Take a Stab at This (or, why I didn’t preach Luke 16)

I was too timid to tackle Luke 16 this Sunday. I spoke instead about another lectionary text, Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, wherein God laments over the coming destruction of Jerusalem (Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then have my people not been restored?). I did not talk about any administration, past present or future, although I was tempted to suggest that perhaps our armed forces would have better luck finding balm in Gilead than they are finding bombs in Baghdad. But I digress.

The reason I dodged Luke 16 is that all of my prayer, research, online reading, and exegesis came up empty. I don’t get what’s going on in this passage. And because it doesn’t make sense, it seems doubly certain that Jesus in fact said it (Ockham’s Razor applies in reverse in textual studies: all things being equal, the least likely quote is probably the most authentic, because no scribe/follower would invent such a statement). On the surface, Jesus seems to praise the dishonest steward who, when faced with the prospect of losing his job, sells his master short in canceling the debts owed, presumably so that the debtors will look favorably upon him, the steward, and offer him aid when he is unemployed. The master commends the dishonest steward, and then Jesus commends him as well, saying, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into eternal homes.”

What follows is, in the opinion of most commentators I read, a series of attempts by later authors and editors to explain what the heck JC meant because they didn’t understand it either. So they insert things like “the children of this age are more shrewd” (a phrase unfamiliar to Jesus, but found all over the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are very concerned with the ‘children of this age’). The whole summation paragraph seems to be a conglomeration of statements Jesus made about wealth and trust, mushed together in a desperate attempt to shed some light on this bizarre story. I think the best question Jesus presumably asks is “If you have not been faithful with dishonest wealth, who will entrust you with true riches?” (verse 11). But the steward *is* unfaithful/dishonest with the dishonest wealth, so how is he worthy of praise?

I tried thinking of other things wealth and debt could mean. There is the obvious reducing debt=forgiveness metaphor seen in the Lord’s Prayer and many parables. So we should forgive others more easily (ie at a lower price) so that they may give us eternal homes? Well that makes a bit more sense at least, but the parable is set in a context about being faithful with little=being entrusted with greater things, and applying the forgiveness of debt=forgiveness model to this line of thinking is a stretch to say the least. Wealth is often a metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven or for God’s grace, so perhaps we should be frugal with grace, but no, that’s not JC’s point at all.

The closest I can come is that the steward, in being shrewd and forward-thinking, was more concerned with the future (the Kingdom of God) than he was with the wealth of this world. This still doesn’t explain how he was *faithful* with “little things” (the dishonest wealth), but at least shows him to have his priorities straight. Through that interpretation, this passage would be better followed with “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” and then the bit about loving God and money. The being faithful with little things, often the focal point of the passage, doesn’t actually help much. That’s too bad, because I’d really like to see it in the text, but I don’t see it here. It is better said in the parable of the talents, where the servant who invests and grows his wealth is rewarded for his faithfulness and entrusted with greater things. It’s an important lesson, but one I have a hard time supporting in the text.

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