It turns out Jewish law had much to say about finances and lending practices. This may be a surprise to those of us who were raised with a form of Christianity that drew a line between our spiritual selves and the physical world we live in. In Exodus 22, the Law of Moses prohibited Israel from charging their neighbors interest: “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest.”[i]
Deuteronomy 15:8: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor… open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.”
Deuteronomy 23:19: “You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent.”
Leviticus 25: “Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from [your kin], but fear your God; let them live with you. You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt...”[ii]
The Jeremiah passage that John read is astonishing. It is God who mourns, who feels deeply—especially for the poor who are trapped in cycles of despair with little hope. What a striking image this is! Jeremiah hears God cry out in lament, wondering if there is a balm in Gilead for this suffering, wondering if anyone will restore the health of the poor.
In those days, you see, faithful Jews knew charging interest was a no-no. Taking advantage of others rather than taking responsibility for the good of the community cut at the very fabric of society. It was considered usury, and the lender who would do this was considered a thief.[ii]
The reason is clear and the logic is simple, even if it is easily missed. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.” I am not a God who binds and enslaves. I am a God who frees and liberates. And since God is a liberator, a balm to suffering, God’s followers should be too.[iii]
Tragically, the economic reality of the ancient near east did not reflect the arc of the law and its bend toward justice. Case in point: Herod’s servant Marsyas. The total amount of debt in the promissory note simply included the principal and 2500 drachma interest—14% according to my calculations—in a single figure. Although it did not specify this explicitly, all parties understood what was happening. Twenty-five hundred on 20 thousand actually sounds pretty generous when you realize a $200,000 mortgage at 4% interest will cost you about 350 over 30 years, or an additional $150,000 beyond the principal amount.
According to William Herzog, these common lending practices actually bothered the Pharisees who were all-too aware of these laws about lending. They appealed to these scriptures that sought just economic practices because they were recipients of God’s mercy—the God who delivered them and us from bondage. They understood economic equality as a good thing that gave everyone a chance to live well and led to peace, so they tried to write contracts that avoided even the “dust of usury.” This is lost in Luke’s attempt to make a point.
What is important for us to understand today is that in the world of Luke’s gospel, abuse was everywhere. Creditors simply found loopholes.[iv] I tell you all this because it helps us understand this parable about the steward and the rich man and the debtors.
I’d like to suggest to you this morning that it is not entirely clear that this manager, this steward is dishonest or unjust—and Luke’s Jesus knows it. It is certainly clear that he is smart. And it is certainly clear that this parable has long been considered one of the most puzzling and difficult parables of Jesus. But what else might we notice here?
The steward of our story is caught between a rock and a hard place. He is caught between a wealthy and invisible master who bullies him, and an unhappy group of creditors who are at the master’s mercy, and who are the victims of a system that keeps the poor poor and the rich rich.
It’s too bad these stories don’t speak to our modern world, isn’t it?
The steward was the master’s representative on legal and financial matters. He signed the contracts that met the letter of the law, but also made a great deal of money for the lender. And as we’ve already discussed, these deals were always shady and unclearly written in order to circumvent the laws against usury. Sometimes the manager would include his own cut in the loan, at other times, he would add an additional off-the-record markup that the debtor would also owe. So much for the dust of usury!
Not surprisingly, the debtors hated these managers, and the masters didn’t trust them. Caught in the middle, they lived perpetually in economic insecurity. Debtors were constantly complaining to the master because they resented the usury that was common in these financial dealings. The master employed the manager because he was useful—if things went bad, the master always had the steward to blame.
The manager in Jesus’ parable is stuck. He has been accused of wrongdoing, although the only evidence we have is the statement of a witness. It reminds me a little of what we see happening again and again today as politicians and leaders so often accuse their adversaries of sins that the accusers seem to commit exponentially more than the ones they accuse. And remarkably, these tactics seem to work far more often than they should.
Verse 2 simply says charges were brought against the manager. There is no trial. There is no fact-finding. We can assume he was at least guilty of playing his part in the game, but we have no indication that he has done anything wrong otherwise. But he is the one who will take the fall.
So he asks the question, “Now what do I do? I’m too old to dig and too ashamed to beg:” His dismissal is a death sentence. He knows that if he loses his position, he will fall into the vicious cycle of poverty that he knows firsthand.
So he comes up with a plan. He renegotiates some contracts. Perhaps he is simply re-writing them to eliminate the interest that had been quietly added on. Maybe he is taking out his own cut. We don’t know for sure. But we do know that the steward’s actions serve to bend a situation in which dishonesty, distrust and coercion ruled the day toward justice.
By rewriting the contracts, the steward portrays his master as a bighearted creditor who is willing to break the rules of a rigged system. They still owe him the principal, but now they owe him a debt of gratitude as well.
Now the master is stuck. He could turn around and demand full payment of the contracts. But where would that get him? He would only look greedier and more unfair than he already does and incompetent to boot. And without the manager to blame his brutality would be on display, while the manager comes out smelling like roses.
The steward is certainly shrewd, and the master praises him for it. But Jesus goes one step further. The steward has taken a situation that is fundamentally unjust and restored fairness to the process, at least in this one circumstance. In Karl Barth’s words: out of a “sad story of wrong-doing” came something that “Looks almost like a piece of the kingdom of heaven” because the steward “had scored off all the debts of the master’s tenants, wiped out their obligations and relieved them of their burdens.” Everyone, in some fundamental way, is better off. It turns out there is a balm in Gilead.
According to William Herzog: “The parable began with the usual social scripts: masters distrust stewards; peasants hate stewards; stewards cheat both tenants and masters.” But the steward, by his outrageous actions, manages to reverse all of these scripts so that, by the end, “peasants are praising the master, the master commends the steward, and the steward has relieved the burden on the peasants and kept his job.”[v]
And herein lies the power of the parable for us who are managers of God’s goodness: Jesus seems to be suggesting that our stewardship includes the call to be creative and even shrewd, but not for our own sakes. This is a point of departure for much of the self-enriching that goes on in our culture today. Jesus calls for us to be a transformational presence in the world, to throw all our creativity and imagination at this work to relieve burdens, to restore fairness and balance, to make for peace. I love this! Our work as followers of this One and this Way calls us to use our resources to make the world a better place and to bring people together. Doesn’t that sound fun?
This simple question may help us as we seek to discern the effect of our actions as managers of God’s resources: Does our stewardship create more indebtedness or does it make friends? Does it deepen the cycles of poverty and privilege an elite few or does it provide for all? Does it divide or bring together? Does it tear down or build up?
The beloved community is a just community, a balm in Gilead or America or Renton. I wonder what creativity is rising in us that has the potential to heal the nations? May we find the courage to offer ourselves for one another more and more, and for this world that God loves.
[i] Exodus 22:25.
[ii] Leviticus 25:35-38.
[i] Josephus, Antiquities 18, p. 157.
[ii] See Simon Kistemaker, The Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 228ff.
[iii] Walter Brueggemann. Theology of the Old Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 189.
[iv] William R. Herzog II. Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), 247.
[v] Herzog, 257.