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Life, Love and Law

Life, Love and Law: Chapter 9


The Parables about how to live our lives

The Kingdom of God does not only refer to Heaven but also to the life of those who live according to God's plan on this earth. I will examine Jesus' parables on that topic.

1. Faithful and faithless stewards

Jesus tells in Luke's Gospel how, on his return, a lord treats his stewards depending on the way they performed the job he had assigned them. In a set of two parables on the subject, we first have a good steward:

And the Lord said, Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his lord shall make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of meat in due season? Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing. Of a truth I say unto you, that he will make him ruler over all that he hath.1

Jesus takes the case of a «faithful and wise» steward who does his job well. He runs the household, making sure that all have to eat and so on. Jesus says that his lord will be so pleased with him when he comes back that He will give him the ultimate promotion: «ruler over all he has». And He adds that this will make this steward «blessed», happy.

So the lord went away after entrusting his steward with the responsibility of looking after his household. His trust was vindicated by his steward's behaviour. Because of this, she is entrusted with even more. As she was faithful in some things, she is entrusted with more.

The set continues with an abusive steward:

But and if that servant say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; and shall begin to beat the menservants and maidens, and to eat and drink, and to be drunken; The lord of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers.2

The word «apistos» (απιστος) translated by «unbelieving» really means «faithless» or more precisely «non-faithful». In other words, that stewart is placed with the people who are not faithful, not trustworthy. While one steward is faithful, the other is not. And this is what is now clearly proclaimed by the latter being placed in the group of the untrustworthy people.

To come back to the text, the steward decides after a while to take advantage of his lord's absence to lord over the servants, harassing and beating them, acting as if all was his to do what he pleased with. This man is not doing the job he was entrusted to do but is taking advantage of the situation by putting himself in his lord's place. He makes himself number one. He is not acting according to his lord's mandate but has set up his own where he comes first and all others must gravitate around him.

This steward is dismissed, fired by his lord on his return as he did wrong to his lord and his fellow servants. So will we in the afterlife, if we have not looked after our lord's interest and so after the humans under our care, while the good steward will be served by his lord. The first servant has acted according to God's plan (the Kingdom); the second has decided on a different one where he replaces God; other humans are now for him to use and abuse. His outlook is that of this world's order.

In both cases, we see Jesus comparing a human being to a steward in charge of her master's house. All that she controls is not hers but her master's. She can use these things to look after the people she has been put in charge of or she can use her fellow servants as if they were hers, using her master's goods as if they were hers and acting as if she had no one to report to.

Is not this very much like our lives? We are born in a particular place and at a particular time, with particular people around us. We have been given a certain number of things to use for certain reasons. We have been given a certain number of people to look after considering these things we were provided with. Either we use them so as to use others as well, or we use them in the way God meant them to be used, as a service to others. We can either follow the ways of this world order or the ways of God's Kingdom. But, whatever our choice, the Master will return and will restore His ways over His house. The faithful servant will be happy to receive her Master (Heaven) while the faithless servant will be angry at losing these things she considers rightly hers (Hell).

2. The Good Samaritan

This very idea is found also in the parable of the Good Samaritan. In Luke's Gospel, a lawyer asks Jesus what to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus replies by asking him what the Torah says. The lawyer answers by the «Shema Israel» followed by «and thy neighbour as thyself» (the Golden Rule). Jesus agrees that this is the right way to inherit eternal life.

The story does not stop there. The lawyer then asks Jesus to elucidate for him what to be a neighbour really means. Jesus answers by the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan:

And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee. Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves? And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.3

We have three people who see this man half dead on the road. Two avoid him like the plague though they are of his ethnic group. A third, a foreigner, sees the wounded man, has «compassion on him», bandages him, then takes him to a hotel he knows where he takes care of him during the rest of the day. The next day, as he finds his patient looking better, he gives the manager some money to take care of the wounded man, promising to repay on his next journey whatever extra the manager spends to make the wounded man well again.

Jesus then asks the lawyer who of the three men was a neighbour to the one who was attacked and left for dead. The lawyer replies: the one who showed mercy on him. To which Jesus says more than he answered rightly; He tells him that this is what we are to do ourselves.

This story has been read so many times that we do not see what it requires. Aren't we always running from meeting to meeting, with tight schedules? Are we not living in a world where «time is money»?

The first two men were busy: they just did not have the time. They also did not want to get involved; after all, the bandits might have been still around, looking for another prey. Why take any risk, especially as they had a family which depended on them? What did they know about first aid? What if they had made the man sicker? What if the police had turned up and booked them in for this attack? especially if the man had died? What could they possibly do that would not be time and money consuming? They had other responsibilities that had to come first.

Is not this the way we react to any event we come by? Do we normally get involved? Do we help someone who is injured? Are we ready to act promptly and drop everything else?

The Samaritan had «compassion». The Greek word «esplagchnisthè» (εσπλαγχνισθη) translated thus means «to be moved in one's innards». He is moved in his guts: this human is completely taken by his fellow human's state. He knows in his heart of heart that he has to see to him: that is what he is on this earth for at this very moment. Everything else is secondary. He sees to his wounds the best he can and takes him to the hotel he normally frequents. He looks after him and, the next day, as his patient is out of danger, he leaves him under the care of someone he knows and trusts, telling him that if he did not leave him enough money, he will pay the extra on his next stop.

This human gives not only his time, he gives his money. He knows this is what he has to do. He is his brother's keeper. This wounded man is his responsibility: he is his neighbour, the person put next to him by God for him to look after as the need arises. The lawyer says that he showed «mercy», the translation of the Greek word «eleos» (ελεος) which can also be translated by «pity» or «compassion».

So Jesus makes it clear that we are to show compassion to the people who are around us. Which is a very dangerous thing to do as it means getting involved, helping, caring. All which is time and money consuming. But we are God's stewards and as such have a duty to perform such acts; and we are God's children and as such have to act according to our Father's ways.

Who acts in such a fashion will have no difficulty coming in her Father's presence: she will have learned to act in her Father's mindset.

3. The Parable of the Shrewd steward

To come back to parables about stewards as such, let us examine a rather perplexing one about a dishonest steward who is being dismissed after being found out:

And he said also unto his disciples, There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods. And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. So he called every one of his lord's debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore. And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.4

This steward is accused of dilapidating his master's goods. He just got his notice after being told to give an account of his stewardship. This fellow does not have his master's best interest at heart and never did. He is there for what he gets out of it. Now that he is going to loose his livelihood, he needs a scheme to save himself.

That he does by using his master's money: he has his master's various creditors come and he changes their bills to their advantage, expecting that, grateful for his good deed toward them, they will receive him in their homes. He does them a good turn with his master's money and hopes they will reciprocate. Just as he looks after their interests (with his master's money!), he hopes to have them look after him.

His master, told of this fraudulent scheme, says that this dishonest steward is wise. Why? Because he plans for his future, he looks after himself!

Jesus then bemoanes the fact that «the children of light» do not show as much «wisdom» as «the children of this world»! Somehow, this seems a bit much! Jesus is giving us a crook as an example, someone who is looking after himself instead of others, someone who stands not for the Kingdom but for this world's order of «Me, myself and I»! How make sense of this? The previous parable about the untrustworthy steward (which is certainly what this one is!) seems to be saying just the opposite: the steward who made himself number one is sacked, and Jesus does not seem to find anything good about his actions.

Jesus' point here seems to be this: the children of God should know what to do to get to Heaven just as much as this fellow knows what to do to be welcomed by others. How is it that they are so slow at acting upon it? Knowing that getting to Heaven is in their interest, why are they so reluctant to do what it takes? After all, He told them what to do and they are not moving. Why can't they be as eager to get to Heaven than some capitalist is to make her first million before the age of twenty-five?

All we have in this life is not really ours: it all belongs to God, our Master. So Jesus is saying: «steal» from God (from the goods He has put you in charge) to your long term advantage, to make sure that you will have a happy «retirement» after this life by getting yourself «popular» with God's creditors by reducing the debt they really owe Him as the goods that you consider your own are really God's. (In the world's order's terminology, reduce others' debt load towards you.) Then they will invite you in their homes in the Kingdom.

So the dishonest manager has assured her success in the afterlife by forgiving some of the debt's due to her master by not requiring payment for goods she had delivered them. She forgave debts that, in this world's order, would be considered due to her but are really due to God.

4. Chastisement

Jesus produced quite a few parables about servants. In the following, He examines the need of chastising some who do not perform well:

And that servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.5

In Jesus' society, servants who misbehaved were physically beaten by their masters. Corporal punishment was considered perfectly legitimate in those days and masters had, until not that long ago, the right to act in such a way to «correct» servants who did not perform properly.

The first verse is straightforward: the servant who knows what she has to do and does not prepare herself accordingly nor does her job properly will be punished more than the one who does not do her job properly because she is not properly aware of her responsibilities. This makes a lot of sense.

The second is «to everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required from him; and to whom was entrusted much, more exceedingly they will ask of him.» Now again, this seems to make much sense. The one who is given bigger responsibilities is expected to perform better than the one who is given few. The lord is supposed to give jobs according to people's abilities; only then can he expects them to do their jobs properly.

So what it this all about? Obvious statements are not very useful. What does it mean in the context of Jesus' teaching? Of course, we first have to understand the text itself, but then, we have to figure out why it is there, what message Jesus is trying to get across.

It is fair to say that Jesus suggests that not all do well the job required of them by God. Some are not aware of what is required of them. These are less guilty than those who know what they are to do with their lives. So those will be more chastised, as they need to be more «corrected». These beatings do not bring an end to the employment: the servant remains a servant. On the other hand, it has an incidence on what the master asks of her next time.

As a servant learns what she is to do and how to do it well, she is given more responsible jobs. If she continues to be trustworthy, she will be given even bigger projects to work on; if she slackens and becomes untrustworthy, she will be demoted.

That seems to be a simile of life on earth where God gives us more and more responsibilities if we prove ourselves as He reviews our performance. On the other hand, if we then decide to replace His interest by our own, we will «be beaten by many stripes».

This can suggest a God who judges and the reader will remember that this is exactly the conclusion I do want. I seem to have hit a big snag: I have a text which does not seem to fit in my general interpretation of Who God is, that is a Lover and not a Judge.

Can I save my scheme without twisting the Gospel text beyond all recognition? The text seems to apply to our life on this earth and not to our meeting with our master after death. It basically says that God puts more responsibility on those who have shown that they can handle it: people like mother Theresa, whose influence increased as she proved to be able to cope with the added pressure. She could cope with anything; she had this inner strength that comes from being a truly faithful servant of God. Those who cannot cope with life are those who do not live according to the Kingdom. They find themselves ill-prepared to face life and end up facing major distresses, difficulties (stripes). You just have to check the paper to see how many of the rich and famous, glamorous and successful according to this world order end up with major problems. By not following the way of the Kingdom, they have not found the necessary stamina to face life's difficulties and so are devastated by their difficulties.

In that interpretation, the very fact of not relying on God's way causes grief. And this grief can be salutary: it can teach people that they need to change their ways. And this, after all, was the reason why servants used to be corrected by corporal punishment: so they would reform and become good and faithful servants.

By the way, this interpretation is and is a tenet of Judaism found in many psalms. Jesus would here bring out nothing new.

1 Luke 12:42-44

2Luke 12:45-46

3 Luke 10:30-37

4 Luke 16:1-13

5 Luke 12:47-48

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Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, June 6th, 2004

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