This story is often called the parable of the unjust steward. There are many different interpretations. It is referred to as one of the hard sayings of Jesus. Why? Because it’s hard to figure out!
Okay, so let me ask you. What is confusing about this parable? What questions do you have?
It will be helpful for us to go back into the Hebrew Scriptures [the OT], to better understand what this parable is all about: forgiveness. In the Gospels, Jesus talks a lot about debts and forgiveness, but he actually draws from ancient Hebrew tradition. There is the famous story of King Saul, David, and Nathan. In this story, David is full of guilt over his adultery, lies, and his contract killing of Uriah the Hittite, a soldier in David’s own army, and of course, the husband of Bathsheba, David’s lover. David, throughout the rest of his life, deals with the consequences of his actions. Eventually, though, Nathan pardons David, saving him from the penalty of death. But it is not a Disneyland ending. In the story, even after receiving forgiveness via Nathan, David flees the city in humiliation and humbly confesses:
IF I find favor in the eyes of the Lord, he will bring me back.
In David’s case, forgiveness involved a long process of difficult, personal transformation, to the end.
In the later writings of the Hebrew Scriptures and leading into the New Testament, the theme of debt and forgiveness emerges. King Nebuchadnezzar, an imperialistic Babylonian ruler, conquers Jerusalem and constructs a mighty kingdom for himself, as told in the book of Daniel. His pride overwhelms though, and he makes a terrible decision to send Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego [three Jews] to the fiery furnace because they refuse to worship the golden idol that the king had forced upon the general public. Of course, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego survive the fiery furnace and the king goes insane [coo-coo] and for seven years he lives as an animal. Then, in the climactic scene, Nebuchadnezzar approaches the prophet Daniel and humbly begs for a way to repay his debt to society. Daniel says:
Pay off the debt you owe for your sins through charity to the poor.
So for King N, forgiveness involved giving something tangible.
Here is why I spent the time on these two OT stories: forgiveness is not simple. I like how C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia Chronicles and many other books, puts it:
Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive …
And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger.
Right. You see, forgiveness is tough.
And I would argue that forgiveness is even harder when it stays ambiguously up in the clouds as some abstract concept. Unfortunately, sometimes our religious traditions keep it in the clouds, reducing forgiveness to linear steps or to one very limited perspective. But forgiveness, in life and in the Bible, has many levels and takes many shapes and forms. David needed to take a personal journey of transformation and face his mistakes; King Nebuchadnezzar needed to give his resources back to those who he had marginalized.
Fast forward to Luke’s Gospel and we find a continuation of the idea of debt forgiveness. Luke, for example, is the only Gospel that includes a version of what we call “the Lord’s Prayer” with these words: forgive us our sins as we forgive our debtors. It is actually even stronger in the original Greek language, reading like this: forgive us our sins as we forgive the monetary debts of those who owe us.
Luke [and Jesus] are not afraid to talk about money, and so here we have this confusing story about an unjust steward. One surprising connection emerges, if we pay attention. Most people are at least somewhat familiar with the story of the prodigal son, right? Well, connect the dots. The prodigal son “squandered” his dad’s inheritance; the unjust steward “squandered” his master’s property. Both characters give away money and then find forgiveness in the end. Both parables are about extravagant, even unfair forgiveness.
In the parable of the unjust steward, though, there is no loving father to mercifully forgive his irresponsible son, just a guy who wastes even more of his boss’ money by secretly pardoning all the debts of his workers. And so…everyone scratches their heads and says: Huh?
But this is typical Jesus turning the tables on our “religious” ideas about forgiveness. The poor, the marginalized—they are the ones to whom much is owed. Society unjustly treats them. The world is out of balance. The rich get richer. The poor get poorer. Jesus, throughout the Gospels, asks the question: will the poor welcome you into the age to come, or will they say: I never knew you? We spend so much time in Christian circles trying to get Jesus to welcome us into heaven, and yet, if we listen to what Jesus actually taught and lived, he sided with the poor and marginalized and gave them the authority to welcome or not to welcome.
Jesus pulled forgiveness down from the clouds and taught his followers to tangibly cancel debts, expecting nothing in return.
He called them to sell possessions and give alms to the poor. Sure, it was 1st Century Palestine, but they might as well have been in 2013 Philly. Nothing has changed. People called “poor” are those who must constantly borrow money, remaining subject to oppressors and owners. As a nation, the U.S. continues to propagate an unjust system in which people are born into poverty and debt. This idea has been implanted in other countries, too. Land is taken from people who have worked it for generations. Now they have to pay taxes to someone else. Are you born into a poor family? You already owe a debt before you can even speak or walk; you owe someone richer than you. In fact, that will never change, UNLESS your debts are forgiven by someone else. Jesus preached that social status was a façade and can even lead to our destruction. This is why the last become the first in God’s kingdom reality.
Forgiveness, then, is so much more than some religious tradition or an individualistic feel-good band aid for us. It is not limited to believing that Jesus died on the cross to forgive us, and so we are okay. Forgiveness isn’t about believing in substitutionary atonement: that Jesus took my place and so now I don’t have to do anything.
Forgiveness is about acting out of compassion for yourself and for others.
Forgiveness requires us to give something.
David gave up his social status, his rule, and his time.
Nebuchadnezzar gave his mind and then his financial resources.
The steward took a risk and gave his reputation.
What do you need to for-GIVE?
Let’s keep this on the ground and not in the clouds.
So if you need to, take religion out of the equation if it distracts you.
If you feel shame or guilt because of the cross, the Bible, or your inability to forgive—take religion out of it. Seriously.
Forgiveness is a release.
So however you need to approach it, don’t feel limited. Jesus taught freedom for our captive minds and bodies. Forgiveness is about a free release of debts—whatever they may be.
So focus on the debts that others owe you in relationships. Who has hurt you? What do you need to give to forgive them? Maybe you need to give time to writing a letter to that person who has hurt you, expressing your anger, frustration, and sadness over what he/she has done. Write the letter and read it back to yourself. Maybe write another one. Read it.
Or maybe you need to give distance between you and that person in order to really evaluate the situation. Perhaps you need to give yourself [and that person] space.
Or, you may need to give your resources, including money. Have you ever considered how giving to those who are pushed down and marginalized can help you forgive and be forgiven? Try it. And I’m not talking about superficial charity [throwing money at a problem so it will go away]. I mean giving of yourself to a person or a group of people who really can use your help. Believe me, everyone can help. You don’t have to be monetarily rich. Some people just need a friend because they have been bullied their whole life. Some need a job; maybe you have connections. Some need food. Some need rent money. Others need medical care. Some need to take a class to get a job. She needs to talk to a counselor; maybe he needs to learn how to cook for his family. Some people need shoes and clothes. Some kids are shut out of a good education. What can you give?
By no means am I saying that we can save the world all at once. But there are a lot of small ways that we can give of ourselves and make an impact. And in the process, we can participate in the release of debts–forgiveness.
Everyone deserves to be free of debt—everyone!
So friends, let us make forgiveness something we value.
Let us give our time, money, talent, and energy to it.
Whatever road you must take in your forgiving, be like the so-called unjust steward—do NOT wait. Start your journey now.
Find release for yourself and for others.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 1952.