A couple of stories to start: some twenty years ago when I was in University chaplaincy in San Francisco I had a student tell me that he “didn’t believe all this religion stuff,” because he would never trust himself to a situation where (1) he “didn’t know all the facts,” and (2) he “didn’t keep control of the situation.” In turn I asked him how his love life and was not surprised to hear it was not real good. When he asked why I had asked my question, I answered because religion is not like a rule book, rather, it’s a relationship!
According to an early church historian, Tatian, who died around 165, the first Gospel came about when Mark wrote down the stories he remembered Peter telling about Jesus to people as they had need to hear them. So do you see the original background picture, the context for the text here? It’s relationship; people sharing stories of healing and hope, of good news in hard times, of the expectation of love meeting them in particular moments carried in a particular context by particular voices -- that's how it lives and moves -- and then the audience expanding, the list of listeners widening, words written down, more voices telling these stories in different ways and to different people and places over the world all these twenty centuries and here we are!
So, yes, some early parts of the Bible might look like a law code, but the prevailing tone, the dominant melody throughout Scripture is one of courtship: for I am convinced that God calls us, not to a legal partnership, but to be incorporated in a loving relationship as a new being. As St. Augustine wrote in the late fourth century: “God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.” I take this to mean God is closer to us than our fears, our hopes, our very capacity for understanding. In another place Augustine says we should pray, to God, “Not as I think you are, but as you know yourself to be.” Do you see the faithful and intimate mysterious embrace there? So we need to keep it from being too practical, too businesslike; because it is an ongoing love story, and maybe a bit of a detective tale too, one that changes for us in the same way as it changes us.
As context and text evolve, so most Christian biblical scholars would agree that our understanding of the scripture itself has been shaped and changed over the years by a continuing conversation involving tradition, reason and experience. I’ve mentioned Tatian's remembrance of the original context of Mark already. Then, in their work, Matthew and Luke stretch out to shape Marks saving message anew with re-visioning Jewish history and hope in Matthew, and widening an understanding of Hebrew and Greek philosophy and culture in Luke; in the Gospel of John too the theology of Jesus as the Word, the Logos, moves the understanding of the Messiah into a vocabulary that had been unknown in the earlier years.
To quote Jesus in the Revelation to John, “I make all things new!” And that renewing process can include our ongoing understanding of scripture, because the word ripens in us, the spirit breathes more deeply into the particularities of our lives and circumstances, tried and shared in communities of belief and practice, tested through history and tradition, refined by reason and experience, fired by faith over time.
And in the last few hundred years of critical scholarship and new methods of biblical and cultural exegesis we have come to know much more about first century social customs, economics, land use, law and politics in ways that shed new light on the original biblical texts. We even have access to cultural documents and biblical texts in the original Hebrew and Greek that are older than the ones they knew of in Augustine’s time (who, by the way, had no great skill in reading biblical Hebrew or Greek — we actually know more than he did about the ancient languages).
So when speaking to our Gospel lesson about the unjust steward-manager and his landlord for today, Barbara Rossing, a Professor of New Testament, gives needed background from current scholarship when she writes:
“Rich landlords and rulers were loan-sharks, using exorbitant interest rates to amass more land and to disinherit peasants of their family land, in direct violation of biblical covenantal law.” New Testament scholar William Herzog writes, "The hidden interest rates appear to have been about 25 percent for money and 50 percent for goods.” And Rossing thinks, “The manipulative steward was probably extracting his own cut of the profits, on top of the 50% layer for the landlord, and the additional payment for Rome.”
So, for Rossing, when the steward reduced the payments, he may have been simply forgiving his own cut of the interest, or just doing what the law of God in the Hebrew scripture commands, namely forgiving all the hidden interest in the contracts. As another scholar writes, "To ingratiate himself with the debtors, he had them change the amount they owed on their bills to exactly the amount they borrowed." The rich landlord, likely knowing the Torah teaching against interest, might, suddenly realise he needed at least “to appear to be observing convenantal laws, and ends up commended his steward.” — who had been mainly motivated by his fear that he might be losing his job and was not strong enough to dig and was ashamed to beg. And maybe there’s the end of this puzzling detective story.
It reminds me of T. S. Eliot's writing that the greatest treason is doing the right thing for the wrong reason but it leaves me with a question: how can God be in the centre of these transactions, how does the Gospel come here and change lives? I've preached on this text before and the question stays with me. My working answer for today, subject to revision, is this: would it be too simple to say, "When we act like we are in love, the grace of love lifts us up into new life?"
Like Luke’s earlier story of the prodigal son returning to the Father with a canned repentance speech and hoping to get accepted as a slave, the steward does better than he expects or perhaps deserves; does better than the law and instead abides in a surprising charity to be accepted as a member of a renewed community. Is that the good news? Who knows what can come our way when we do the right thing, even for the wrong reasons, and love lets us come home -- and that just might be the moral of this story.
In John’s Gospel Jesus says the truth will make you free, I would add that it just might kill you along the way, but, as the prodigal son, the steward and the landowner may all have found out, the traveling can turn you into a person you’ve never been before. Maybe that’s where the Good News is today — the surprise of the Gospel, refined by tradition, restored in community and renewing reason with an experience of peace that passes understanding, all finally freeing you to live a new way, to be a new creation of love.
Welcome to God’s love story! In the name of Christ.