On Vice and Virtue – a Tale of Two Servants
They told on him. He’d been bad. He was wasteful, said some. Unjust, posted others. His boss was having none of it. His head was headed for the chop – metaphorically!
We’re not let in on the fine details of his misdemeanours. He is not even accorded the courtesy of a name. Jesus Christ is not about to waste precious efforts on minutiae. Why spoil a good story with trifle! The master storyteller knows well how to plot a parable. He’s about to serve us a Robin Hood – long before Robin Hood!
In the gospel of Luke 16: 1-8, Christ tells the parable of the unjust servant. Having fallen out of favour with his boss, he manipulates the liabilities of his boss’ debtors in order to gain favour with them. Strangely, the boss who, at first reading, is short-changed by this transaction commends the servant. Stranger still, Jesus himself, a teacher of righteousness, approves the seemingly dodgy transaction!
This story is a favourite of those who like to challenge the teachings of Christ. Christ seemingly sanctifying forgery is all that’s needed to impugn his integrity. It’s a nightmare for those in the church who know no more than to engage in theodicy. A little knowledge is a grave thing. To others who are familiar with the Ancient near Eastern equivalent of modern-day bailiffs, it makes perfect sense. The unjust servant simply knocks off the add-on that should have been payment for his services. Makes perfect sense. Quod erat demonstrandum.
If, as Christ teaches, the action of the unjust servant has the potential to leverage him to eternal habitation, it follows then that his transaction is with heaven and the debtors his bargaining chips. Allow me to explain.
God would not allow lack to compromise the integrity of His holy ones.
There’s a rabbinic exegesis called ‘an argument for the sake of heaven’. It is read into situations in which a sage, a long-held belief or a law is challenged by a new reading, exposition or action. Rather than be scandalised by such effrontery, the context and the motive of the challenger are considered and if thought to be noble, such a challenge is regarded as an act or argument for the sake of heaven.
A classic instance of such a case was at Baal Peor when Phinehas kills a Jewish man and his Midianite consort.Numbers 25:3-14 However one spins it, such extrajudicial killing is murder. But God saw it differently and blessed Phinehas with a covenant of generational priesthood and peace. Why reward anyone for breaking the sixth commandment? The rabbis said it was because Phinehas did it for the sake of heaven.
Scripture is replete with instances where a judge’s gavel should have hit the bench but no sound is heard. Moses kills the Egyptian for oppressing a Hebrew and is called by God to deliver his peopleExodus 2:11-12, Rahab betrays her people and her country for self-preservation and is called righteousJames 2:25, our Lord Jesus Christ heals on the Sabbath and we consider his merciful intervention perfectly justifiableMatthew 12:10-12 and the pièce de résistance, Abraham challenges the righteousness of divine justice,Genesis 18:25 but heaven did not fall.
A common thread runs through these instances: they were all done in defence of the weak or in furtherance of a divine objective – or as the Rabbis say – for the sake of heaven.
Abraham challenged the righteousness of divine justice, and heaven did not fall.
This is in contrast to acts that simply serve the individual. Gehazi, the servant of Elisha, drooling all over Naaman’s dainty offers such a contrast. Thanks to Elisha’s integrity, God has a glorious opportunity to demonstrate that He is powerful, merciful, non-proselytizing and gracious, by freely delivering the Syrian of a debilitating and socially limiting condition. But Gehazi has other plans. He devices a scheme to request, in modern Christian parlance, a ‘Love Gift’.
He runs to the Syrian and asks for the gifts his master declined, lies in the name of his master thereby bringing Elisha down from a higher ground, and then he lies to his master about his dodgy dealing. What a tangled web we weave… well, you know the drill. In the end, he gets all he asked for and a whole lot worse.2 Kings 5:9-27
The unjust servant on the other hand digs deep into divine sensibilities. At a level, he proves the Prophet Hosea’s dictum that mercy triumphs over judgment. Interventions that undo heavy burdens on others are big among ancient Israelites. They were considered acts of loving kindness and endowed with the potential for atonement.
The capacity for acts that undo heavy burdens to move heaven was revealed by the Prophet Isaiah:
“Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?….Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy rereward.” Isaiah 58:6-8
It is with this tradition in mind that the unjust servant’s master commends him. But that’s only half the point Christ makes with that parable. The other point is that the unjust servant demonstrates a dimension of wisdom lacking in the church. As he put it:
“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.”Luke 16:8
Why did the Lord take a stick to the hide of the church? It hacks back to the Gehazi syndrome. Whereas the unjust servant takes a hit on his gains to undo heavy burdens as a leverage to eternal blessing, Gehazi, Minister to the One who heals freely, demands a ‘Love Gift’! Get it?
When the Lord gave a commission, he said to his church:
“Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.”Matthew 10:8
It’s a divine commandment not to request payment in any guise for the work of Christ’s ministry. God looks after his own. Just as Elisha feeds a hundred prophets with 20 loaves of new barley 1 Kings 4:42-44 (with leftovers), Christ commands a fish to provide money for his tax and those of his disciples. Where there’s a commission, there’s provision. God would not allow lack to compromise the integrity of His holy ones.
Many outside the church volunteer their time to bring hope to impoverished parts of the world… Not for hope of eternal life, but because they are part of the human conversation.
But it appears the clergy miss the adjunct to that commandment: “freely ye have received, freely give.”
John Donne, the Elizabethan metaphysical poet once wrote: “Everyman’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in humanity.”
Many outside the church take these words to heart and volunteer their time and talent to bring hope to the impoverished and despairing parts of the world. Not for money or hope of eternal life, but because they are part of the human conversation.
In his epistle general, St James the Just wrote that sacrifices made for the good of another were a testament to faith.James 2:18 St Paul echoed that sentiment in his epistle to the Romans:
“For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.”Romans 2:14-15
Gehazi is the archetype of those who understudy the Master but nevertheless emerge none the wiser. Very often and rather regrettably, Christ sees in the unjust servant a wisdom that will be lacking in the church. Why? Because the church is led by many Gehazis.
Ultimately the point of that parable is to nudge the church in the direction of divine wisdom and deliver ministers from the grip of the Gehazi syndrome. Freely we are given. Freely we must give.