Luke 16:1-13: Parable of the Unjust Steward

Luke 16:1-13 (Parable of the “Unjust Steward”)
September 18, 2016
Joanna Harader

Once upon a time, there was a rich man. A very rich man. A very rich man who owned acres of fields and olive groves and who lived in leisure and luxury in the city while his trusted manager took care of the pesky business details out in the countryside. He was a successful man; well regarded and honored in the city; living a life of ease.

Once upon a time, there was a manager who traveled between the countryside, the market towns, and the urban center, trying to keep all of his master’s affairs in order. There were peasant farmers to appease, merchants to negotiate with, and a few sets of books to keep track of.

Everyone wanted something from him, and he tried to oblige. The peasants wanted to feed their children, and he was happy to give them food, thus ratcheting up their debts and encouraging harder work in the fields. The merchants needed goods to trade, and he could get them those goods. Of course, his master couldn’t charge interest, so the manager had to adjust the amount loaned out accordingly. Fifty bats of oil became 100—because oil is a high rick commodity. Eighty cors of wheat–somewhat lower risk–he noted as 100. The master, of course, just wanted the money to keep coming in while he lived the good life in the city.

So the peasants got their food and the merchants got their goods and the master got his money. And the manager worked his tail off and, yes, of course, skimmed a little here and there. Maybe there were some questions about where some of the money went. Maybe he was seen in a questionable establishment or two. Maybe the women he was seen with were not of the highest reputation.

Or maybe the manager kept his nose to the grindstone and was in bed with a book by 9 every night and a particular olive oil merchant was simply unhappy about the terms of a loan.

The rich man really didn’t know whether the accusation was true or false: “That manager of yours is squandering your property.” The master didn’t know, but he couldn’t risk it. His manager was an extension of himself. If the rumor got around and people thought he couldn’t control his manager, his honor in the community would be diminished. And his honor was everything. Everything.

So he got word to the manager: “You’re fired.” And the manager wondered what he would do: “I’m not strong enough to dig and I’m ashamed to beg.” Sounds whiny, doesn’t it? But it was true. His particular skills were his ability to read and write and negotiate. Put him out in the field with farmers who have been doing manual labor their whole lives—he wouldn’t be able to do it. And begging would in fact shame him—which is not just to say that he would feel embarrassed, but that he would likely not survive the year.

The manager got word from the master that he was fired, and it was a life and death situation. But of course, this was once upon a time, not last week. No newspapers, no telephones, no Facebook or email. Once upon a time, news traveled slowly. The manager knew he was fired. But the peasants and the merchants thought he still worked for the rich man. And the manager took advantage of this window of opportunity. He reduced the merchants’ bills down to the actual amount borrowed.

So the merchants were pretty happy. They were happy with the manager, maybe. But mostly they were happy with the rich man. Managers were supposed to act only as agents of their masters, so the merchants assumed that the master had generously asked the manager to reduce the bills; that the rich man had got true religion and decided not to accept the interest payments.

The rich man came  around and the merchants went up to him, pumped his hand, patted his back, thanked him heartily for his kind-heartedness and generosity. And he found himself in a bit of a pickle. He did, in fact, want the interest—the extra 50 bats of oil and 20 cors of wheat. But he also wanted the praise and gratitude of the merchants.

He could have cleared up the whole thing right away, could simply have said, “I never told the manager to reduce those bills! In fact, I fired that manager! Where’s my one hundred bats of oil?”

Except that, from the very beginning the rich man had been worried about his honor. He desperately wants to maintain his honor. Lots of things were considered dishonorable back in his day, among them were having a dishonest servant and taking back gifts. So he decided that maybe telling everyone, “My servant is dishonest and by the way, give back that extra oil you thought I gave you,” was not the best course of action.

Instead of revealing the truth of the situation, the rich man played along with the manager’s scheme and, we assume, allowed the manager to keep his job while the rich man kept his honor in tact.

– – – –

Jesus tells this odd little parable only in Luke’s Gospel; Luke, the Gospel writer particularly concerned with money and justice and the plight of the oppressed. Luke has Jesus tell this odd little story and then gives us these odd little sayings:

  • 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.
  • Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.
  • No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

Yale Divinity School professor Peter Hawkins writes that “Commentators struggle to make sense of [these sayings]; with all due respect, I am utterly unconvinced that they do make sense.”

I’m going to let you in on a little Biblical scholar secret: the parables are not fables with nice tidy moral lessons. But sometimes the Gospel writers want there to be nice tidy moral lessons, so they tack on pithy, wise-sounding sayings after a parable to try to make Jesus sound a little less crazy.

I know, I know,” says Luke. “This seems like a pointless story at best, an immoral story at worst. But really, there is a point to it. And the point is, ummm . . . the point is . . . be shrewd and, uh, make friends and, well, be faithful in even the little you have and . . . you can’t serve God and wealth.”

Scholars don’t know if Jesus said these things or if Luke pulled them from common wisdom sayings of the day. But most scholars are pretty sure Jesus did not offer these sayings as lessons for this parable. Because it really seems that professor Hawkins is right—they don’t make much sense.

That last one though, that’s the one I want to hang on to and look at a bit: “You cannot serve God and wealth.” It’s not that Jesus necessarily said it right after this parable, but Jesus probably did say it. According to Matthew, Jesus said it during the Sermon on the Mount. But whenever he said it, it helps me understand this odd little parable. It seems to somehow cut through all of the confusion and messiness and grab at the heart of Jesus’ story.

This parable is not just about the rich man, the shrewd manager, the lucky merchants. It is about the systems that all of these people are operating in. “You cannot serve God and wealth,” says Jesus. And it’s not just the wealth, in terms of the money. It’s the social systems the wealth sets up; the systems people work so hard to maintain. These systems where we have to lie and cheat each other to stay in the game. These systems that claim different rules and moral codes for different people. These systems where we have to classify people and maintain certain boundaries and establish certain relationships. The systems that pit us against them.

It might be helpful at this point to note who Jesus is speaking to here. The first verse of chapter 16 tells us that “Jesus said to the disciples.” So that seems simple enough. But one verse beyond our reading for this morning Luke tells us that “the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all of this.” So we have to assume he is really speaking to the Pharisees as well. I mean, the guy could walk on water; he could have kept his voice down if he had wanted to. Of course Jesus wanted the “lovers of money” to hear him say that you cannot serve God and wealth.

Then, back at the beginning of chapter 15, “all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to” Jesus. As far as Luke tells us, they haven’t gone anywhere. I imagine the sinners are listening in on this story too.

The tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, and disciples listening to Jesus are just as much a part of a wealth-driven system as the rich man, manager, and merchants of the parable Jesus tells. They are enmeshed in money-driven systems. And so are we.

Jesus says, “You can’t serve God and wealth,” but it’s not really a simple choice, is it? Because we are all tangled up in the systems of wealth. Terri talked about that some last week—how there are different standards and different rules for people of different economic means in this country. It’s expensive to be poor.

Stanley Hauerwas has a sobering, yet accurate assessment of our participation in the systems of wealth:

As people who have money, we simply have to also acknowledge that it is dishonest money. We tell ourselves that we have worked hard, and we no doubt have, and we deserve what we have got. But the very fact that we have been able to work hard and thus assume that we deserve what we have gotten is because we are white Americans. We had the good luck to be born into good homes that had the habits that would make us a success in the kind of economic world in which we find ourselves. But the luck of our birth is based, of course, on the fact that our wealth is the result of dishonest appropriation.

We inhabit the spaces of our lives—our homes and schools and even this church building—because people many years ago—but not that many years ago—forced native peoples off of their land. The Cheyenne, Arapaho, Pawnee, Kansa/Kaw, the Osage . . . those are the earliest inhabitants of our space, forced from their homes so that we, today have homes. That is all part of the money-driven system in which we live.

How do we live in a way that serves God and not wealth when we are so completely enmeshed in the systems of wealth? Give away our money? Give our property to Haskell University? Refuse the low interest rate we’re offered–because the system offering it is unfair? Refuse to shop at Wal-Mart because of their corporate greed and worker exploitation? But if we do refuse to shop there, how do we withhold judgment of the many low income people who frequent the store? Last time I ventured into Wal-Mart I saw more physically disabled people than I’ve seen in months of shopping at Target.

I read commentators this past week who think that none of the characters in Jesus’ story come off looking very good. They are all greedy and deceitful—the rich man who pretends not to charge interest but actually does; the manager that facilitates the deceit of his master and then perpetrates his own deceit; the merchants who possibly start the vicious rumors that almost get the manager fired. Some commentators judge them all pretty harshly.

But I just see how they, like we, are completely caught up in the wealth-systems of their day; they are constricted by the roles society gives them to play based on their socio-economic status. They, like us, may very well be doing the best that they can within the systems in which they have been placed.

The systems of ancient Greece and the systems of modern America are all in service to wealth.

And Jesus says we can’t serve God and the systems of wealth.

And, Jesus says, in this parable, that we are all running around serving wealth like crazy, because we can’t help but serve wealth.

And it’s a pretty grim picture when we focus on this brief parable.

BUT, if we step back and look at the larger picture of scripture, we see the truth—and the hope. As Jesus reveals to us the Kingdom of God, he reveals that we can, in fact serve God instead of wealth. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we see that the wealth systems of this world, though certainly strong, are not actually as powerful and inevitable as they appear.