Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, for Harvard Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service, Knafel Center, Radcliffe Yard.
A few weeks ago we started the academic year in the Gospel of Luke. I introduced it as the parabolic gospel. This is a result of the numerous and unique parables contained in Luke. To refresh your memory, parables are short stories full of moral meaning. They are extended metaphors of sorts. This is why they are incredible teaching tools. By using a method of comparison, parables make the abstract concrete. They make the foreign familiar. Parables make the difficult accessible.
Hospitality in the Kingdom of God, for instance, is likened unto a dinner banquet for the otherwise uninvited. God’s grace toward us is like a father who welcomes back a prodigal son. And God’s expectation for us to be good neighbors is like a Samaritan who stops to help a stranger on a dangerous road. Parables have power. Parables have moral import. Parables make for easy preaching.
Yet the common lectionary threw preachers a curve ball this week. Today’s lesson is arguably the most difficult of all of the parables. It’s the parable of the unjust steward. Here Jesus tells the story of a property manager caught in impropriety. When his boss calls him in and asks for a detailed audit of his activities, the manager knows the gig is up. He needs to protect himself. So the unjust steward starts to consider his next hustle.
He comes up with a rather ingenious plan. “I know what I’ll do. I’ll call up all of the people who owe my boss money. If they owe $500, I’ll let them settle their accounts for $200. If they owe $200, I will cancel their debt for $75. Then when I am unemployed and homeless, these same people will recall my kindness. Maybe they will give me a job. Maybe they will give me a place to lay my head.”
This is where the parable gets tricky. Jesus says that when the master of the house discovered the dishonest scheme, he complimented the property manager. He shook the man’s hand and saluted his chicanery. He commended his corruption.
Why would Jesus make this point? Why would he highlight and seemingly reward bad behavior? After batting this story around in my head all week, and reading commentary after commentary, there is only one answer that I can give with unequivocal confidence. And that answer is, “I have no idea!” This parable is just too ambivalent and uncertain.
Nevertheless, allow me to take spiritual license in order to toss out a couple of ideas—a couple of ideas regarding what this parable might mean for us today.
First, maybe this parable is a warning about success—or so-called success, shall I say. Sure it seems odd that the master of the house is complimenting the crooked manager. But might we be reading too much into the compliment? The compliment is not universal. Nor is he complementing the man on his moral rectitude. But rather the Bible says that he complimented the man on his shrewdness. He complemented him on his creativity, not his ethical consciousness.
This is an important point for us at an institution like Harvard. Too often we confuse intelligence with integrity; we conflate test scores with character. By doing so we fail to distinguish someone’s shrewdness and savvy from their values and virtue. Smartness and success are not synonyms for moral character. So when the boss compliments his business manager for his shrewdness and success in attaining his desired result, there is no need for us to believe that he is complimenting him for anything other than that.
The unjust steward needed a last minute grand hustle, and it appears that he concocted one. He was successful insofar as he did what he set out to do. Unfortunately, we live in a world today where we too often believe that if we are successful, like this unjust steward, then we are right. There are so many examples. Individuals, governments, and corporations enact unjust policies on a daily basis—policies that are quite successful in bringing forth certain results, yet lack any positive ethical standard or productive moral values whatsoever.
Consider the so-called “War on Drugs.” From the outset it was as efficient as it was unjust. Poor communities were targeted with aggressive policing practices such as “stop and frisk,” though we know drug use is just as prevalent in wealthy suburbs. Draconian laws were passed to punish crack cocaine offenders, even as they were hardly as severe for powdered cocaine users. And mandatory sentences made sure that drug possession would fill up the prisons, new prisons that were the principle fuel of a multibillion dollar prison industrial complex.
Some today say that the War on Drugs was a failure. That depends on how you measure it. If the aim was to curb drug use, it was an epic fail. But if you evaluate the War on Drugs as a means to control and contain poor people, deny voting rights to a segment of the population, and clear out prime real estate in America’s downtown areas, then the War on Drugs was a great success. Corrupt city planners and crooked venture capitalists got exactly what they hoped for. Yet I am here to say that all success is not good success.
Consider the practices of mortgage companies and big banks in recent years. There are those who made millions on top of millions pushing high rate subprime mortgages, and inventing other creative financial products. Now nearly a decade after the Great Recession, many communities are still trapped by sunken home values. Many senior citizens remain at work due to the loss of household wealth. We can say that these practices were immoral. But due to lax regulations, they were not illegal. This is why we have to acknowledge the cunning of corporate execs who made billions for the banks and millions for themselves. It’s just too bad that they had to foreclose the financial futures of the most vulnerable in the process. All success is not good success.
Or even consider a certain New York businessman turned reality-television star. He has successfully built his career on positioning himself as an expert by framing everyone else as an enemy. He learned this trick early in his career from his lawyer Roy Cohn. If you lie loud enough and long enough you can at least make a critical mass of people wonder if it is the truth. Of course this lawyer knew what he was talking about. Roy Cohn spent years as the right hand man to Senator Joseph McCarthy—one of the most vicious and vile demagogues of 20th century America. This businessman has been quite successful at fueling prejudice and hatred one loud lie at a time. Whether it’s his claim that President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S.; his claims that thousands of Muslims cheered in New Jersey after September 11th; or that Mexican immigrants are little more than criminals and rapists; he has been so successful that he is now the presidential choice for a very large segment of our country. But, again, all success is not good success.
This is why I can imagine the master of the house providing his commendation as a back-handed compliment. Something like, “What a creative and shrewd plan. If only you used that creativity and intelligence to do your job with honesty and integrity, in the first place.” I can hear my mother saying, “Whenever you tell one lie, you have to tell another one.”
This is my second point. Not only might the parable be a warning about so-called success, it might also be a warning about self-deception. Somewhere along his path in life the unjust steward became convinced. He became convinced that the path of least resistance is the path to prosperity. He became convinced that the acquisition of power is based on money and might, not by doing what’s right. And at some point this man learned to trust in the facts that he could see with his eyes, rather than the greater truths that he could feel in his heart.
Here I am following the insights of the great literary giant Toni Morrison. In an essay The Site of Memory, Morrison says that the dividing line for her work is not between fact and fiction, but rather between fact and truth. The facts of life, she asserts, are easy. They are all around us. There is no moral value associated with facts. This is why they are easily manipulated.
For instance, facts will tell you that there are two types of people in this world—takers and those who get taken. So you better choose this day whom you will serve. Facts will tell you that there is a path for you if you are a woman; a path for you if you were born poor; a path for you if you have a disability; a path for you if you made certain mistakes in life. Facts will tell you that you are a statistic, not a human subject full of possibility. Yes, facts are readily apparent, though easily deceptive.
Truth, however, is hidden. Truth is often concealed. As I mentioned the other week in a message, this may be the reason that the Roman Goddess of Truth Veritas was known for hiding deep down in wells. Truth desires for us to search long and hard for her. For Truth provides us with a special gift—a gift that power, money, and all the options that we can easily see before us can never quite provide. Truth offers us freedom—liberation of the mind and soul. Truth sets us free to become the women and men God has called us to be.
Facts told this unjust steward that there was security in helping only himself. The truth would have told him that true security is found in aiding others. Facts told him that he could find comfort by following the crowd. Truth would have encouraged him to search out new paths of possibility. And facts seemingly told this man that he better accumulate wealth as fast as he can, however he can. But truth had a different message for him. In some things, how we start will determine how we end. And in this case, if he had just been faithful and true over a few things, God would have blessed him with so much more. Do not deceive yourself. If you and I are not faithful and true with the small decisions of life, are we prepared for what life may present us later.
Maybe this is what God is asking of us today. Are we willing to forego somebody else’s definition of success? As the Dean of the College jokingly states, too many of us enroll at Harvard thinking that we have four career options: high finance, medicine, law, or loser. But maybe it is time to veer away from the well-worn path in order to find God’s truth for us. Are we willing to stand against pressures that might deceive us that there is only one way to use our intelligence? To use our gifts? For what does it matter if we gain the whole wide world, but lose our soul? As I’ve heard Coach Tommy Amaker say to his basketball players on so many occasions: Success is not about running cons or cunning. It’s about courage and conviction.
We must resist readily apparent facts, and opt for the distinct path of truth. Recall Aesop’s classic fable concerning the goddess of truth. It is said that Prometheus, the great sculptor, decided one day to sculpt Veritas. Just as he was completing her, he was summoned away, but left Dolus, the great trickster in charge of his workshop. Dolus, too, was a skilled craftsman. He decided that he would build his own version of Veritas. He made her the same size. He copied her features. Yet when he got to the feet, he ran out of clay.
When Prometheus returned to the workshop he was amazed at how identical the two looked. He could not tell his Veritas apart from Truth’s imposter. So Prometheus breathed life into them, stood them up, and watched them proceed into life. This is when he noticed something. While Veritas took measured steps, the forgery could not get too far. The fake looked like the truth, but she did not have any feet to stand on.
And what I’ve come by here to tell somebody this morning, don’t be fooled by any semblance of success. Do not be fooled by things that look true, and seem true, and that everyone says are true. There are a lot of forgeries in this world, but after a while, only truth will stand alone.
This is why my hope is built on nothing less,
than Jesus blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus name
On Christ the Solid Rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand.
All other ground is sinking sand.