Friday, June 22, 2012

The Strangest Parable

Following Matthew from the recommendation to cut off sin-causing body parts, we came to the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Luke had a parallel version of that parable, but with a different focus; celebration over the conversion of a sinner. Luke carried that same theme through in the subsequent Parable of the Lost Coin and the more-famous Parable of the Prodigal Son. In Luke, these parables are within a contiguous section of Jesus' teachings and parables, and that section continues on with...

The Strangest Parable
Although Jesus had spoken in parables to prevent people from understanding, and despite the fact that there are some accuracy problems within them, these parables often do provide a convenient platform and vivid illustrations for teaching purposes. Some parables are better than others; becoming favorite sermon starting points. This study is not about one of those better parables. Instead, this is about one parable which most pastors would prefer to skip or gloss over.

In Luke 16:1-13, you find the Parable of the Unjust Steward/Shrewd Manager, as well as some associated teachings. The parable goes like this:
A wealthy man heard that his hired manager was wasting that wealthy man's money, so he confronted the manager and demanded that he produce a record of his management. The manager knew that he would be fired, so he contacted people who owed debts to the wealthy man and recorded that their debts at a much reduced charge than what they should be, thinking that he would then be welcomed into the debtors' houses after he lost his job. When the wealthy man discovered the manager's actions, he commended him for acting wisely. (My paraphrase)
That makes sense, right? The wealthy man was going to fire the manager for wasting his money, but then turns around and commends the manager for reducing the debts owed to that wealthy man, which thereby cost the wealthy man money. What a brilliant parable. It really reflects reality, does it not?

Perhaps we should not be too hasty here. We need to consider the meaning of the parable. Luke 16:8-9 begins the revelation of meaning:
"The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I (Jesus) tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when [your wealth] is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings." NIV
It appears that Jesus is saying that the "people of the light" need to be more like the "dishonest manager!" Indeed, in a sense, He is saying just that. Not that you should be dishonest, but that you should use your wealth for your salvation. Except that the manager was not using his own wealth, but that of the wealthy man. Yet on the Biblical side of things, your wealth is given to you by God, as verses such as Genesis 24:35 and Deuteronomy 12:21 suggest. So in a manner of speaking, the rich man in this parable is like God, and manager of the resources represents you, or rather the parable indicates the level of shrewdness (not dishonesty) which you should have in your wealth management; if you want Salvation.

This parable is tainted. Using criminal behavior as an example of what you should do, even in a metaphorical sense, is as awkward and inappropriate as using a screwdriver to hammer in a nail. It is no wonder pastors avoid it... well, not all of it. The meaning and associated teachings are not often lost, because they are far too valuable.

You see, what follows continues on in that same vein. Luke 16:10-12 effectively state that, compared to the wealth of eternal life, the wealth in this life is meager; so if you have not been trustworthy with the meager wealth you have been given in this life, how then would it be justified to give you your own great wealth in the afterlife? This path reaches fruition within Luke 16:13, with "You cannot serve both God and Money."

In an earlier study on the Sermon on the Mount, we had seen how Jesus' teachings promote poverty, including Matthew 6:24 which matches Luke 16:13 word-for-word. However, what Luke is doing here is one step beyond that. As noted in the previous study, this is poverty with a purpose, but this passage in Luke brings into the picture the sense of responsible stewardship of the resources provided by God inextricably tied into that poverty. There is no reasonable excuse for holding on to your wealth.

That may be the key here to understanding this passage. When you see "the people of the light" in Luke 16:8, it appears to be a reference to the church; as in the church which was not-quite-yet-established at the time of Jesus. So it seems as if Jesus' message is anachronistic; not appropriate for the time at which He allegedly said it. Luke was writing in a time when the church was well established, and at a time when the leaders of the church would have financially benefited from loosening the purse strings of the congregation. Just like with the Parable of the Prodigal Son, there appears to be an ulterior motive here. That is (of course) speculation, but combining the oddity of the parable, the timing of the mention of "the people of the light," and its potential benefit to the religious leaders, the speculation appears grounded in reason.


  1. That makes sense. I was always confused when reading this parable and expecting it to contain divine wisdom for moral behaviour.

  2. Thanks prarienymph. I never could quite figure it out either, but starting to piece things together on the skeptical side makes it seem less puzzling.