Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Every now and then I come across a headline that restores my faith in humanity.
I hope y’all saw this news this week – the founder of Patagonia, the popular outdoor apparel company, gave the company away. The NYTimes reports that he, “his wife and two adult children have transferred their ownership of Patagonia, valued at about $3 billion, to a specially designed trust and a nonprofit organization… created to preserve the company’s independence and ensure that all of its profits… are used to combat climate change and protect undeveloped land around the globe.”
The article includes an inspiring profile of him: a person deeply committed to responsible stewardship of the earth as well as his own possessions. He utterly rejected wealth. His comment about the unprecedented business move: “Hopefully this will influence a new form of capitalism that doesn’t end up with a few rich people and a bunch of poor people.” Rather than finding tax loopholes to hide the company’s wealth in this transfer, the Chouinards will pay about $17.5 million in taxes, with no tax benefit or write-offs for charitable donation. He refused to take the company public. “Once you’re public, you’ve lost control over the company, and you have to maximize profits for the shareholder, and then you become one of these irresponsible companies.”
At great cost to himself, he ensured that the fortune and purpose of his company would remain committed to protecting the planet and fighting against climate change.
This is a remarkably honest and ethical stewardship of wealth.
It’s quite a contrast with parable of unjust steward – a story about a man who squanders what belongs to his master, gets caught in his misdeeds, and secures a safe future for himself by visiting other people who owe his master money and giving them all unauthorized reductions in their debt – doling out favors so he can receive a favor in return. It is a remarkably dishonest and unethical stewardship of wealth. And Jesus seems to be praising it.
This is one of the most confusing parables in all 4 gospels. So many thanks to The Rev. Katherine Flexer for passing this one off to the associate rector to handle.
I think the thing Jesus says that is the most confusing is “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.” Is Jesus really saying that lying and deception in order to get rich is virtuous?
Well, if we take a step further into the story, we’re confronted with the character of a steward. Stewards in the bible – and even beyond the time and culture of the bible – are not often regarded well. They had questionable morals, and often engaged in exploitative behavior. They valued economic profit whether or not it was achieved ethically. They were the kind of business manager that Patagonia’s CEO would not approve of.
And so in some ways, a parable about an unjust steward is … just a parable about a steward. Dishonesty and selfishness? No surprise there.
It’s another example of how biblical meaning can get lost on us, hearing it from a different time and place and social location. In this country, and language, and church, when we speak about being good stewards of the planet, or our possessions, we think of a person with integrity, responsibility, and upstanding moral ethics. By default, when we imagine ourselves as stewards of [whatever it is, fill in the blank], we consider the sound moral decisions we must make, what responsible oversight looks like.
You’ve probably heard language about stewardship in church talking about our time, talent, and treasure. Our understanding of stewardship is more expansive and positive than it is in the bible. Yes, stewardship tends to be coded church-speak for “giving money,” but there is a reason we talk about stewardship and not annual giving. Stewardship is how we care for and tend to what God has given us, and that’s not exclusive to our income.
In fact, I think our stewardship of time is one of the most precious and threatened commodities we face.
We’ve spent some time this summer talking about the value of spiritual practices and their direct relationship to who we are and how we act as Christians in America today. It’s why our small groups this fall are focusing on the Way of Love, which follows ancient spiritual wisdom for our modern age, to strengthen us to live as active Christian citizens. And something I’ve heard from many of you is “I love that, but I cannot imagine squeezing one more thing into my schedule.” We are all just so, so, so busy. The pressure we face as stewards of our time are, I think, unprecedented.
So I want to help you all out for a moment. You received a handout with a chart on it. You can tune me out right now and start filling it in, but I’d prefer you spend a few minutes with it later. But this is an activity our small groups will be starting with this week: stepping into the role of steward, and taking an accounting of how your time is spent. No judgement, no agenda, no “shoulds”. Just simply: How do you spend your time? How are you a steward of it? How do you take care of it, allocate it?
The case of the Patagonia CEO shows us that there is a cost to being a good steward, and it must be a cost we are willing to take on. Deciding how to be a good steward of your time might mean saying no to things you hate to miss out on. Being a good steward of your finances might mean divesting from fossil fuels or unethical companies and not growing your portfolio this year, or spending more on groceries and less on takeout, or tipping more generously.
We’re wary of the cost of our stewardship. The unjust steward knew he was exploiting people for profit, taking advantage of his master’s debtors to maximize their cash flow. Perhaps he thought the alternative was losing his job for not making his master enough money, but funny enough, he ended up losing his job anyway. The end did not justify the means.
But here’s where it gets interesting, because in order to save himself, he scrambles to send money in the other direction. He relieves his master’s debtors from their debts. He grants forgiveness to the people he had originally exploited.
In other words, he stops being an unjust steward.
Sure, it may have been dishonest, his actions unauthorized. But perhaps what Jesus is applauding here isn’t deception or dishonesty, but the fact that he finally chose to serve God instead of wealth. That he stopped exploiting people. That he did what he could to change the course of a system that survived on the oppression of the suffering.
Because being a good steward isn’t about making as much money as you can. It’s about taking care of what’s been entrusted to you – whether that’s the planet, a billion-dollar outdoor apparel company, the 24 hours you have in your day, your family, your body, your abilities, your neighborhood, your church.
Jesus tells us that as stewards, we ultimately have a choice: we can either serve God with what’s been entrusted to us, or we can serve wealth, and greed, and the values of the world around us.
May we have the courage to choose God. Amen.