With grateful acknowledgment to the New Interpreters’ Bible, I’d like to begin with a story from rabbinic folklore:
A man once caught stealing was ordered by the king to be hanged. On the way to the gallows he said to the governor who escorted him that he knew a wonderful secret and it would be a pity to allow it to die with him. He told the governor that he would disclose the secret to the king. He would put a pomegranate seed in the ground, and through the secret taught to him by his father, he would make it grow and bear fruit overnight. The next day the king, accompanied by the high officers of state, came to the place where the thief was waiting for them. There the thief dug a hole and said, “This seed must only be put in the ground by a man who has never stolen or taken anything which did not belong to him. I, being a thief, cannot do it.” So he turned to the Vizier who, frightened, said that in his younger days he had retained something that did not belong to him. The treasurer said that dealing with such large sums, he might have entered too much or too little. Even the king confessed that he had kept a necklace of his father’s. The thief then said, “You are all mighty and powerful and want for nothing and yet you cannot plant the seed, whilst I who have stolen a little because I was starving am to be hanged.” The king, pleased with the ruse of the thief, pardoned him.
This story is clever and engaging, and yet it is still somewhat ambiguous. The thief, fighting for his very life, acted wisely and swiftly. He engaged top officials and made them look at their own humanity. But the thief never ceased to be a thief. And in telling the story of the pomegranate seed, he may not have been being completely truthful. Yet, he is rewarded with the thing he values above everything else, his life.
This story of the thief and the magic seed is an ambiguous story. We don’t know what to make of it. Not unlike the parable we heard in today’s gospel, usually called “The Dishonest Steward.” If, while hearing this parable you struggled to understand why Jesus would tell such a story, you’re in good company. One commentator wrote: “Jesus may have used this parable to make a particular point, but no one is sure exactly what it is.”
Ambiguous may be the most positive thing we can say about this story. I want to suggest that it is in its complexity, in its confusing nature, that the redemptive message about God’s kingdom and God’s love for us is to be found. For this is the question that we need to ask about all of the parables: what is Jesus saying about the kingdom? What is Jesus saying about God’s love? What must we do to be saved? Is this not, honestly, always the question? What must we do to be saved?
The dishonest steward has the same question. What must he do to redeem himself? How can he preserve that precious gift from God, his very life? There is much that is not said in this parable. There is a backstory that includes the economics and business practices of the day, that suggests that the master was not much more honest than his steward. The steward’s behavior appears utterly self-serving and not to be commended. But in the parable, his zeal and resourcefulness is commended.
The steward in this story is on a mission. We, too, are on a mission. Each one of us. The word mission comes from missio—to send. Mission literally means our having been sent. For what have you been sent? What is your mission?
How can you use your zeal and resourcefulness to carry out your mission? What God asks of us is to be zealous, resourceful, and—in a perfect world—honest in our mission.
Some weeks my mission feels like a big important thing; other weeks I’m not so sure. How can we be faithful in little things and also in big things? The wonderful preacher and teacher Fred Craddock has written:
Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with a queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake. More likely the week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county commissioner, teach a Sunday school class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice, and feed the neighbor’s cat. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.”
In this place, the litany of little things might include: welcome a visitor, share your hymnal with someone, bring a plate of cookies to coffee hour, pull some weeds in the courtyard, change lightbulbs, help with a parish mailing. Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.
The story about the dishonest steward’s belated attempts to be faithful shows a God’s-eye view of a person. You know how when someone we love is close to death, or has died, suddenly all of their most annoying qualities either evaporate completely, or become loveable? This is what I mean by “God’s-eye view.” This is how God sees us all of the time. Even when—as I said last week—we are at our very worst.
What must we do to be saved? Our faith teaches us that we were saved long ago, by Jesus’ one act of self-giving love on the cross. And we are saved anew each day. We don’t earn salvation, we receive it and, to the best of our human ability, live it.
God adores us. God loves us even when we are misguided and confused, using God’s gifts of wisdom or prudence to serve ourselves instead of the kingdom. God’s tolerance for ambiguity and confusion is so much greater than ours. We cannot begin to understand the dishonest steward from God’s perspective any more than we can understand our own story in God’s eyes. God can sift through the complexity of how we live our lives and pick out what we have done right and where we have been faithful. Our job is not to run away from God, but to offer to God our own stories, our own mixed motives and best efforts, our divided loyalties and our confusion, and to bring them to this table, to share in this holy feast of our redemption.