Listen to sermon here: Ethics of the Unjust Steward
Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1
1 Timothy 2:1-7
This sermon was preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael CA on September 18, 2016.
For the last three years, I have been teaching Christian Ethics at the Episcopal School for Deacons in Berkeley. We discuss various methods for making moral decisions, the values that we uphold as Anglicans, and we analyze specific case studies that deal with issues of poverty, racism, ecology and sexuality. And honestly, if we were to analyze this morning’s parable in Luke as a case study, I’m not sure any of my students or I would arrive at the same conclusion that our Lord Jesus arrives at. So I’d like to do a brief ethical analysis of this parable in order to try to understand Jesus’s conclusion.
There are generally three major methods for approaching moral dilemmas. There’s the ethics of duty, the ethics of outcome and the ethics of virtue. According to the ethics of duty (or deontological ethics), there are certain rules that we are meant to follow no matter what. So regardless of the circumstances, we must never lie or cheat or steal or kill. The great Western philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) was a major proponent of this deontological approach and, according to this method, the shrewd steward in today’s parable is clearly unethical, immoral and in the wrong. He stole, he got caught and then he stole some more and is Jesus appropriately describes him as “dishonest” or “unrighteous.” The Greek is adikia, which literally means “unjust.”
According to ethics of outcome, however, the manager’s moral status is not as clear. The ethics of outcome is known as teleological ethics or utilitarianism and is associated with the English philosophers Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873). The criterion of this approach is ensuring the greatest good for the greatest number. So the manager is actually relatively moral according to the ethics of outcome because he has made the debtors and their families happy by reducing their debt. And the master himself appears to be quite happy as well. However, we may still be disturbed by the fact that the steward was crooked and dishonest in his dealings. Even though things turned out ok for everyone in the end, we may have a hard time imagining Jesus commending a Machiavellian, someone who asserts that the ends justify the means. And in light of his other teachings, Jesus certainly does not seem to be a utilitarian, someone who always seeks the greatest good for the greatest number. In the previous chapter (Luke 15), Jesus describes a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep unsupervised in order to find that single lost lamb. No utilitarian ethicist would approve of this.
In class, we enjoy wrestling through various issues using these two major approaches: ethics of duty and ethics of outcome. However, these methods can only take us so far. We may be able to arrive at what we agreed to be the most morally upright thing to do in a given situation, but that is only half the battle. The other half is actually doing it. Many of us often know the “right” thing to do but choose not to do it. And this is where virtue ethics comes in. Virtue ethics (or areteological ethics), which has its roots in Aristotle (384 – 322), suggests that we cultivate virtues on a regular basis so that when we are confronted with a major moral dilemma, it will be second nature for us to not only know the right thing but to also have the integrity, the courage and the fortitude to actually do it.
When we look at this morning’s parable in light of virtue ethics, we are invited to reflect on the virtue that Jesus commends in the dishonest steward. In verse 8, Jesus says, “The master commended the dishonest steward because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” Jesus does not commend the steward’s dishonesty or crookedness (which are vices, not virtues). Jesus commends the steward’s “shrewdness.” The Greek word is fronimos, which means wise and discerning.
And the steward is wise indeed. He knows that in order to avoid manual labor and begging on the streets, he needs to secure for himself another job. And in order secure a new job, he needs to make friends and expand his social network. When he says in verse 4 that “people may welcome me into their homes,” he is using a first-century idiom, which essentially means: “they will help me get another job.” And what better way to make friends and expand one’s network than by reducing people’s debts! And these “reductions are enormous. Fifty measures of oil was worth about five hundred denarii, which was the wage for a farm worker for a year and a half.” This isn’t pocket change. These are large chunks of cash. He knows that if he rubs their back now they will rub his back later.
The rich master is then impressed with the steward’s streetwise strategy. However, there is another element of the steward’s shrewdness that I believe the rich master especially appreciates and that is the steward’s audacity to assume that the rich master is generous enough to honor the validity of the reductions. Why doesn’t the rich master fire and severely punish the steward and then tell the debtors that the steward had no right to reduce their debts and that their full debts remain? The rich master surely has the power to do so, but he doesn’t. The rich master is not foolish; he does not tolerate his employees stealing his money, but he seems to be more than ok with his employee reducing debts that are owed to him. The rich master turns out to be profoundly generous. And I believe it is the steward’s trust in the rich master’s generosity that makes him so commendable and wise.
The steward has a relationship with the rich master and he knows his character. Although he has abused that relationship by stealing the master’s money, he still knows that the master will remain generous when it comes to reducing the debts of others. He gives away the master’s money with reckless abandon as he makes other people’s lives lighter and more bearable, as he invests in friendships and builds community. And in doing so, he makes all of the debtors appreciate not just him but also the master who, to them, seems to overflow with generosity in reducing their debts. So virtue ethics helps us see that the steward is not just clever (which he is), but also audacious in his faith in the master’s generosity.
In many of Jesus’s parables, I see this same invitation to trust in the generosity of the rich master or father. I see this invitation in the parable in the previous chapter (Luke 15): the parable of the prodigal son, which many like to call the parable of the prodigal father because the father is so prodigal and extravagant in his generosity towards his son. And if we look at the parable of the ten pounds in Luke 19, we will see that it is the servants who freely invest the master’s money that are given honor and reward while the servant who thinks that the master is miserly is the one who ends up being punished. And in Luke 12, Jesus clearly invites us to trust in our heavenly Father’s generosity when he says, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink or about your body what you will wear because your Father knows you need all these things…Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom!” (12:22, 32). Jesus invites us to trust in God’s generosity and to abandon ourselves (and our wallets) to that generosity because ultimately it is not our money in the first place. We are stewards. All the money that we have has been given to us by God and Jesus invites us to give it all away with reckless abandon because God promises to keep giving to us. Right after he says, “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” in Luke 12:32, he says, “Sell your possessions!” Give it all away. Give it to others who need it: the poor and the debtors. Give it to others in order to make friendships and build community so that you may enter into eternal homes because it is these relationships and friendships that will have everlasting value, more so than any material purchases you might make.
It is the virtue of trusting in the generosity of our divine master and heavenly Father that our Gospel invites us to cultivate. I will admit that I struggle with this virtue. As someone who has just completed a doctoral program and has a lot of debt of my own (which I would love to have dramatically reduced), it helps to remember that I can be a shrewd steward not only by donating money to the church but also by serving food to the hungry, which the Marin Episcopal Youth Group has been doing now for more than 3 years. Along with our fiscal treasures, we can donate our time and our talent to the church and other charities.
And yet I still feel the call to cultivate this virtue of trusting in God’s bounty. I need to keep deepening my relationship with the rich master. And it is by gathering together here to worship and celebrate the Eucharist that we are all invited to deepen our relationship with the master who is our Father and to experience and learn more about his lavish giving. It is by gathering in Discipleship Groups (as many of you do) and strengthening our spiritual core that we can learn to cultivate that virtue of trusting and abandoning ourselves to God’s munificence.
By doing so, we can learn to be less “anxious about earthly things” as our Collect says, and “to love things heavenly…and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure.” Even now, while we have been made stewards of the money that God has given to us, we may hold fast to that which is eternal by investing in friendships and community and abandoning ourselves to the prodigal generosity of our rich Father. Amen.
 Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 339.