Scripture: Living and Active

Scripture: Living and Active
Our most significant scriptures are marked with post it notes.

Continuing the work of Jesus, simply, peacefully, JOYFULLY, together.

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Sunday, November 1, 2009

confounding story of a steward , a master, and some debtors -- a sermon by donald lanctot

Often times the parables of Jesus are viewed as simple, memorable stories, shaped with humble imagery, each with a single message. They are built upon comparisons—the kingdom of heaven is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep or it is like a mustard seed. And these parables are commended for their ability to make ideas visual and clear. They are presented as painted pictures that even the simple can grasp.

In this way, the parables are seen as early representations of what we have come to know as Christian object lessons—the use of everyday items to illustrate Spiritual truths in a meaningful way. A Sunday school teacher brings in a photograph of a diamond being cut out of rough rock. He tells the students: like this piece of a rock, people may not seem like much, but inside is a diamond. It takes time and polishing to bring out the best in us.

I think this view of the parables—though morally edifying—is terribly limited. It takes a dynamic form of teaching and drains it of its very power to transform us. It is equivalent to what Disney studios have done to the tales of the Brothers Grimm. Stories that were once charged with mystery and dread—ominous bread crumbs and frightening witches with cavernous ovens—have been polished into predictable adventures, fairy tales that once had the power to disturb us into wonder and awe have been converted into reassuring tales of dreams realized and evil conveniently defeated with blood never needing to be shed.

I think Jesus parables have far more in common with Zen koans than with those object lessons told in Sunday school classes and around camp fires.

In the lore and history of Zen Buddhism, masters often instruct using strange sayings, a story, a dialogue, a question. Often these sayings contain aspects that are inaccessible to rational understanding, yet may be accessible to intuition.

These short sayings are meant to confound conventional habits of mind; they are meant to shock the mind into some new awareness. To give a short example, one koan entitled “Manjusri enters the Gate,” reads “One day as Manjusri was standing outside the gate, the Buddha called to him, “Why do you not enter?” Manjusri answered, “I do not see myself as outside. Why enter?”

The saying, which appears to end with a question, doesn’t have a simple answer or interpretation. Rather, it invites the reader into a paradox. Who is “inside”? Who is “outside”? What is even meant by “outside”? Are the categories of “inside” and “outside” even useful? Clearly, the intention of the saying isn’t so much to add information. If anything, its purpose is to take something away—to pull boards out from under the feet of the listener, to temporarily disorient them.

The Zen koan, then, is meant to shaken some foundation upon we stand. It is meant to first subtract something from our knowledge base—to take away those assumptions that stand in the way of true knowledge. It is meant to leave us dangling, suspended in space, with no obvious landing place. The “old” is no longer sufficient, but the “new” is not yet formed or established. Where are we to go? What are we to think?
Unfortunately, it is difficult to approach Jesus’ parables in this mind. They have become too familiar to us. We have grown up with them. And thus, many of them—the parables of the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, the seed sowed upon the various soils—have, in a sense, become dead to us, at least as parables. They have become didactic stories reinforcing assumed attitudes and understandings.

That’s not all bad, I think. Most of us, do not, for example, suffer the parochial views of those Jews who failed to see the Samaritan as their neighbor. We have, for the most part, shed the holiness tradition that separates people—black and white, straight and gay, Christian and Muslim—so neatly into categories of the good and the bad. As a community of faith you and I have, to a certain extent, absorbed Jesus’ inclusive vision into our own religious sensibility. And, perhaps, at least for now, we don’t need the parable of the Good Samaritan.

But what happens when we come upon a parable that doesn’t confirm our enlightened attitudes? What happens when we read a parable that seems to commend that which we find offensive and self-serving?

What happens when we find ourselves in exactly the some position as the Jews of Jesus’ day, gathered around the voice of man who stuns us with words that don’t fit neatly into our world view?

The parable of the unjust steward—as the story has come to be known—is one of the more difficult passages in the New Testament. The seeming incongruity of a story that praises a scoundrel has been an embarrassment to the church for a long time. In the early centuries of the church, Justin the Apostate used the parable to assert the inferiority of the church and its founder. He found the ethics of the parable a disgrace to real religion.

It does seem odd that Jesus would tell a parable that ends wtth a master commending an unscrupulous steward, a commendation that occurs after this subordinate has wasted his boss’s moneys, admitted that he didn’t want to do physical work, refused to beg, and reduced the payment of the master’s debtors—all of these acts done in the self-serving hope that the debtors would return the favor by welcoming the steward into their homes.

What are we to make of this story? What is its message? Does it have one at all? And who exactly are we supposed to identify with in the story? The steward? The debtors? The master? Or are we lost in unable to locate ourselves in the story? If so, I wonder if this confusion is similar to that felt by many who heard Jesus’ words in first century Palestine. As Jesus put it: “You shall hear but not understand; you shall see but not but not perceive.”

Some commentators have found ways around the apparent problems of the parable. The seeming commendation of the steward is usually explained in one of two ways. Some commentators argue that Jesus commends the dishonest manager for his shrewdness, not the shrewd manager for his dishonesty. Thus, the parable focuses attention on the steward’s inventiveness and ingenuity; the unscrupulous behaviors are but backstory to the real message. The master commends a certain shrewd behavior that one can find in the book of Genesis, in, for example, Jacob’s “stealing” his father’s blessing from Esau..

An alternative reading attempts to place the story in a cultural context. According to some commentators a steward in Jesus’ day would customarily take commisssion on all his sales of his master’s goods. Read this way, the steward, in reducing the debt, was simply sacrificing his own immediate interests by foregoing his legitimate commission. It is for this that he is praised as “astute.” He acts nobly; there is no disgrace.

I must confess that neither of these readings is satifsfactory to me. They both seem strained. As if the commentators are uncomfortable with the facts that are set out plainly in front of them. As if the commentators possess a moral prigousness that will not let them take in the unseemly details of the parable. As I listen to these two interpretations of the parable, I see the commentators scrambling to find a way to do justice to the parable within a certain moral compass that refuses to admit the ethical ambiguity found in the behavior of the steward.

So I find myself lost in the parable, with no clear way out. Read in moral categories, the parable doesn’t seem to make much sense. I can’t get away from the feeling that the steward’s behavior is craven and disappointing. And I pick around the edges of the parable for a way around this disappointment. But I can’t.

And I start to wonder if this failure to understand is the gift of the parable to me. After so many readings of parables that have yielded a simple confirmation of my Christian beliefs, this parable confounds me. And its inscutibility seems to reflect a state of mind that lends itself to the possibility of real transformation, if only I could stay with the parable long enough to let it do its work. Isn’t this the opportunity to hear a parable as the people in Jesus’ day heard it? To hear a parable, not as moral object lesson, but as transforming fire? I am surprised by how unfamiliar this territory is. I am disappointed in realizing how much I have domesticated the scriptures for my own use.

Is it possible that the disorientation, my discomfort, is meant to be my reading of the parable. Where else can I go but to the source of my discomfort.

I wonder about my moral judgment of the steward, and my disappointment in the master. And the criteria I use to make those judgments.

Is it possible that this odd parable is meant to challenge my smug sense of understanding the ethics of the kingdom. Is it possible that there are matters more urgent than acting with noble selflessness. Are there moments when we are called to act with calculated self interest? Does the steward get it and I don’t. I don’t really know.

But I do know that I have too easily exhausted the teachings of Jesus to a catalogue of liberal virtues. And in doing so have inevitably limited my ability to appreciate the largeness, the wideness of God’s work in the world. I have always admired the martyred, been moved to come to the aid of the innocent victim, have been attracted to the marginalized. I clearly have a list of values that I privilege. And the behavior of the steward doesn’t fit anywhere on the list.

But, I wonder, have I absolutized pieces of the kingdom and thereby lost sight of the larger dimension of God’s reconciling work. Have I done what the Pharisee’s did with holiness: grabbing ahold of something that in itself is good, but holdng onto it too tightly, thus perverting the good. Have I worshiped a code of ethics and lost sight of the living God who writes his law upon our hearts in words that may surprise us, even at times stun us. Is ethics—the good and the bad—far more contingent on God and our relationship with him than it is a set of moral codes that exist outside of Him?

Perhaps so, but I find myself still trying to catch my balance. It is hard to trust myself to fall.

So I stand in the presence of this confounding story of a steward , a master, and some debtors, wondering if the parable has the power to save me from what I too often regard as the best of myself.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Donald for providing an early morning meditation on this unsettling parable. I'm grateful for this blog and the ability to read your message in its entirety. The notion of "...holding on too tightly, thus perverting the good.." struck me as something think on a bit more this week.