A Meditation on Luke 16: 1 – 13, “the Hardest Parable”
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church September 22, 2019
A “morally ambiguous” character comes to a crisis point in his life due to his questionable choices. The crisis leads to chaos, and the chaos provokes an internal reflection leading to a possible solution. The character, in his longing to return home, makes a “decisive turn of behavior.” (This is sounding rather like the story line for the Netflix series “Lucifer,” which, if you haven’t seen it is about the devil seeking a different life here on earth.) Anyway, the protagonist is welcomed home, and receives a “reward and approval.” [i]
What parable am I describing? (Need to read it again?)
Does the “Prodigal Son,” otherwise known as “the forgiving father,” ring any bells?
A son squanders his inheritance. Notice that word, squander, because this same Greek word, διασκορπίζω (diaskorpizō) “squander” is used in both parables! The younger son squanders the inheritance, loses everything, has a conversation with himself in which he decides to turn over a new leaf, finally returning home to receive a warm welcome, new clothes and a party! The plot line of the parable we read this morning, the parable of the “shrewd manager” or “dishonest manager,” is a mirror image of the Prodigal Son. Luke places these parables back to back, and we should take note of this because we will need all the clues we can get in order to wrestle with what theologians refer to as “the hardest parable.” Aren’t we all asking ourselves if we really heard Jesus praising a man for cheating?!?
In addition to holding the parable of the forgiving father as a reference point, we also need context and some understanding of the economic system of Jesus’ day. Remember that this is Luke’s telling of Jesus’ life and Luke’s heart is with the impoverished and oppressed. That is the lens through which he viewed Jesus’ ministry. Luke’s version of the beatitudes reads:
“Happy are you who are poor, (not poor in
spirit, but poor)
because God’s kingdom is yours.
Happy are you who hunger now,
because you will be satisfied. (Luke 6: 20 – 21a)
Luke is the writer who gives us the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19 – 31, next week’s story) in which Lazarus is ushered to heaven while the rich man, who ignored the needs of his neighbors, has no promise of rest in the world to come. And we should be surprised by none of this because Luke is the writer who begins his narrative with the voice of Mary. Mary, who upon visiting Elizabeth and sharing the news of her pregnancy, sings out,
He has pulled the powerful down from their
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed. (Luke 1: 52 – 53)
Luke carries forward the voices of the prophets who spoke of God’s compassion for the oppressed long before Jesus walked the earth. He Identifies in Jesus a renewal of those voices and so he offers us this incredibly perplexing parable. It would appear that it even stumped Luke, for he tagged several sayings to the conclusion of the parable. Not that any of these really help us unpack it, but thanks for trying, Luke.
So what do we have? Jesus sets this parable into the realities of the working world in which he lived. There’s an absentee owner. That was the way of the world then, just as it often is now; and a manager who is responsible for all the day to day oversight of the property. We can assume the manager in Jesus’ story is not a slave because the owner is going to fire him, and you don’t fire a slave, you simply sell him off to the next owner. It wasn’t unusual for a manager to be a slave.
The owner calls in the manager. “You have been squandering my money! You are fired!” Panic sets in. He does an honest assessment. He hasn’t been a day laborer in forever so he isn’t strong enough to go back to that kind of work. He knows himself and that he is too proud to beg, so he hatches a plan. The manager calls in those who owe the owner money. They don’t know he has been fired, so he gets away with a very shrewd move. In each case he reduces the amount that is owed to the landowner in hopes that once he is no longer employed these people might be his friends, might show him mercy in return. The landowner gets wind of what has happened, calls in the manager and compliments him on his savvy business dealings…what??!!
The owner, who was furious because the manager had been wasting his money, now compliments him for what he has done? Does this mean the manager gets to keep his job? And who is the rat who keeps running to the owner with all the inside scoop? That’s what I want to know.
Luke, who feels obligated to include this parable while the other gospel writers chose to ignore it, does a crazy song and dance, throwing any possible phrase about money on to the end. We don’t really know where Jesus’s words end and Luke’s begin. Many scholars don’t believe Jesus actually said any of these additional phrases; they are Luke’s attempt to give the reader something to grasp. We can imagine him bent over his table, scribbling away.
Let’s see, “Whoever is faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who is dishonest with little is also dishonest with much.” That’s a good one! Captures the dishonesty in the parable.
Or maybe: If you haven’t been faithful with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? That sounds good!
But still not satisfied, Luke adds, “ If you haven’t been faithful with someone else’s property, who will give you your own?” That sounds like something the owner might say.
Or thinking about loyalty, “ No household servant can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other.”
And finally, exhausted from trying to cover every possible angle, Luke writes, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Underline. Underline. Underline. Exclamation point!
While there is truth in each of these statements, Jesus’ parables cannot typically be whittled down to a pithy saying. We know this. We hear the story of the Good Samaritan, we understand that all people are our neighbors, we embrace its simplicity, yet we know the challenge and risk of living out this truth. I think it is dangerous to try to reduce today’s parable to one of these extraneous sayings and I fear they distract us from what the parable may truly need to say to us.
So why, why does the owner say the manager has made a wise move? Could it possibly be because the manager, in reducing the debts, has actually removed the portion that he had tacked on for his own benefit? Some speculate that he has removed the enormous interest he was charging, a profit that would have ended up in his pocket. A profit which went against their religious practices. Although the manager’s motivation was to save his own neck, he made the right choice. Could this be what the owner commends him for? For doing the right thing…even it if is for the wrong reason?
Like the prodigal son before him, he has made a significant u-turn. Like the prodigal, he is prompted by his desire to save his own skin. Also, like the prodigal, it may bring him back home. Home, not as a physical location, but as a nearness to God experienced by living a life of truth. There’s also this: if the owner, the master is now aware of what has been happening, might he pay closer attention? Might the master recognize that necessity of paying the manager a living wage so that the manager doesn’t have to cheat the system to survive? However we see it, we can be assured Jesus was highlighting the brokenness of a system where some thrived and others suffered because of their thriving, and his listeners would have recognized what he was doing.
Lisher, in his commentary Reading the
Parables, makes one more connection between these two parables. In the
story of the prodigal, there is a jealous older son. He can’t fathom the grace
and mercy that his father extends to a brother who has done nothing but bring
shame to the family. With no counterpart to the older brother in today’s
parable, Lisher suggests that Luke takes on that very role. All of the
concluding sayings, all of the rationalizations, are his own thinly veiled
expressions of disapproval. Because yes, even the gospel writers are human.
Even the gospel writers struggled with the enormity of God’s mercy. Even they
got annoyed by the reality that God will welcome all to return home. That
includes cheaters and liars, and those with mixed motives. There’s room for Luke.
There’s room for beggars and diggers, and managers and owners. It is a messy
family, the one that welcomes all. It is a messy family with room for us all. Thanks
be to God. Amen.
[i] Lischer, Richard. Interpretation: Reading the Parables, Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, Louisville, KY, p. 101