What would Jesus say about Gordon Gekko and Bud Fox? What difference would it make? Well if have not heard Gordon Gekko is out of prison and makes a return to Wall Street (Money Never Sleeps). Yes, I will see the follow-up to the 1987 hit if for nothing else, nostalgia. One of my mentor’s ways to mix in a different rhythm was to take in a matinee on occasion. Being the good “mentee” I followed along. Wall Street was one of our favorites. Some of you may recall Black Monday, also a 1987 pocketbook buster.
The key question turns on what happens when what you have does not matter any longer. Maybe you have lost a large portion of your retirement. Could be you have watched investment after investment fail to return. Some would suggest we need better luck. Others would contend we just were not shrewd enough. Still a few would think maybe you were too honest. Consider these possibilities and you may well work your way to the parable in Luke 16:1-13. (Dis-)honesty. Shrewdness. Impending judgment. Commendation. Any of these words would engender a particular response when thinking about the ethic of Jesus. But, to read Jesus commending a person who is described as dishonest creates a good bit of consternation if not outright panic among the faithful.
And, that makes the parable of the “Unjust Steward” difficult for interpreters. Here in the office we have been shaking our head all week over this one. A careful read helps us see shrewdness is commended not dishonesty. But at the same time the person that is considered shrewd is dishonest. So what to do? Leave it as Tony Jones does? Look at it the way Russell does?
Could it be Jesus is suggesting that “children of the light” should be as shrewd about their living out the ways of the Kingdom of God as the unjust steward was at positioning himself in a charitable network when he would surely be fired? In other words, if relationships are more important than people, then of all people Jesus’ followers should be more concerned about people than what they possess. After all it does seem to be Jesus’ Way.
2 comments on “Gekko, Bud Fox and Jesus – Thoughts from the Edge”
I’m no Biblical exegete – nor do I play one on TV – but I’ve spent a number of years in the business world and this parable seems to require a certain business framing.
First, what, exactly, is the “steward” (the NIV translates this term “manager”) being accused of by his boss? Again, the NIV text says he’s being accused of “wasting [his master’s] possessions”. Given the steward’s subsequent actions, we might infer that he’s been negligent in handling accounts receivable – that is, in collecting debt that is owed. Clearly, given the historical period, we’re not talking about conventional AR but the tribute or fees that landowners were paid by the people farming their land, typically paid in produce not cash.
So, the steward has allowed tribute to go uncollected, thereby depriving his master of revenue to which he was entitled, under the recognized economic obligations of the time. Faced with reprimand and potential redundancy, the steward springs into action, employing a strategy that should be familiar to most of us today: in exchange for a discount on the amount owed, he is able to arrange for prompt payment of outstanding amounts. This is considered, today, as standard AR operating procedure, whereby debtors are offered discounted terms for prompt payment – e.g., “10 Net 30” – a 10% discount if a debt is paid within 30 days.
The dishonesty can be found in two places: the manager had not been doing his job and, when confronted, resorted to an effective strategy but without informing his boss – i.e., surreptitiously, without transparency.
Thus, placed in a different context, the “dishonest” manager would have been worthy of praise had he been doing his job and employing effective debt collection strategy with the approval of management. The fact that he ultimately adopted correct actions, albeit for the wrong motives and with a certain amount of duplicity (though clearly we are led to understand that management was aware of what he was doing), is enough to garner praise from his boss.
So, what we have is an admixture of actions and motives that are not wholly worthy of praise or condemnation. In a contemporary context, one might well call into question the overall management practices of the “firm” – i.e., how was it that the steward was not, himself, subject to regular oversight by the master / boss? Is there not a process problem with respect to how AR is managed? Why are audits not being conducted on a regular basis? One might well draw the conclusion that the master manages his operations in a rather loose fashion, thereby becoming, to Jesus’ listeners, an object of critique (setting aside the differing class perspectives that no doubt separated Jesus’ disciples from the Pharisees, which would naturally make the disciples more sympathetic to the steward than to the master).
Without drawing any definitive conclusion, I would say that the parable nicely captures the ethical issues / ambiguities that characterize daily working life and infuse our economic relationships. Jesus’ point, to my mind, is that outcomes matter more than motivations – one can have the purest of motives and achieve nothing; one can have dubious motives but effect useful outcomes. Ultimately it might be better if motives and outcomes are in alignment, but the world is a messy place and people are a bundle of contradictions.
You well describe one of the many ways the parable is appropriated. There are indeed certain “exegetes” who work hard to make a connection between the economic context behind the story and our own. And, your recognition of the world being a “messy place and people are a bundle of contradictions” is something that should point us to a measure of humility when dealing with people, as well, people.
I tend to settle into the intent of the story as a challenge for Jesus’ followers to be as “shrewd” as living out the Way of Jesus in a world where illustrations of shrewdness abound among people who have chosen a very different “way.” To bring this to bear on our day may take the form of pressing and American Christianity to shuttle the American in favor of the Christ(ian). There is a way to do so with the humility of Jesus all the while undermining the powers that seem to compel people to insist the two descriptors are somehow the same thing. That is, American equals Christian and Christian equals American. The result is an inability to serve both the “American Way” and the “Jesus Way.” In the end, the Jesus Way tends to lose out to the American Way while the language game continues to be played and the ethics unfortunately confused.
Yes, when we talk about the world being a messy place and people a bundle of contradictions this too applies to we who claim the Way of Jesus.