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Scumbags for Jesus

September 23, 2007

Clay Nelson

Pentecost 17     Luke 16:1-13


This week in the New York Times there was a report on the work of Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist. He is examining where our moral rules come from? Philosophers argue reason; theologians argue God. However, biologists are beginning to say evolution.


As natural selection and survival of the fittest make up the engine that runs evolution this seems an odd conclusion. They seem to reward only selfish values so how can they be the source of morals? Biologists respond by pointing out that as social animals we have had to learn how to curb selfishness if there is to be any payoff for living together.


Haidt argues that because of evolution and our social nature we each contain two moral systems within us. In evolutionary time, one developed before humans had language and one after. Simplifying greatly his arguments, the one before language is our gut response, controlled by our primitive brain. The second system that required language was moral judgement. In our day-to-day lives we have gut responses immediately and then the second moral system kicks in to offer a plausible rationalization for why we feel that way. His scientific way of trying to differentiate the two systems was to probe the emotion of disgust. He would propose situations that caused a reaction of disgust in his subjects. He was looking for situations that his subjects knew were wrong, but couldn’t say why. He calls it moral dumbfounding. [1]


Well, Jesus was way ahead of him in his research. Our parable today of the Unjust Steward is a case of moral dumbfounding. It disgusts our moral sensibilities. Clearly the steward is a self-serving sleaze. Before being in trouble with the boss for mismanagement he rips off the farmers. When he learns he is going to be fired he rips off his rich boss. Surely if right is right and wrong is wrong, Jesus is going to condemn him for his immorality. Instead, he shocks us by telling us the boss commends him for his shrewdness. And then tells us to do likewise.


Luke is the only Gospel writer to include this dumbfounding story, but then he tries to rationalize it with red herrings about being faithful in little, so as to be faithful in much and reminding us we can’t serve the two masters of God and money. While true, they have nothing to do with the parable. They fail to rationalize our disgust with the steward or Jesus’ injunction.


The parable has confounded theologians throughout the history of the church. Some even choosing to live in denial like Augustine who said, “I can’t believe this story came from the lips of my lord.”


New Testament scholars while having many diverse and often conflicting explanations for the parable, all agree it is the toughest one Jesus ever gave us. It is tough because we can’t rationalise it easily. We can’t put it on that shelf in our brain where we keep everything we have made up our mind about. For that reason I think Augustine was wrong. Jesus told parables and never explained them to open our minds to greater self-knowledge, not to give us a list of moral injunctions that we can confidently refer to. Jesus wasn’t about giving us rules; he came to give us entry into the Kingdom of God he was describing.


Every three years in the church’s lectionary we have to ask how this parable belongs on the key ring to the kingdom?


Rather than offer you a nice neat explanation – as if I had one – I’d like to share my reaction to it. I think it is a parable that suggests in the Kingdom morality isn’t about keeping score. Too often morality is used to exercise power over one group by another. In these instances, morality seems to be about winners and losers.


Here’s how I got there. The rich landowner is used to winning—he’s rich after all, but he is not getting the return on his investment he expects. So he plans to fire his steward, who is clearly going to be the loser in this situation. The steward, who up until news of his impending dismissal, has been winning at the expense of the farmers. They have clearly been the losers on his scorecard. Because the steward abhors hard labour and fears it will be hard to find employment in what he is good at – being a scheming scumbag – decides if he is going to win in this situation, everyone has to win. He wipes out the score by generously reducing the farmers’ debts. They now think the rich landowner is not a bloodsucking oppressor after all, but a hero of the people. The landowner, who has been given honour, is trapped. He can’t very well fire his steward now. He’d lose the farmers’ high opinion of him. If he sacks him, everyone loses; if he keeps him on, everyone wins. If everyone wins, why keep score?


That idea in itself is dumbfounding. Morals matter. Life is all about following the rules and keeping score. Of course, it is inconvenient to remember that who is being moral and who is being immoral is a matter of perspective. In Israel the morals game is played by a Palestinian youth outraged by the conditions in his refugee camp throwing a Molotov cocktail at an Israeli troop carrier, and the government responding to his immoral act by bulldozing his parent’s home. Hamas responds with a suicide bomber in a marketplace. Israel invades Lebanon. It’s the way of the world. It’s all about scorekeeping. On a global level it is or has been true in Ireland, Iraq, and India and just about anywhere else we can think of. We don’t like it, but it is a tit for tat world. It shows up in all aspects of our lives. Just listen to a session of Parliament or to a conversation over the dinner table. We have to keep score because we have to look out for ourselves and keep the ledger in balance. How else are we to protect our self-interest? We have to keep the self-interest of others in check. We seek power to do so, and defining what is moral is one of the arrows in our quiver.


In this kind of world Jesus’ unjust steward is an outrage – not because he once took advantage of the poor, but because he undermined the powerful to save his neck.


I think Jesus is trying to shake up this kind of world. He confounds us by suggesting that morals may be better enforced with our vulnerability than power. It is a vulnerability born of recognizing we all have the same needs and they are all legitimate. How we get them met is the problem.


A developmental psychologist, Abraham Maslow, supports this idea. At the base level we all need water, food, clothing and shelter to survive. Until we have those we aren’t aware of any other needs. But once they are assured we need security in a family or tribe that protects us from hunger and violence. When we feel that need is met we discover we have other needs. We need to be loved. We need friendship and a sense of belonging. Those fortunate enough to have that then are aware of the need for self-respect and to be esteemed by others. But even that isn’t enough. Never underestimate our capacity to need. Esteemed, we then need meaning and purpose in our lives and a feeling that we are living up to our potential. Surprisingly enough, that isn’t the end of our needs. Once we find meaning and purpose, Maslow says we then have a need to be “self-actualised.” [2] I guess if I ever get up that far on his pyramid I might fully understand what that is, but I think of it as living under God’s reign: a place I will feel fully integrated and connected, at peace with my neighbour, my environment, my God, and myself. It might even be a place where there are no higher needs. John’s Gospel calls it “having abundant life.”


Jesus’ parable tells us we all have the same needs to get to the kingdom but we are in different places in the journey at any given moment. The farmers are focused on the very essentials of life: food and shelter. The steward is focused on needing job security. The landowner, who has acquired many of the more basic needs, looks for esteem and honour.


When Jesus tells us to do as the shrewd steward – seek to meet everyone’s needs, it is reminiscent of the aphorism that reminds us, “While climbing the ladder of success, be careful of whom you step on. You may meet them on the way back down.”


As long as morality is rationalized with power over others, we will have to keep score. The world will always be about winners and losers. If we are as vulnerable as the steward recognizing our mutual needs and our fragile place on the pyramid, we can throw away the scorecard.


Yes, it is tough parable. It is even dumbfounding, but not because it is that hard to rationalize, but because it is hard to trust our gut, that it is better to be vulnerable even in a world still ruled by power. Yet to live abundantly, we must. Jesus reminds us that if a scumbag can pull it off, so can we.




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