Text Study for Luke 16:1-13 (Part Two)

“What will I do?” the dishonest manager says to himself (Greek = en eauto). Our text is one of the six parables in the Lukan account that use interior monologue as a narrative technique. That technique demonstrates a consistent pattern in the Lukan story and gives us some possible insights for interpretation of the text. As Dinkler notes, this aspect of Lukan technique has been “underexplored” and was prematurely abandoned after the work of Sellew and colleagues thirty years ago. I’d encourage you to read both articles if you have the time, but we’ll do some review work here.

The six parables include the Rich Fool and the Unfaithful Servant in chapter 12, the Lost Sons in chapter 15, our own Unjust Steward in chapter 16, the Unjust Judge in chapter 18, and the Owner of the Vineyard in chapter 20. In each of these stories, the protagonists “all think out their plans and strategies in private moments that are nonetheless simultaneously displayed for other characters in Luke’s story to see and hear” (Sellew, page 239).

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As readers, we have first-person access to their unspoken thoughts, motives, and perceptions. As Michal Beth Dinkler notes, “the thoughts of many hearts shall be revealed” in the Lukan account. This is precisely what Simeon prophesies in Luke 2:35. The Lukan author demonstrates that Jesus has a deep and special insight into the hearts of these characters, and by extension, into our hearts as the listeners and readers. The question for interpretation is, what shall be do with those heart thoughts in our teaching and preaching?

What do these characters have in common? Each is faced with a moral and/or existential dilemma that requires a decision. In the case of the Rich Fool, that dilemma is a positive one. Yet, a decision is required, nonetheless. The use interior monologue deepens our understanding of the character’s psychological situation and increases our empathy and engagement. Both Sellew and Dinkler note that this is a common strategy in ancient narratives, and that the Lukan author takes advantage of this familiar literary approach.

This line of inquiry is somewhat surprising since the majority opinion these days is that ancient people had little or no interior life and little or no interest in that interior life. One of my favorite scholars, Bruce Malina, is a champion of this perspective and brings a wealth of sociological insight and data to the discussion. I have never been convinced by Malina and company on this particular point, though I have quoted it often enough. Our texts call Malina’s particular conclusion into question – not by denying it, but rather by asking for a more nuanced understanding of the ancient appreciation for the interior, psychic, emotional life.

In most ancient literature, interior monologues are limited to heroic characters (in epic settings) and to women (in romance novels). In the Lukan account, those who engage in interior monologues are neither heroes nor women. So, the Lukan author exercises some skillful freedom in applying this approach.

I would observe that factor common to all the Lukan characters in question is that they are dealing with money and possessions. They either have money, have had money, or manage someone else’s money. Even the Unjust Judge is contrasted to the poor and powerless widow and is therefore by contrast rich and influential. I think the Lukan author has a particular class of would-be disciples in mind in these accounts – men of relative wealth and power who are now considering following Jesus but are not prepared for the financial and status sacrifices this following will involve.

We could and probably should add a seventh example of the Lukan use of interior monologue. In Luke 7, Simon the Pharisee has a conversation with himself about Jesus’ questionable judgment in receiving the tearful anointing of the anonymous woman. Jesus perceives this internal conversation and challenges it. Again, Simon is neither a hero nor a woman. And he is certainly wealthy enough to host a major public banquet with Jesus as one of the guests.

Sewell observes that even though the Lukan author uses interior monologue appropriately and skillfully, this technique is specific and exceptional. In using this technique, Sewell argues, the Lukan author accomplishes two things. The author demonstrates repeatedly that Jesus can see into human hearts, “to lay bare their full humanity and thus their failings” (page 253). And because this technique draws us into those fully human and fallible experiences, “we see ourselves reflected in [the Lukan author’s] little people caught in awkward places.” The scheming, struggling, and striving “could just as well be our own” (page 253).

Dinkler builds on Sewells’ work in very helpful ways. She notes that in the Lukan account, “hearing” is particularly important and happens in the heart as much as the ears. In the Lukan account, what matters is what happens “inside” the person more than what happens outside (see 11:39-40). Based on Simeon’s prophecy, we are prompted to expect that Jesus will pierce the hearts of many and know what’s happening. And Jesus followers will align their hearts with God’s perspective and agenda, if they are to be faithful Jesus followers.

Dinkler reminds us of Bernhard Heininger’s analysis of ancient Greek comedic speeches. First, there’s an introduction to the speech. Then there is the problem identified. Finally, there is the chosen solution. We can see that pattern in all of the interior monologue passages we are examining. It’s useful to compare these passages to Greek comedy. The protagonists are not portrayed as heroes. Rather, the issue is whether they are wise or foolish (Dinkler, page 382).

Perhaps the text that stands in the background of all these interior monologues is the counsel in Psalm 14:1, that the fool says in his heart that there is no God. Dinkler briefly examines some Hebrew Bible texts where an interior monologue is assumed or portrayed. “These instances of interior monologue demonstrate how, for many ancient Jews, an individual’s thoughts were a reliable indicator of her or his posture toward God. Usually,” Dinkler continues, “in the contexts of these writings, the think is not wise but foolish” (page 384).

Dinkler argues that this is the case in the six parabolic examples of interior monologue in the Lukan account. To cut to the chase for a moment, the Unjust Manager may be wise in the ways of this age among the children of darkness. But that wisdom does not translate into wisdom that works in the age to come and among the children of light. Figure out how to use this age’s wisdom productively, but don’t become a foolish captive to that wisdom like the protagonists in these parables. In the end, these fools end up acting like there is no god but themselves.

The Rich Fool sees only himself and not God. The Unfaithful Servant acts as if the master of the house will not return and expect to find a good and faithful servant. The prodigal son calculates the best speech to get himself out of trouble and back at his father’s table. The unjust manager does much the same. The unjust judge is identified twice as not caring two hoots about God or people. The Owner of the Vineyard is so bad at this that it costs him the life of his son.

Dinkler summarizes that all of these characters are fools to one degree or another. None is a hero. “None has a wise or honorable interior disposition, as Jewish teaching would commend” (page 392). What, therefore, as we as the listeners are readers to gain from these narratives and monologues?

First, we are drawn deeply and intimately into the drama (and comedy). The question posed several times will be our question. What shall I do? That question lands in our mouths and leads us to speak more of the words of these characters as we are pulled into the plot. We have an experience parallel to the character and an identification with that character.

We can’t help but judge the character, and perhaps ourselves, in this process of identification and empathy. The protagonists don’t come out well in the stories. Do we agree with that evaluation? If we do, how does that work out as we evaluate our own internal monologues, choices, and actions? If we experience a conflict in worldviews, the result may be conversion – metanoia (page 394).

I would return to the social positions and property status of the protagonists, something the articles don’t address as a commonality. It may be that the wisdom or foolishness of the characters is not the only item on the agenda. What impact do power, position, privilege, and status have on our relative wisdom or foolishness? My father often observed that only rich people can afford to be periodically and systemically stupid. Poor people with such behaviors tend not to survive very long. Does privilege make us stupid and foolish? It certainly tempts us to serve mammon rather than God – the definition of foolishness in Psalm 14.

Well, that’s a bit of progress on this hard text. But our work is not nearly done.

Resources and References

Dinkler, Michal Beth. ““The Thoughts of Many Hearts Shall Be Revealed”: Listening in on Lukan Interior Monologues.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134, no. 2 (2015): 373-399.

Sellew, Philip. “Interior Monologue as a Narrative Device in the Parables of Luke.” Journal of Biblical Literature 111, no. 2 (1992): 239–53. https://doi.org/10.2307/3267542.

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