when we are in positions of power. How do we use that power to life another up? How do we offer our riches in service to God, which is to say, in service to our neighbors? In service to the strangers in our midst? The poor, the outcasts, those who have no power in the systems?
Jesus wasn’t the first to say this. Jesus was trying to remind his fellow Jews of these core Jewish tenants. The whole of the Hebrew scriptures is a story about how people get lost and how God calls them back again and again, sometimes, in the imagination of the writers, getting pretty angry with the whole lot of us.
What has been striking to me, as I renew my study of Jeremiah, is how similar the ministries of Jeremiah and Jesus were. Both were messengers from God who prophesied the destruction of the Temple – Jeremiah, the first Temple (Solomon’s Temple), and Jesus, the second Temple. Both people called attention to the ways in which the worldly systems – the institutions and the society – had created oppression through greed and fear-based, xenophobic practices, causing widespread misery and the destruction of the very people they were supposed to be sustaining. Both of them faced public ridicule and ostracization because they caused people to think about the decisions they made in everyday life, which means people were inconvenienced by the challenge to their assumptions.
They both loved the world so wildly and with such deep devotion to God, that they risked their own lives speaking truth to power. Their desire was repentance, turning around… transformation of the world. To our knowledge, Jeremiah was not killed for doing this, although his life was threatened. But we do know that Jesus was killed for this reason.
And we call Jesus the savior of the world for a reason. Not because everyone needs to be a Christian. But because Jesus is always leading us to see past our self-interest and inviting us to consider ways in which we are called to change the world by adjusting our worldview. To see more like God sees, to bend our will to God’s Will by kneeling at the feet of the most vulnerable at the manger, to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world.
Jesus says, you cannot serve God and wealth. In other words, if we take our call to be a disciple seriously, we start to find it harder and harder to reconcile it with the systems we participate in. An example is Constantine. Constantine is often credited with the spread of Christianity in Europe because, as emperor of Rome, he converted to Christianity and helped to establish it as a state religion, turning the Roman Empire into the Holy Roman Empire. But, because he found the demands of discipleship to be so difficult, he refused to be baptized until he was on his deathbed. He knew that he could not reconcile how he lived with the teachings of Jesus.
We – that is, you and I – might not be making the corporate decisions at the top of the food chain, but we buy into the worldly system. When we’re at a certain socioeconomic level, we’re completely bound to it, enslaved by it. To survive in it, we often become like the steward in our story today. Even when we have privilege in the worldly system, we still feel bound to it, not wanting to risk being ostracized, not wanting to lose whatever privilege we may have. Just trying to make ends meet. And so, we tend to react negatively when a Jeremiah comes to us with words of judgment. And we treat Jeremiah as the problem. Because, after all, sometimes we’re all just trying to get by, trying to keep up with our responsibilities in this system.
So what’s the good news in all of this? I said at the beginning that these were difficult readings, meant to challenge us. So, what’s the good news? That depends on where we choose to listen and how we choose to respond.
The Good News, my beloveds, is someone like Greta Thunberg, a 19 year old young woman from Sweden who began her crusade against climate change when she was 15 in 2018 with a school strike outside the Swedish Parliament’s office. Since then, she has received hate mail and death threats. She has been trolled by extremists on her social media accounts and openly mocked by politicians.
Like Jeremiah. Like Jesus.
The question we have, as disciples is: Can we hear Greta as the prophet that she is? Can we recognize her presence as Good News? It’s sometimes hard for us, as Christians, to accept whatever privilege we have. I mean, if Jesus were alive today pointing out to us how we need to change to care for our neighbor, would we actually receive it as Good News? Or would be full of regret that we cannot change the system and so, do nothing to change our own habits. Or, perhaps, be annoyed that this person is yammering on with his metaphors and his stories about how we need to change our habits?
Let me put it another way: If we as people sitting here right now, believe that climate change is real, then what decisions, as individuals, have we made to make a difference? What decisions, as a parish, have we made to make a difference?
Can we see that the extreme weather patterns we face right now – extreme flooding in Pakistan, extreme wildfires in the Western United States, extreme drought across Western Europe, China, and the US – do we really see that these weather patterns are here because we have refused to address this both individually and collectively? And isn’t this a way that we are refusing to love our neighbor?
Can we accept someone like Greta as a Christ-like figure who is here to deliver Good News, to challenge us to curb our own addiction to the oppressive system of fossil fuels and their affect on our climate?
Holy stewardship begins at the manger, when we bring our power and our privilege and our wealth to kneel at the foot of the most vulnerable. When we use those worldly things in service to those who are marginalized and oppressed and we work to upend the system that created such inequality even though we might be one of the people who is a beneficiary of it.
The Good News is that we were given a Savior who broke annoyed and threated the powers that be, a Savior who spoke out against corruption and was mocked and threatened because of what he did, a Savior who taught us about God by telling us that all the laws and prophets were really about two simple, yet profoundly powerful commandments – Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.
The Good News is that God has never and will never give up on us. God will always send us prophets… like Greta… to tell us when we’ve gotten lost in the worldly system. Not so that we can admire them, but so that we might listen and bring ourselves and our worldly wealth again to the manger. To bend our will to God’s. To open our hearts to Love.