One morning after church, my son asked me about the meaning of the parable of the unjust steward (or “of the shrewd manager”), which appears in Luke 16. Caught wasting his master’s resources, the steward secretly calls in those who owe his master money and cuts the value of those debts. When in turn the master discovers this, he is recorded as commending the steward because he had acted shrewdly.
Jonathan has lots of questions these days, and mostly I either know the answer or we can look it up together relatively easily. But I guess the meaning of Luke 16 is one of those questions many shy away from. When he asked about this one, we happened to be sitting in front of my own Bible Class leaders : “Perhaps you should ask Mr Taylor” I said, “he was an elder for many years”. But no luck there.
Rereading the commentaries on my shelves, people in the pews aren’t the only ones who struggle with Jonathan’s question. Kenneth Bailey reports that some great scholars, including Rudolf Bultmann, have concluded that the original meaning of the parable is now impossible to recover. Perhaps in the end that is true, but if so it seems unsatisfactory. I’ve moved on from a (perhaps caricatured) Baptist position in which all of Scripture is assumed to be self-explanatory. In this world, we can’t have all the answers we might like – who after all, can comprehend the greatness of God or the problems of pain and evil? But Luke 16 is a parable, not (for example) a complex chapter of Romans.
So what did I offer my son? I think one principle for making sense of parables is that they aren’t written as allegories. Not even point needs to have some direct Kingdom point or parallel. In fact, there is usually one main point. In the previous chapter, the parable we know as the prodigal son speaks above all of God’s great mercy and his longing for the return of the penitent, no matter how far or for how long they have strayed.
As I read, and reread, Luke 16 in this light, I think something of what Jesus is getting at is a counterpoint to the astonishing mercy of God. This story seems to speak of a sinner, discovered in his sin, who knows at that point that only one thing matters. For this dishonest steward, it is to secure a future living – as he says to himself “I’m not strong enough to dig”. For someone convicted of sin, the one thing that matters (the only thing that really matters) is getting right with the one who can offer the bread of life. I don’t suppose Jesus was commending employee dishonesty – if so, surely his enemies would have used the story against him. But he is pointing out to his disciples – the audience for this story – that the Kingdom isn’t a matter of half-measures, but of putting everything on the line to put ourselves within the ambit of God’s grace. In that sense, it complements the themes Matthew records in the story of the pearl of great price – which the merchant sold everything to obtain – or the call to take up our cross – the call to come and die – and to follow Jesus. It is a hard teaching, but perhaps a necessary one.
I suspect that too often today the church sells us short on the severity of sin, or the peril in which we stand without God’s grace. Too often perhaps sin is stuff others do, or “structural sin” for which no one might be directly accountable. But the Scriptures teach that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. I have. I do. But how much is my daily life shaped by that knowledge?
One of my favourite passages from the New Zealand Prayer Book is from the Prayer after Communion:
When we sinned and turned away
you called us back to yourself
and gave your Son to share our human nature.
He made the one perfect sacrifice for the sin of the world.
In him you have made us a holy people
by sending upon us your holy and lifegiving Spirit.
God acts, but his grace calls for a response – not something half-hearted, but something that puts all we have and are on the line. As the Luke 16 story concludes, no servant can serve two masters.