Luke 16: 1-13
At the General Assembly this year, I had a proud mother moment watching online as Jamie stood up to address the Assembly on a subject he feels very strongly about – the corporate abuse of tax rules – namely tax avoidance – and the impact this can have on the poorest in the world. He spoke strongly and passionately, and, even though he stammered a bit, this did not detract from the eloquence of what he said.My niece, Joanna, is at Durham University, studying accountancy, she is in her final year and her dissertation is entitled, “Tax Avoidance: immoral or sound business?”
Jamie and Joanna are of the generation that is not afraid to tackle big issues; not embarrassed to state their opinion and speak their mind.When they see injustice they stand up and speak out.
Some people may think that tax avoidance or tax evasion (in theory different... but in reality, one may be legal, but it isn’t any less immoral) is a new problem; a 21st Century issue, but look at the reading from the Prophet Amos: written almost three thousand years ago, it could just as easily have been written for us right now. It is a cry against injustice; a plea for the poor and marginalized; it is a warning against disobedience and the breaking of the covenant with God.
The scorn Amos throws on the people who follow the letter of the law, waiting until the Sabbath is over before they go back to their regular sharp practice, without ever really embracing the heart of what God asks, no, demands, of them as his chosen people.
The Old Testament prophets wrote during times of plenty and times of famine – both physically and spiritually – and each had their place. There is a cyclical motif that runs all through the Old Testament history of the People of Israel – as a nation they were proud of their heritage; but they were also easily distracted; easily bored. If something new or different or attractive came along they very easily drifted off; introducing a bit of this and bit of that, until almost without realising it, they had drifted so far that they were no longer following or honouring God at all – they drifted into Baal and other gods with astonishing regularity.
In the whole of this book of Amos we hear of the times God has declared he is going to punish his people; each time Amos pleads on their behalf to spare them; to give them another chance; in chapter 7 Amos begs God to forgive them; and God relents, but draws a line – the plumb-line. The time has come.
The verses that immediately precede today’s reading say it all:
“The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer”
The injustice and exploitation and abuse of the poor and the ignoring and dishonouring of God cannot continue.
And God will not forget anything they have done.
It is an apocalyptic prophesy; they are to be uprooted; overtaken by a pagan nation and their time will come to an end... if you read on – the final chapter does bring reassurance for the remnant; those who truly repent, truly turn back to God will be restored, and from the ruins will come a new king from David’s line.
Fast forward 750 years to 1st C Galilee and that new king is making his presence felt. Not as some might have expected or wanted; but nevertheless, a new king he is.
Much of Jesus’ teaching is about justice, freedom and righteousness; and this teaching about the shrewd manager seems to fly in the face of what we know and understand.
And as you may guess there has been much debate around what exactly is being done here. Certainly the dishonest man is making sure he will have places to turn to when the inevitable happens.But whose money is he using? Whose money is he giving away? Is it real money? Or is he actually undoing the wrong?
One theory is that this extra discount he gives was actually the illegal tax levy he’d made to line his own pocket – it was giving his master a bad name; and the master hadn’t profited from it at all.
So by writing off these so called bad debts, he wasn’t depriving his master but restoring his good name; and enhancing his own reputation in the process.
He undid his dishonest transactions, not for any altruistic reasons but simply to protect his own skin; but in the meantime other people did benefit.
He was still serving mammon not GodHe may have been shrewd, but he wasn’t very wise.
Counter to this is the next theory, that the shrewd steward is a metaphor for Jesus... I can hear the cries! But the Steward is bad! Wouldn’t that make Jesus bad too??!!
And then answer is yes, and yes! This I found only late on Saturday – and in so many ways it answered the thing that was rumbling away in my head all week – where is the positive in the really difficult, not very appealing parable?
I found the answer in a book called Parables of Grace, by Robert Capon – a book I hadn’t known until Saturday afternoon; a book I previewed, then immediately downloaded to my kindle. A book that has totally inspired me!
There are parts of this parable that flow, and parts that seem to be much more disjointed.
The shrewd steward is losing his job, his livelihood, his life; he dies to that life and so he makes reparation for all that has gone before. His old life is gone; he restores his master’s reputation, and renews his relationship with those he does business with; he puts right old wrongs; and gives those without hope – the debtors – new hope and a clean slate to start from.
Can you hear the similarities now?
It gets better! Capon suggests our Unjust Steward is a crook – just like Jesus!
Jesus wasn’t respectable; he didn’t spend time with the in crowd; he spent time with sinners and tax collectors; he broke the Sabbath; and he died as a criminal.
Jesus’ life was not to conform; to cow-tow; Jesus life was to bring grace into the world – “grace cannot come into the world through respectability. Respectability regards only life, success, winning; it will have no truck with the grace that works by death and losing – which is the only kind of grace there is” (Capon; Parables of Grace. Ch.14)
Jesus wanted, needed to catch the world. He needed to grab our attention and make us understand.
He became sin for us sinnersWeak for us weaklings
Lost for us losers
And dead for us who are spiritually dead
He was friend to us sinners – the crooks
Because he knows us – through and through
He is the only mediator we want, or need, and trust. He was, is, like us; and in the same way that the steward was able to set those bad debtors on the right way again – settling their debts with the Master, Jesus sets us on the right way; settles our debts; and makes things right again.
We began with Amos’ apocalyptic prophesy of death, and devastation – God punishing and refusing to forgive the recalcitrant people of Israel
And we end with the Son of God – willing to become a crook so that all our debts will be wiped away forever.
And bringing us eternal hope and unending grace