confused by a parable

English: An etching by Jan Luyken illustrating...
English: An etching by Jan Luyken illustrating Luke 16:1-9 in the Bowyer Bible, Bolton, England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What do you think this parable, often called “The dishonest manager”(Luke 16:1-13), is about? You can read it here. I’ll confess, I don’t know what to think about it. At first glance, a plain reading, Jesus appears to endorse dishonest behavior. “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.  And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. (Luke 16: 8,9)

Of course dishonest behavior is not consistent with the rest of what Jesus teaches. So perhaps I need to think about this some more. Sometimes it is helpful to look at the surrounding texts for interpretive clues. The gospel authors often place passages together so that they illuminate and explain each other. Right before the “dishonest manager” text are the parables about the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost (prodigal) son. After the parable is Jesus’ statement that those who are faithful with a little are faithful with much, and no slave can serve two masters. A few verses later is the story of the rich man and Lazarus. I don’t know about you, but I’m still confused.

Perhaps consulting a commentary or two will help. Joel Green in The Gospel of Lukewrites, “In fact, the theme of this narrative section concerns the appropriate use of wealth to overstep social boundaries between rich and poor in order to participate in a form of economic redistribution grounded in kinship.” (589) Noting that the master “commends” the manager for being shrewd, Green continues, “With v 8b, Jesus’ commentary on the parable begins,…”Children of this age,” he[Jesus] observes, understand how the world words and use it to their benefit’ why do “children of light” not understand the ways of the kingdom of God? (593). I have tremendous respect for Joel Green, but unfortunately this doesn’t help me.

R. Alan Culpepper in his commentary on Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol IXwrites “The parable of the dishonest steward challenges its hearers to be as clever and prudent as the steward in ensuring their future… [T] parable turns on the steward’s shrewd response to the urgency of his situation and invites hearers to understand that they are likewise in the midst of a crisis that demands an urgent decision if disaster is to be avoided. Faced with loss of his position, the dishonest steward acted decisively to provide for his future. One who hears the gospel know that just such a decisive act is required of those who will stake their all on the coming kingdom of God.” (310)   Well… maybe…

So, what should I do now?

I could decide that this parable was a better “fit” for first century audiences. I could argue that culturally there is enough difference between then and now that some parables simply don’t make as much sense now and so I can dismiss this parable.

I could just ignore it.

I could decide that since I don’t understand it, the parable is not “for” me.

What do we do with Biblical passages we don’t understand? More importantly what should we do with Biblical passages we don’t understand?

I’m inclined to be patient, to periodically reread and rethink, and to wait. I try not to ignore or dismiss the text but also not to overly frustrate myself either. I know from experience that my ability to understand particular texts changes over time. For example, my understanding of the first chapters of Genesis is much different now than when I was in high school.

I was perplexed by Jesus words in Matthew 7:21-23 for a long time. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name? Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”

How, I wondered, could Jesus reject someone who called on his name?

Then I saw a late night televangelist, blatantly miss-translate a Hebrew word. He told the congregation, “Most people translate this as …. but that’s wrong. It really means….” And he mistranslated the word and completely changed the meaning of the text and the gospel. And the congregation nodded and made notes and (apparently) believed what they were told.  Then I understood how someone could say “Lord, Lord” and not know Jesus.

So with the “dishonest manager” parable,  I’ll wait while I continue to read and ponder. I’ll continue to consult commentaries written by smart, learned people. And I’ll wait for understanding.

In addition,  I’ll ask you smart readers.

What do you think this parable is about?

What do you do with obscure or difficult texts?

I’d like to know.

7 thoughts on “confused by a parable

  1. You are not alone in your confusion. I have written a few thoughts but would suggest that if you can find a copy of Lockyer’s book “All the parables of the Bible” that you look into what he said. I reviewed it and some of what follows was as a result of reading his thoughts. I do not suggest, they will answer all your questions but I will say that I never ignore a hard passage but sometimes I like to let other study take precedent and suddenly (sometimes ‘suddenly takes a few weeks or months or longer) I am able to feel like I understand a passage better.

    There are a few lessons that can be learned from this parable which Jesus wants us to take away.
    First: Make friends by use of money. In other words, do not hoard the money you have and do not fail to use it wisely to make friends. The previous parable of the prodigal son showed that while he had many companions, once his money was gone, he had not gained any true friends. If we use money in a wise way, should we suffer mishaps, there are those who will gladly step up to help us because we helped them.

    Second: Faithfulness is to be valued and if you are not faithful in the small amount that you have, you will not be faithful in much. If you do not properly use things that are of no real value, you will not be allowed to use things of great value. A child who does not take of his bicycle, skateboard, and other possessions will not, if his parents have any sense, get a brand new car of his own.

    Third: The possessions we have are not ours anyway. God owns the cattle on a thousand hills and the hills too. He is the possessor of Heaven and Earth. What we have comes from His hand and what he withholds comes from His hand too. Contentment with food and clothing is our primary goal. So what if we use HIS possesions for our own benefit exclusively? Is that not wasting? Is it also not shortsighted? The unjust stewards character was such that he was still a thief but he was wise in looking to the future. (his old age) We often ‘steal or waste’ what God has entrusted us with, with no regard to the future. (our eternity)

    Fourth: The final statement really focuses our attention to the heart of the matter so to speak. You can’t do the bidding of two masters. There is a line where you are unable to prioritize both when they both demand to be first. Choose whom you will serve.

    Judging by the reaction the Pharisees had to this and Luke’s comment about their being covetous, we can guess which choice they had made.

    1. Steven, Thank you for taking the time to read and reply. I think part of my difficulty is, I don’t consider money to be a significant part of friendship. So the idea of “make friends by the use of money” ( And I think that interpretation what’s going on is a good one) is uncomfortable- at best for me.

      1. Yes, but it doesn’t have to be “money” per se and the type of ‘friend’ is important. Fair weather friends who are only in it for themselves will disappear as soon as you can no longer be of benefit to them. What ever you gave, whether money or networking or a sympathetic shoulder will not be reciprocated in your time of need.
        Yet, there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother, those whom you help with your God given blessings (the Gospel, money, time, etc) and they return the favor when, if needed. You do not befriend them for that purpose, nor do they reciprocate for that purpose but the spark that brought you together was your use of your blessings for their benefit. Choose your friends wisely

  2. I think too much is made of this. For me, It’s another example of Jesus connecting with the “real world” the gentiles and sinners. He often spoke of the shrewd wisdom of the world while deriding the piety of very religious. I’m not sure this really has anything to do with dishonesty. I think it has everything to do with showing that every single person can have a positive relationship with the Master regardless of their “sin” I could expound on that but just want to keep it simple.
    Hope it makes sense.

    1. As I was writing this last night, it occurred to me that perhaps Jesus was going for “shock value” in this parable. And as you suggest, I might be over reading this parable. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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