The most difficult parable?

I preached today at St. Timothy’s Anglican Church in Edmonton. I was glad to get the invitation, because their Rector is a person whom I hold in high regard, and I was aware that the parish had been going through some troubles in recent times. If I could help, I would!

However, my gladness abated a bit when I realized what the appointed Gospel was. Because of the situation of my most recent parish, I had not preached on this text for about 20 years, and I recalled struggling mightily with it in earlier years.

Following arethe notes for the sermon I preached today on Luke 16:1-13, with a nod to Jeremiah 8:18-9:1.

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There may be no more difficult parable in the Gospels than the story of the dishonest manager (or steward, as some translations give it). Scholars have turned themselves inside out for many centuries trying to give a coherent account of what at first glance appears to be Jesus condoning dishonesty.

There are several issues here, not least how we read parables. We usually just want to know what it means, expecting a straightforward answer. A few parables allow for this kind of reading, but most of them do not. Especially not this one!

Many people try to read parables allegorically, making each aspect stand for something else. Again, some parables can work this way, but trying to make this story an allegory of anything is an exercise in frustration.

The point of a parable is (as a friend has put it) that Jesus is “messing with us.” Parables generally take well-known situations, and then give them a twist, disturbing the sense of familiarity in the rest of the story. The theologian Sally McFague said that parables open cracks in our reality, making new possibilities available. As Leonard Cohen wrote:

There’s a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

What is that light that gets in? When the crack has appeared in an unexpected place, the light comes from an unexpected source, often revealing an unexpected truth. We should not be surprised that the truth is at times hard to perceive. Jesus said on several occasions: Let anyone with ears to hear listen! He knew, of course, that many people would not have ears to hear.

The parable is puzzling, so we need to consider its context, both in the Gospel and in the culture of 1st-century Palestine.

First observation: it is explicitly addressed to the disciples, but the actual audience is more complex. In Ch. 14 we are told that large crowds are traveling with him, and he takes time to sort them out. The audience for the next few chapters consists of an inner circle (the disciples), a crowd, probably “people of the land,” and some scribes and Pharisees.

Although this parable is addressed to the disciples, we can be confident that the others, especially the Pharisees, are leaning in to hear what he’s saying. I believe we can be just as confident that Jesus was aware of them.

Who were these two groups? The people of the land – the ordinary folks – probably made up the bulk of Jesus’ hangers-on. They were people looking for some relief from an oppressive social situation, with rich landlords (many in league with the Romans) using their labour to amass great fortunes. This is nothing new. We heard from Jeremiah how the prophet weeps for his “poor people,” who are not saved even after the harvest has ended. And look at Isaiah 5:8, from more than a century before:

Ah, you who join house to house,
   who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
   and you are left to live alone
   in the midst of the land!

The dominance of the “1%” is nothing new. That’s our second primary observation – the socio-economic condition of the times.

The Pharisees sought to keep the Torah to the letter. In their own way, they were also responding to the times, attempting to purify a land that they saw as defiled by foreign occupation. They were a middle-class movement. They were not associated with the ruling class, many of whom were economic sell-outs to the Romans. They were also not associated with the people of the land, who were too involved with their daily work to observe the finer points of the law or to remain ritually pure.

So… let me offer some thoughts about the parable that make sense to me.

Rich landlords hired managers (“stewards”) to keep their estates producing their profits, profiting from the labour of the people of the land. This manager has been fattening his own wallet by cheating both the people and the landowner. When he is caught, he realizes that his source of income is about to come to an end. No more skimming the profits for himself! He has lost favour with his boss, so he turns to the debtors to curry favour with them. He will no doubt lose money, but he will rise in the esteem of those whose debts he has forgiven. He is still shorting the boss but note what he has done: he has changed his priorities, from amassing wealth to building relationships.

His life before this has been devoted to building up his bank balance, using whatever means were at his disposal. What he seems to be missing is the responsibility that comes with wealth. The question for all of us is, not how much we possess, but what we do with it. Faced with the loss of income, the manager turns to the only alternative – to make friends.

Now here’s the big twist in the story: instead of damning the manager further for reducing his take, the rich man commends him for doing what he can to amend his life. This really is Jesus messing with us: any ordinary rich man would be doubly angered by being cheated once more.

The verse after our reading is this:

The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.

Maybe they did – but how did the crowds hear him?

Let’s hear what St. Augustine said:

God gives us people to love and things to use, not things to love and people to use…

Another quote, this one from Julian DeShazier, writing in The Christian Century:

The most important thing about money is what we do with it in our hearts.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with money. But there’s a lot wrong with how some people use it. As it is often said, we are blessed to “be a blessing.” The manager discovered this almost by accident and was commended for his shrewdness. The true wealth of our lives is not found in the bottom line of financial statements, but in relationships we build with other people. Through those relationships, we can build up not just ourselves, our acquaintances, or our friends and family. We can also build up the people of God, and as N.T. Wright has put it “build for the Kingdom of God.”

All that we have, all that we are, all that have been and will become, is given to us for one purpose, and one purpose alone. We are called to build up God’s people with the many and various gifts God has bestowed on us.

Together blessed, may we as God’s people live into God’s now and future kingdom.

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Published by

robinw48

Retired priest of the Anglican Church of Canada, living in Edmonton AB, and serving as an Honorary Assistant at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Old Strathcona.

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