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 Luke, writes, “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 IX, writes “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.