‘THE MOST CONFUSING PARABLE’ – Luke 16:1-13 – The Parable of the Unjust Steward
A Sermon preached by Canon Gary Philbrick at St Mary’s, Fordingbridge, and Sandleheath Uniting Church on Trinity 14, Sunday, September 22nd, 2019.
I Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13
Trying to explain Parables is rather like trying to explain jokes – the risk is of ruination, rather than elucidation.
And that’s particularly so when we come to a Parable as tricky and as difficult to understand as the one we’ve heard this morning – the so-called ‘Parable of the Unjust Steward’ from Luke 16.
If you search on the internet for this Parable, you’ll find articles like ‘Oh no! Is it really time for ‘The Parable of the Dishonest Servant’’; or ‘The Strangest of them All’; or ‘The Most Confusing Parable’.
So, if you’re puzzled about what Jesus is trying to say in this Parable, you’re in good company. And if you’re not puzzled, you may just possibly have missed something!
I wrote a dissertation on Parables some years ago, called ‘Imagination and the Parables’, thinking about Jesus’ imagination in creating them, the imagination of the first hearers, and our imagination in listening to them many times. And one of my recommendations was that we need to try to illuminate the Parables, without trying to explain them. We need to discuss Parables in a way which enlarges the imagination, rather than dampening it down – that’s my challenge for this morning.
And one of the chapters, a really fascinating one to research, reflected on the titles of the Parables, and where they came from – not from Jesus, of course – they started to be used once Bibles started being printed at the time of the Reformation, initially as a sort of index, at the top of the page or in the margin, and then rather more polemically; and I also looked at what effect the titles of the Parables have on the listener.
This Parable is generally called ‘The Dishonest Steward’, or ‘The Unjust Steward’. But is that what it’s really about? What effect would it have on us if we thought of it as ‘The Parable of the Thoughtful Master’? Or ‘The Parable of the Right Use of Money’? Or something else – you could have a go at thinking of new titles for this Parable, and see what effect it has on your imagination and understanding.
The next thing to understand is that very few of the Parables are allegories. That is, there aren’t many when you can say that something or someone equals something or someone else. In this case, thinking that the ‘rich man’ [v. 1] = God, or the ‘master’ [v. 8] = Jesus. Allegories work by tying the imagination down, by explaining what is going on in a story, and there are examples of allegories and allegorical explanations in both the Old and New Testaments.
But Parables generally work differently – they are about expanding the imagination, about helping us to think about God and ourselves in a different way, in a new way.
One or two background details about this Parable.
Firstly, Jesus tends to use everyday objects – yeast, wheat, seeds – and everyday stories – the lost sheep, the sower going out to sow, and, quite possibly, in this case, an item from the Galilee Journal about a dishonest manager. He’s chosen a story from the everyday lives of his hearers – at this point, his Disciples. I wonder whether they’d heard such a piece of news, and been arguing amongst themselves – which we know they did – about the ethical issues involved.
The rich man is very rich! The amounts of produce mentioned, the olive oil and the wheat, indicate a large enterprise. The man is very rich, and he can afford to carry large debts.
The Manager, the Steward, is an important man. He is in effect the Chief Operating Officer of the Estate, dealing with large amounts of money and produce, and in a position of considerable trust and patronage. All his worries, expressed in verses 3 & 4, are genuine ones for a man in his exalted position. He is worried that he would be reduced to manual labour, for which he is not constitutionally suited, and he’s worried about where he’ll live – he’s living in tied accommodation, of course. And so he decides to use his patronage, and his authority over his master’s assets, to buy himself friends, so that someone will take him in when he’s turfed out of this job.
We might want to pause for a moment to reflect on the likely success of this scheme. There may be someone who is grateful enough at having his large debt reduced substantially, who might be happy to welcome the Manager into his home; but I wonder how that might affect his relationship with the Master, the rich man – to whom he still owes debts, even if they are now much smaller. And I also wonder how many others would think it a good idea to employ the Manager in a similar position, given that he seems rather free with his master’s wealth.
The twist in the Parable, and there is often a twist – the twist comes when the Master, in verse 8, commends the Manager, not for his dishonesty, but for the shrewdness of his actions.
Now verse 8 is a particularly interesting verse [See Green, Gospel of Luke, p.593f.]. As I read it, think about who is speaking: ‘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’. In the first half of the sentence, it is the master who is speaking; in the second half, there is a very swift sideways step, and it is Jesus who is commenting on the story. The master applauds the manager, not for his dishonesty, but for his acuity. Jesus the goes on to reflect on why he told the story. He seems to be saying, ‘[the] Children of this age…understand how the world works and use it to their benefit; why do [the] ‘Children of Light’ not understand the ways of the Kingdom of God?’ [Ibid, adapted].
Jesus is drawing on the image of time being divided into two ages – this age, and, as we say at the end of the Creed, the age ‘of the world to come’.
‘That Jesus can speak of the manager as one who is commended by one of his own generation for his having prudently taken advantage of the systems of this world and as [dishonest] is…not surprising. [The] wisdom on the part of[the]
‘Children of Light’, on the other hand, would take its directives from the new [age], the age [of the world] to come’ [Ibid, adapted].
That leaves us with the question, what sort of wisdom should we, as children of light, the children of the new age, be using? If the ‘children of this age’ use money to buy influence, to save themselves, how should the ‘children of light’ use their money and possessions?
Verse 13, the famous verse which used to be translated as ‘You cannot serve God and Mammon’, makes it clear that we cannot have two masters – it’s not saying that we can’t have money and be a Christian. It is saying that we need to choose which of the two will be the master, and which will be the servant. Is our money to be used in the service of God, or are we going to try to use God in service of our wealth?
Verse 9, not an easy verse to interpret, seems to be suggesting that we use what we have in ways which lead to eternal life. And verses 10-12 reflect on faithful service – being faithful in small things, so that we can be trusted with great things, the things of the Kingdom of Heaven, the wisdom of the children of Light.
What might we take from this Parable?
All of us, especially those in the rich West, need to reflect on our relationship with our money and possessions. What’s in charge of what? How do we use what we have in service of the present and coming Kingdom of God?
And what does it mean to be faithful and honest in the small things of life, so that we develop habits of faithfulness and trust for the large things in life?
And there is much else to be mined from this, the strangest and most confusing of all Parables – which is why you have it in Partners to take away with you and mull over during the coming week. AMEN.