Sermon: A complete puzzle of a parable

Sermon for Wesley Uniting Church
22nd of September 2019

 Luke 16:1-13

Last week I said that when Jesus told parables he was not doing so to make his message easier to hear; that the story form was not the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Parables were meant to leave Jesus’ hearers with something to chew on, something to puzzle over and argue against so that the parable became part of them. Well, if that was Jesus’ intention in telling his parables, complicating the issue so that his hearers were forced to reflect on his message, he certainly succeeded in the one we hear today. Almost no one has any idea what this story is really about. The Church Fathers tended to ignore it;[1] renowned biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann apparently declared it to be incomprehensible;[2] and some commentators have suggested that Luke himself was baffled by Jesus’ story, and so added a series of morals to the end of the parable in the hope that they would make sense of an otherwise nonsensical tale.[3] It’s a parable that is ‘deeply unsettling to our sense of justice and fair play’;[4] and one that is often ignored.[5]  I know that the congregation here at Wesley can cope with wrestling with a difficult parable, so we won’t ignore it. But please make allowances for the confusion of what follows!

After telling three parables about finding the lost aimed at the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus is now talking to his disciples. We later find that the Pharisees overheard what he said, but this parable is specifically for those following Jesus. We can expect it, then, to be a story that tells us something about discipleship. But what?

The story starts with a rich man. Nothing in Luke’s gospel has led us to expect anything good from such a person.[6] But this rich man is not the protagonist of the parable; that turns out to be the rich man’s manager. (The very fact that the rich man has such a manager is a sign of how very rich he is.) The manager has been squandering the rich man’s property. At least, charges to that effect have been brought, and the manager is not attempting to defend himself. Incidentally, the same word, ‘squandering,’ was used for what the younger son did in the parable Jesus just told the Pharisees and the scribes. Maybe the manager was also an example of ‘dissolute living’? At any rate, he’s now in trouble. Jesus’ world was one with a very tiny elite. A manager might temporarily live a life of luxury as he acted on behalf of his master, but once he lost that role he would be back among the 90-95% of the population who were peasants. And, as this manager says, ‘I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg’. If he doesn’t figure something out fast, he’s going to starve.

The manager has two things going for him. The first is that he’s not yet been publicly dismissed. He has just been asked to give an account of his management. The second is that he lives in a world based on reciprocal obligation. If he does a good turn to people, they are obliged to respond in the same way. Taking advantage of the fact that he is still able to act on his master’s behalf, the manager calls his master’s debtors; asks them how much they owe; and reduces their debts. That the two debtors we hear of owe ‘a hundred jugs of olive oil’ and ‘a hundred containers of wheat’ suggest that these might be wealthy tenants, who have agreed to work the rich man’s land and pay him some of the produce.[7] They are good friends for the manager to make. That the manager tells them to alter their bills ‘quickly’ suggests that he is trying to get this done before his changed position comes to light. As far as the debtors are concerned he is still acting on behalf of the rich man, and so that rich man is showing himself to be remarkably generous. When the rich man comes to hear of the manager’s deeds he won’t be able to repudiate them without losing face. The rich man will have to accept the reduction in the debts, together with his new reputation as a creditor of great generosity and honour.[8] And the manager, who was the conduit for this generosity, will, hopefully, find himself welcome in the debtors’ homes.

Then comes the most difficult sentence in the whole parable: ‘And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.’ Why on earth would the master commend the ‘dishonest manager’ for reducing the repayment he will get from his debtors? The word for ‘master’ is ‘kyrios’ and Luke uses that as a title for Jesus. Maybe we’re meant to instead read this verse as: ‘The Lord (Jesus) commended the manager’. One commentator I read this week did argue that the master commending the manager is Jesus himself.[9] After all, at the core of Jesus’ ministry was the forgiveness of debts, real and metaphoric. The cancelling of debts could be a metaphor for the forgiveness of sins; so perhaps it is in this parable, and the ‘children of this age’ are the same people that Jesus described in the previous three parables as the lost, while ‘the children of light’ are those who considered themselves righteous, the Pharisees and scribes who refused to forgive sins and cancel debts.

The trouble with that interpretation is that the parable doesn’t read that way. It looks as though Jesus is using ‘kyrios’ to describe the rich man, rather than Luke using it to refer to Jesus. So other commentators explain away the steward’s dishonesty here by arguing that he was merely reducing overly oppressive and illegal interest, or the portion of the repayment of the debt that he himself would have skimmed off the top, and so his reductions were righteous. It still wouldn’t make sense for the master to commend the manager for reducing the illegal interest that he himself had decided to charge, but he might commend the manager for proving himself prudently ready to forgo his own share in the interest in order to ensure a later welcome.

Another intriguing suggestion is that in reducing the debts owed to his master the manager was here not acting dishonestly at all. He was acting prudently and according to accepted custom by reducing debts that tenants were finding hard to repay, thus ensuring that good tenants continued to work the rich man’s land, and were even more committed to paying their debts when they could.[10] In that case, while the manager was ‘dishonest’ in his initial squandering of his master’s property, he has shown himself to be both shrewd and honest in reducing the debts of his master’s tenants, and this is the example of ‘being faithful with what belongs to another’ that Jesus then tells his disciples to follow.

Perhaps we are to compare this story with the tale from earlier in the gospel of the rich fool?[11] Both the manager and the rich fool ask themselves ‘what shall I do’ at significant points in the story. The rich fool, overwhelmed by the abundance of his crop, pulls down his barns and builds larger ones in which to store it. But that very night he dies and is unable to enjoy his wealth. Jesus ended that parable with, ‘So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God’. (Luke 12:13-21) The rich fool would have been seen to have acted wisely and the unjust manager foolishly, but that is not how the parables end. Is the unjust manager being praised for scattering wealth rather than storing it up, in imitation of the God who provides food for the birds even though they neither sow nor reap, and who clothes the grasses of the field in glory?

Maybe the series of sayings at the end of this parable are to remind us that all wealth is ‘dishonest,’ in the sense that nothing we have really belongs to us. In that case, when Jesus says, ‘make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes’ it might be a repetition of what he told his disciples earlier: ‘Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven. (Luke 12:33) The treasure that we have been given on earth, ‘dishonest wealth’ that it is, should be scattered widely as charity, and thus we will show ourselves faithful in the ‘true riches’. By almsgiving, we will show that we are serving God rather than mammon.

Eugene Peterson has what I think is the most surprising interpretation of the parable, but one that I like. He suggests that it is no accident that this parable follows immediately after the one about the two lost sons and their prodigally loving father, or that both the younger son and the manager are described as having squandered someone else’s property. Peterson thinks that the rich man, the kyrios, like the father in the previous parable, is an avatar of God. Here we see again God’s acceptance of the lost, even when they don’t repent, when they don’t return and apologise, when they continue their dishonesty. He writes:

The son and the manager both experience ‘amazing grace.’ The son is not banned from the family. The manager is not jailed. They do not reap what they sowed. They do not get what they deserve. After a lifetime of doing it wrong, they finally get it right. The son gets an extravagant party from his father. The manager gets a surprising commendation from his boss.[12]

It’s an ingenious explanation, but I don’t think it’s a particularly plausible one.

Susan Eastman agrees with Petersen that the placement of this parable immediately after the one about the lost sons in significant, but she thinks that it’s the dishonest manager who is an avatar of God, saying:

The steward’s financial management reveals the way God acts towards us, and God’s way of acting is to cancel our debts, to give unstintingly precisely to the undeserving, the bad bets, the losers, in short, all of us sinners who can never repay God’s generosity.[13]

Again, ingenious, but not, I think, completely plausible.

But that is where I’m going to end today. I have no idea what Jesus intends us to take from this parable! I have spent the week pondering the many different explanations from different commentators, and I am no wiser at the end than I was at the beginning. But what I have done this week is ponder the nature of wealth; whether all wealth is dishonest; and what it means to be faithful in both ‘dishonest wealth’ and ‘true riches’. I have been chewing on this parable, as Jesus’ first hearers would have chewed it over on their way home that evening, wondering what the Lord meant by this story. That’s what I now leave you to do, too.

 

 

[1] Luca Marulli, ‘”And how much do you owe … ? Take your bill, sit down quickly, and write …” (Luke 16:55-6)’ Tyndale Bulletin 63.2 (2012), p. 199.

[2] Eugene Peterson, ‘A puzzling parable: Gospel rascals,’ Christian Century October 7, 2008, p. 30.

[3] Ryan S. Schellenberg, ‘Which Master? Whose Steward? Metalepsis and Lordship in the Parable of the Prudent Steward (Luke 16.1-13), JSNT 30.3 (2008), P. 263.

[4] Susan Eastman, p. 57.

[5] Peterson, ‘A puzzling parable’ p. 30.

[6] Peter S. Hawkins, ‘Reflections on the lectionary,’ Christian Century, August 31, 2016, p. 21.

[7] Marulli, ‘”And how much do you owe … ?”’ p. 209.

[8] Marulli, ‘”And how much do you owe … ?”’ p. 216.

[9] Schellenberg, ‘Which Master? Whose Steward?’ pp.

[10] John K. Goodrich, ‘Voluntary Debt Remission and the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-13) JBL 131 no. 3 (2012), pp. 547-566.

[11] R. Daniel Schumacher, ‘Saving Like a Fool and Spending Like it Isn’t Yours: reading the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-8a) in Light of the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-20)’ Review and Expositor 109, Spring 2012, pp. 269-76.

[12] Peterson, ‘A puzzling parable’ pp. 30-4.

[13] Susan Eastman, p. 58.

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1 Response to Sermon: A complete puzzle of a parable

  1. Kate says:

    Thanks, Avril. Still not able to get to church and now I feel like I’ve had the first sermon in nearly 3 months. Much appreciated-and much to ponder.

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