September 22, 2019 by
David Jackson in
Reflections on Sunday Gospels
Another puzzling parable.
Introduction: The parable in this Sunday’s Gospel is difficult to understand and apply to our lives. The parable is found in the first 8 verses of chapter 16. The verses which follow verse 8 perhaps reveal something of the early church struggling to interpret and apply the parable. I will only consider the parable today in the homily.
Homily: Different English translations give different titles to this parable: NAB, Wily Manager; 5Gospels, Shrewd Manager; RNAB, Dishonest Steward; JB, Crafty Steward, BLA, El administrador astuto. To these can also be added the title, “foolish master”.
There are now three main interpretations of this parable:
1) Looking at the economic background of Jesus’ time, it is praising his prudence not his dishonesty.
2) Considering a literary criticism, this parable can be seen as an example of a “comic rogue”.
3) We can look at the Lukan literary context, especially parallels with the parable of the Loving Father and two Lost Sons.
ECONOMIC BACKGROUND. From this perspective the steward
is not guilty of any wrongdoing by reducing the amounts of the debts. He had been guilty of usury (illegal interest), (this is his “squandering his property”) but when found out by his master he rectifies his wrongdoing by erasing the illegal interest. Ray Brown, Christ in the Gospels of Ordinary Sundays, p. 78 “¼what is praised is the prudent energetic initiative of the steward, not his dishonesty.”
Another possibility is that the amount he reduces is the interest he would take on the loans. Thus he is not hurting his employer by reducing the debts, but simply foregoing his own commission.
In these interpretations the master is praising his prudence in knowing what steps to take in a crisis.
LITERARY CRITICISM. There were comic stories in ancient
literature in which a slave would get into trouble with his master, would then take clever action to remedy the situation to his own advantage and in the end get the better of his master. If the parable is this kind of story, then the accusation is a false one and he is wrongfully dismissed. Such a steward would have evoked great sympathy among Jesus’ hearers. Turning this man out into the world without home, friends or employment is a death sentence. Faced with such a dire situation the steward does exactly what he was accused of: mishandling the master’s affairs to the benefit of the debtors. By thus rewriting the notes the steward gains public praise for the master. The master can hardly revoke the rewritten notes since he would then lose public honor which is coming to him as a great benefactor. The steward is the victim of the rich man’s injustice, but the rich man is the victim of the steward’s cleverness. Thus the steward outsmarts the master and wins his approval. The parable satirizes the powerful and makes the crafty steward into a hero of decisive action. In this interpretation, the steward is reinstated in his position.
LUKAN LITERARY CONTEXT. If we compare this parable
with the parable of last Sunday we see many parallels. Last Sunday’s parable was usually referred to as “the Parable of the Prodigal Son”. That parable has been more recently been titled, “Parable of the Loving Father and the Two Lost Sons.” This parable also can shift the emphasis from the steward to the “the generous master.” There are many parallels in the two parables:
there is the typical Lukan formula, “a certain person”.
the central character determines the narrative flow and speaks the final verse (the father, the master).
the character who provides the dramatic interest “squanders” the property and then confronts life-threatening alternatives. Both the steward and the son betray a trust. The resolution begins in both stories when the son and the steward begin to talk to themselves. In so doing they reveal their own self-centeredness.
Tension is heightened in the first by the journey home of the son and in the second by the negotiations of the steward.
In both cases, the plan is not realized but transcended by surprising acceptance. Both are rescued from danger by what they receive, not by what they accomplish.
Both stories are open-ended, we do not know if the older brother went in or if the steward was restored to his position.
In the first, the Father conveys God’s costly love, in the second the “foolish master” does not operate according to normal expectations of one in power.
It is a very consoling thought to remember that God is like the loving Father, alert, waiting, running to meet, protecting, restoring, celebrating. Our God is like the “foolish master”. Some of our ideas about how a father would act were challenged by the previous parable. Here the “master” evokes a world where God does not exact punishment but gives time and cancels debts even in the midst of human machinations.
Although both the son and the steward seem to place their faith in possessions (i.e. either obtaining or securing them), it is the free acceptance of the father/master which provides security. Christian disciples are summoned to be freed from slavery to wealth and from servile fear of God.
There have been different insights offered for what is the single greatest obstacle of spirituality in our day. Deepak Chopra says “sin and evil”. Others say “Affluence” or “Consumerism”. Matthew Fox says the antidote is “Generosity”.
If you were asked to name the single greatest obstacle of spirituality today, what would you say?
In this quote from Bishop Helder Camara we are challenged at a whole different level: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint; but when I asked why there are so many poor people, they called me a communist.” He is here raising the reality of systemic sin. I’m sure that he also must have spoken about economic inequality such as that which exists in the United States today in the gulf between the 1% and the 98%. Under President Trump the sin of “lying” has surely come to the fore. Satan has been referred to as the “father of lies” John 8:44. Trump’s lies have been counted and they are continuous. SATAN, LIES, EVIL.