Stories

It was my youngest son’s birthday a few days ago. He’s thirty-nine years old. He once told me that what he remembers most from his childhood are the stories I used to tell him. I wasn’t even aware that I was telling him stories. I was just trying to be a good dad and help him grow in the right direction. So I told him stories in order to teach him lessons. That was long before I became a teacher.

Once I became a teacher, I learned that was a good way to teach. You should start with what you know. If a person can see how one thing is like something he or she already knows, it is easier to understand. For example, it is easier to learn to multiply if you understand that multiplication is just adding the same number a whole bunch of times. So, as I teach, I tell stories all day long.

In Japanese culture, parents teach their children by telling stories. Rather than talk at their kids with a bunch of rules and directives, they simply tell stories around the dinner table about some kid who did something bad, such as fail a test or something, and about the dishonor it brought on the family.

Meanwhile, their own kids are sitting at the table listening to the story and they learn that failing a test or something brings dishonor on the family without being preached at. It is really a very effective way to teach.

Many times, you need to tell stories to teach something because that’s the only way a person can understand what you’re trying to teach. There are some things that just can’t be explained using language. So you tell a story about some kind of experience so that the person listening to the story can understand what you’re saying. For example, if I tell you my foot hurts, you don’t know what I’m experiencing exactly. All you know is that I’m in pain. But you don’t know what kind of pain it is or how badly it hurts. If, on the other hand, I tell you that it feels as if there were a pebble in my shoe, you have some understanding of how that might feel. This is why Zen masters use the ko-an to try to explain the concepts of Chan Buddhism.

Haiku poetry is more than just seventeen syllables arranged to sound pretty. Each poem is supposed to help the reader on the road to enlightenment. In each short haiku poem there is a clue to the meaning of the universe. Every author knows this idea of teaching. Don’t tell me; show me. Jesus understood that. That’s why he taught in parables. And, like the zen ko-an, either you get them, or you don’t. You can’t really try to get them. Some of those parables, however, are hard to understand from a twentieth century American point of view. Take, for example, this parable from the sixteenth chapter of Luke.

And also he said to the disciples, “There was a certain rich person who was having a steward, and this (steward) was accused to him of squandering his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give the word of your stewardship, for you are no longer able to steward.’

But the steward said to himself, ‘What might I do? For my lord is taking away the stewardship from me. I am not strong enough to dig. I am ashamed to beg. I know what I might do so that when I am removed from the stewardship they might receive me into their homes.’

And he called every one of his lord’s debtors. He began saying to the first, ‘How much do you owe my lord?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly (and) write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and write eighty.’

And the lord commended the unjust steward because he did wisely, for the children of this age are wiser than the children of light in this generation. And I say to you, make to yourselves friends out of the mammon of injustice so that when it might fail, they may welcome you into the eternal tents.

The faithful one in least is also faithful in much, and the one unjust in least is also unjust in much. If then, you have not become faithful toward unjust mammon, who will trust to you the true? And if you have not become faithful toward the things of a stranger, who will give you yours? No servant is able to serve two lords, for that one will hate the one and love the other, or will hold the one and despise the other. You are not able to serve God and mammon.” (Luke, Chapter 16, direct translation)

Now I have to say that this story makes no sense to us today. Here is this steward, a house manager, who has basically embezzled his boss’s money. This would be very much like the city manager of Bell here in California. Actually, this would be most of the executives on Wall Street these days. And now he’s been caught. So, realizing that he could never hold down a regular job, he goes to all the people who owe his boss money and renegotiates their debts so that they will be grateful to them.

And when the boss finds out about this, rather than being even more pissed, instead commends him for his actions. What? Hello! That just doesn’t make any sense, at least, not to me. Jesus wants me to be like this servant? Is Jesus telling me to be dishonest? I find this story confusing. But it is less so if we see it through the eyes of someone living in first century Judea.

First of all, the master of this house is most likely not a nice guy. He was most likely some Greek or Roman, one of the oppressors, living in Jerusalem. He no doubt acquired his wealth by taking the property of those in debt to him. The steward would have been his employee, or, most likely, his slave. The people listening to this story as Jesus told it would not have seen the master in a positive light. Of course, they would not have seen the steward in a positive light either, for he worked for the master, helping him oppress the people.

The steward is in a real jam. He has squandered his boss’s money and now he’s told he’s out of a job. He doesn’t want to beg, and he doesn’t want to work for a living. So he comes up with a brilliant plan. He calls in all the people who owe his boss money and has them write new promissory notes, reducing each person’s debt. Now he’s very, very popular with the people who owe his boss money. And this puts his boss in a real quandary.

Nothing was more important in the first century than your reputation. You didn’t want a lot of money back then to buy stuff. There wasn’t that much to buy. You wanted money because people respected you if you were rich. If you were rich, it meant God liked you. You must be a righteous guy. Two things could dishonor you. One was having your servant make a fool of you, and the other was to go back on your word.

Now, if the master fires his servant for renegotiating the debts, he has admitted his servant was dishonest. And if he cancels the new loan agreements, he has gone back on his word. The master has no way out of this without losing face. The only thing he can do is go through with the new deal and pretend it was all his idea. He knows he has been bested and he cannot help but admire the cleverness of his servant.

The people listening to this story would have thought it was pretty cool that the poor people had their debts reduced. They would have been pleased that the master had been forced into this situation. It serves him right, living in Jerusalem and ripping off all these people out in the countryside. Jesus commends the servant for using the master’s own money to best him. He squandered the master’s money and then squandered even more of it to get himself out of trouble once he was found out.

Jesus frequently teaches the way to true enlightenment is not in acquiring a bunch of money and stuff. That will not bring you closer to God. But there is nothing inherently evil in either money or in stuff. It’s not having that stuff that’s bad; it’s what you do with it. Jesus says to use the things of this world to make it a better place.

And for all of you who hated the idea of helping out those people who were in mortgages over the heads due to the economic crisis because they got themselves into this problem through their own fault, I say that Jesus said time and again that people should be forgiven their “debts.” It’s right there in the Lord’s Prayer–”and release us from our sins, for we ourselves release all that is owed to us.” The phrase is panta opheilo. It’s present tense, active voice, passive mood, and it’s about money–”all that is owed.”

Luke, more than any other gospel writer, takes the side of the poor. Matthew tells us “blessed are the poor”, just as Luke does. But Luke also says, “Woe to the rich.” Jesus told us to lend expecting nothing in return. In fact, for hundreds of years, it was against the law for Christians to charge interest on loans. Of course, during the middle ages it was determined that only applied to loaning money to other Christians.

The medieval church decided that Christians could charge all the interest they wanted to Jews, Muslims, and pagans. So they would loan money at interest to Jews who would, in turn, loan it out to Christians at even more interest. This is how so many Jewish people came into the banking industry. Banking was about the only way to earn a living that the Christians would allow the Jews, and now they complain that the Banking industry has so many Jews. That’s human nature for you.

Ultimately, the money we earn is going to fail us. People are more important, really. The servant understood this. By reducing the debts of the poor, he made a lot of friends. He knew that when he got tossed out on his can, there would be plenty of people ready to help him out. The wealthy master, on the other hand, had made his money by ripping off the poor. He trusted his wealth. Who would be there to help him out if he lost all his wealth? You think his rich pals would help him out? Yeah, right.

The crooked steward knew who to bet on. He used that money to make friends for himself, so that he would be “welcomed into their eternal tents.” You either love money or you love people. Either you trust God or you trust money. You can’t do both. They say about 90% of the wealth of the world is in the hands of 2% of the people. And they use their wealth to make even more wealth while people starve in the streets. And these people resent having their taxes raised. Maybe it would be nice if we learned to share. You think?

Anyway, the parable of the master and the steward is an example of a rich guy’s wealth being redistributed to the poor thanks to a clever, if not altogether honest, servant.

Jesus is just saying you’re better off being a friend to the poor than a friend to the rich. You should use the money and stuff you acquire here on earth to help out those people who have less than you. It’s just like the lessons I used to teach my son all those years ago. It’s good to share. It’s also good to be clever.