The parable that we heard today, from the 16th chapter of the Gospel of Luke is confounding.
Is Christ advocating cunning and intrigue or is his purpose entirely ironic? Attempts to read the parable in light of our own contemporary experience of economics and business practices fail to shed light on the meaning of this strange story.
Some light might be shed into this darkness by considering the economics of Israel in the first century, in which the practice of usury, or securing interest on a loan was expressly forbidden by the Law of Moses. It is likely that, unbeknownst to his master, this is precisely what the unjust steward is being described as doing and then keeping that interest as a kind of kickback.
The master has discovered this or suspects that this is what his steward is doing and is ready to take action. The steward will likely lose his job and might even find himself in prison. His prospects are pretty bleak.
Somehow the steward has figured out that his master is on to his scheming and so what he does is call in the master’s debtors and sets things right, returning the interest, and rectifying the balances owed to his master. It is the steward’s willingness to set things right, return to the debtors the money he had essentially demanded as a kickback, that impresses his master and likely saves the steward from disaster.
Christ’s observation is how quick we are to act in the face of worldly matters, such as the law, but where is our urgency concerning matters of eternal significance?
Understood this way, Christ’s parable is about the urgency of personal conversion. His point is that God’s judgment is imminent and now is the time to set things right. You can’t evade the judgment, but you may be able to evade the full impact of the consequences of this judgment. Now is the time to act to set things right.
To our modern ears this lesson sounds bleak. For many, the message of Christ is about getting us off the hook where judgment is concerned. Christ is the appeal we make to justify our belief in a God who never judges, and whose mercy is understood as essentially looking away when it comes to our wrongdoing. The Gospel is summed up as the revelation that not only is there no judgment, but there are no consequences.
Given this wishful and prevalent thinking about the Gospel, to hear that Christ actually warns us about judgment and consequences and insists that both are coming soon might provoke some measure of dissonance.
But there it all is in the Gospel of the Lord. The judgment. The consequences. The warning.
Now, let me clarify, what is at stake here need NOT necessarily be understood as Christ threatening us with eternal hell fire and damnation.
What Christ is saying is that our refusal to change, to convert, to repent, either because we are obstinate or indifferent, is not a small matter. It is better that we act to set things right rather than have God do the setting right for us. God might demand more from us that we expect or are prepared to give.
Christ is revealed as the judge, the one who is the criterion of Truth by which the truth of our lives will be measured. He is the Light that casts itself into dark places, exposing what is hidden.
When his truth measures us and his light pierces our darkness, that is the moment of judgment and the appropriate response to this moment is to repent, to make amends, and like the steward in the parable, act quickly to set things right.