Thomas J Parlette
“Hard to Believe”
Luke 16: 1-13
Throughout the history of the Christian Church, this passage has confused, baffled and frustrated every theologian who comes into contact with it. Back in the 1500’s, Tomas deVio Cajetan declared in “unsolvable”. In the 20th century, Rudolf Bultmann agreed with him. In 1936, Charles Torrey wrote that “This passage brings before us a new Jesus, one who seems inclined to compromise with evil. He approves a program of canny self-interest, recommending to his disciples a standard of life which is generally recognized as inferior; “I say to you, gain friends by means of money.” This is not the worst of it; he bases the teaching on the story of a shrewd scoundrel who feathered his own nest at the expense of the man who had trusted him; and then appears to say to his disciples, “Let this be your model!”(1) Hard to believe!
No less of an authority than St. Augustine himself is said to have remarked about this parable, “I can’t believe this story came from the lips of our Lord.”(2) The parable of the Unjust Steward is indeed hard to believe.
This passage, as the lectionary presents it, is really at least two separate pieces. The first 8 verses were almost certainly a parable that Jesus actually told. It appears in all our ancient manuscripts and frankly, why would you add this particular story, and attribute it to Jesus, if it weren’t authentic – it’s just too hard to believe.
The second part of the passage is really a poem on God and mammon, a term usually translated as “money” or “wealth”. There is a very clear break in this passage between the story of the Unjust Steward and the sayings about God and wealth. It’s almost as if Luke had some note cards filled with things Jesus had said and he wanted to work them in somehow. So he very carefully wove the sayings into a 3 stanza poem on trusting in God instead of money, and tacked it on at the end of the story where the master commends the manager because he acted shrewdly.
So, looking at the parable on it’s own, there is rich man who has a steward, a manager who was looking after his estate, and charges were brought to him that this manager was “squandering his property.” What he has done, we don’t know exactly. Was he stealing? Was he overcharging the tenants? Was he ignoring necessary maintenance on the property? We don’t know. What we do know is that he is going to fired. But first, the rich man asks his estate manager for an
“accounting of his management.” Let me see the contracts, let me see the books. Turn in your computer and gather up your keys.
But he’s not fired yet. No one knows about the owners intention to get rid of the manager. At least not yet. In this brief exchange between the owner and the estate manager, the manager learns two things about his master…
First – the master expects obedience and judges those who fail him. It’s interesting that the manager never defends himself, he does not dispute the charges. He makes no excuses or arguments whatsoever. He evidently knows he is guilty and he deserves to lose his position. He doesn’t seem interested in changing his masters mind. His only concern is his future, “what’s going to happen to me now? I’m not strong enough to dig and I am too ashamed to beg.”
On the long walk back to the estate, the manager dwells on the second thing he just learned about his master. He discovers that the master is extraordinarily merciful. The master could have fired him on the spot, or worse, had him thrown into jail, but he didn’t do that. He showed mercy and simply asked for an “accounting of your management.” As the manager thought about this, he came up with a plan. He decides to risk everything on the mercy of his master. He figures that when he is dismissed from his position as manager, people might take him in – if he can do something for them.
So he summons each of his master’s tenants, one by one, and meets with them individually. He doesn’t mention that he is going to be fired soon, so none of them have any idea that he doesn’t have the authority to act on the owner’s behalf. In the meetings, the manager reviews what each tenant owes the master – and then reduces their bill. We aren’t told for sure, but we can assume that the tenants were surprised and quite pleased with the new contract.
The tenants in this story would have 1 of 3 different arrangements with the landowner. They would either pay a percentage of whatever crop they were growing or they were expected to pay a set amount. Or, they might just pay rent in cash. Most paid with crops, because the farmers were very poor – they didn’t have the cash to rent the land outright and still have enough to pay for seed and supplies.
It is most likely that these tenants were already committed to a set amount of their crop, no matter what the harvest was like. So when the manager renegotiates the deal, without even being asked to do so – they are thrilled. And the manager can take the credit – “Look what a great deal I got for you…” Think of how grateful the employees of a factory would be if the factory foreman had arranged for generous Christmas bonuses for the workers. The foreman would be a hero.
Word spread quickly around the village that the owner had been very generous and the manager had done right by the villagers. Celebrations no doubt ensued.
The manager finishes his daring plan to make both his master and himself look good, gathers up the freshly changed accounts and delivers them to his master. The master looks them over, he sees what the manager has done – and he reflects on his alternatives. He knows full well that in the local village there has already started a grand celebration in praise of him as the most noble and generous master that ever rented land in their district. He has two alternatives…
1. He can go back to the tenants and explain that it was all a mistake, that the manager had been dismissed, and thus his actions were null and void. But if the master does this now, the villagers will turn on him and he will be cursed for his stinginess.
2. Or, he can keep silent, accept the praise that is even now being showered on him, and allow the clever manager to ride high on the wave of popular enthusiasm.
This master is a generous man. Remember, he did not jail the manager earlier. To be generous is a primary quality of a nobleman in the Middle East. He reflects for a moment, and then turns to the manager and says, “You are a very wise fellow. You’ve acted shrewdly.”
Keep in mind, one of the Old Testament definitions of “wisdom” is an instinct for self-preservation. When the master tells his steward “you are a very wise fellow,” what he means is “you are a survivor.” In a backhanded kind of way, the actions of the manager are a compliment to the master. The manager knew the master was generous and merciful. So he risked everything on that aspect of his master’s nature. And he won. Because the master was indeed generous and merciful, he chose to pay the full price for his manager’s salvation.
When the master commends his manager, he is not praising his dishonesty. He is praising his wisdom in knowing where his salvation lay – in the generous mercy of his master rather than in whatever wealth he might have been able to steal.
On the surface, this parable of the unjust steward is hard to believe. Like St. Augustine, we might think – “I can’t believe Jesus told this story.” But when we consider it’s context and it’s setting, we can see that this parable can be understood as a warning of sorts. Our God is a God of judgment and mercy, like the master in the story. Humanity, like the unjust steward, is guilty of sin and is caught in the crisis of the coming Kingdom. Excuses will not help – you can’t argue with God. Our only option is to entrust everything to the unfailing mercy of our generous God, who will pay the price for our salvation. Jesus was advising his disciples to have that same kind of wisdom. Know where your true salvation lies – not in wealth or money, the mammon of the world, but in God alone.
Yes, that can be hard to believe – and yet it is the truth.
Our salvation is found only in our generous and merciful Lord.
May God be praised. Amen.
1. Kenneth Bailey, Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes, combined edition, Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983, p86.
2. J. William Harkins, Feasting on the Gospels, Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, p92.
3. The line of reasoning used for the interpretation of this passage can be found in Kenneth Bailey’s Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes, combined edition, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983, p86-118.