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

What is the unjust steward’s “deal”? Richard Swanson argues that both the steward and the master are unscrupulous charlatans who discover they are dancing to the same tune. On a close reading of the text, Swanson observes that no charges were brought against the steward, contrary to the NRSV translation. That translation is more of an interpolation than a reflection of the actual text. Instead, the word the NRSV renders as “charges were brought,” Swanson says, is more often rendered as “was slandered” (page 201).

Swanson also notes that the word for “squandering” might imply wastefulness, “but it could just as well be an image for productive investing.” The manager isn’t indicted. He is, rather, the victim of the local rumor mill. The owner hears the rumors and kicks the manager to the curb. There is no discipline protocol, no graduated scale of penalties, no termination guidelines. The master’s reputation is potentially damaged by the supposed behavior of the steward. His response to the steward is, “Don’t let the door hit you in the backside on the way out.”

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“Either the master has no loyalty to his workers,” Swanson concludes, “or he has no interest in sharing his wealth. I see no other options,” Swanson continues, “In neither case is he a good human being” (page 202). The master commends the steward because in the end the steward has learned the dance of business deception. Perhaps he has learned it from a “master” of that dance. In the end, according to Swanson, the master likes the steward more than before. Perhaps there’s a place for the unjust steward in the master’s organization after all!

In the end, however, Swanson throws up his hands in exegetical despair. “Don’t try to save this parable. It does its work best when it is allowed to be offensive. This seems to be a developing theme in Luke’s story,” Swanson continues, “Jesus acts offensively. Jesus teaches offensively. Jesus picks fights when he does not need to” (202). Swanson guesses that there is context and subtext here not available to us – underlying issues dealing with the aftermath of the Jewish War. But we can’t figure out what those underlying issues really are and what they have to do with us.

Perhaps, if Swanson is correct, this is a week to preach on the second lesson. But I’m not persuaded by the argument that we can’t get what the Lukan author is saying. I believe that the financial tactics outlined here made perfect sense to Jesus’ disciples, to the Lukan audience, and probably to both.

I also think that the following verses offer both context and commentary to allow us to think more deeply about what Jesus and/or the Lukan author have to say here. There is certainly pointed criticism of first century politics here (see verses 14-18). But even that criticism is far from opaque. I am unconvinced by this and other arguments that see the parable as beyond our capacity to comprehend and interpret faithfully.

If that is the case, it ought to be excised from the lectionary (and I’m not advocating that). If anything, I would add verses (and I almost always want to do), particularly fourteen through eighteen, to the reading. These verses may be critical to a deeper and more faithful rendering and reading of the text.

Levine and Witherington note that the addressed audience changes at the beginning of this parable. Jesus put his parables of the lost ones to the mixed crowd of Pharisees and scribes, tax collectors and sinners, disciples and day trippers. Chapter 16 begins with an adversative which the NRSV translates as “then.”

However, I think the narrative intention is provide a contrast, a chance in focus, rather than a simple temporal transition. It’s not that the Pharisees have stopped listening (as we see in verse 14). “But” they are not the ones directly addressed by this parable – although it seems that they will be the rhetorical targets of the next one.

Levine and Witherington suggest that the Lukan author “struggles” with the interpretation and application of our parable (page 435). That may be the case, but that doesn’t mean Jesus’ first listeners “struggled” to understand it. I’m not persuaded that either audience found the parable confusing, but we’ll get to that presently.

They begin where the parable begins. This story is first about a “rich man.” Lukan parables about rich people tend not to end well for those rich people. “Given Luke’s insistence on the responsibilities of the rich toward the poor,” Levine and Witherington write, “we readers enter the parable with a certain wariness about this fellow.”

This rich man is one of the Lukan “one percent” as Alan Sherouse puts it in his article. Sherouse suggests that “Luke provides an acknowledgement that there is a proper use of wealth that is entirely antithetical to the behavior of his own one percent: Give a banquet, not a private feast; live in community, not separation, and promote human flourishing, not personalized profit” (page 292). Thus, Sherouse represents the perspective that this is, in some sense, an “anti-parable.” It is a story, as perhaps all the Lukan parables of the rich are, of how disciples (especially those with wealth) ought not to behave.

Yet, as Levine and Witherington note, the rich man is a “lord” (Greek = kyrios). As we’ve noted previously, this likely created an ambiguous listening experience for the Lukan audience. Who is the “hero” in this tale? What if there isn’t one? They offer several pages of helpful historical and textual detail. However, those details don’t resolve their exegetical dilemma. “We are hard-pressed,” they write, “to determine whether we should celebrate [the steward’s] cleverness, laugh at his solution to his problem, or feel guilty for enjoying an account of cheating” (page 441).

Levine and Witherington rightly emphasize connections between the parable of the lost sons and the parable of the unjust steward. The verbal and thematic connections are too numerous and obvious to ignore. It would seem, however, that the message is unsettling. It is through unfair, unjust, and even underhanded means that “everybody wins” (except, perhaps, for the older son). I can imagine preaching on such a theme, and I have in fact done so. Of course, the grace of God is “unfair.” But I am less and less convinced that this is the message either Jesus or the Lukan author intends.

Despite the wealth of background and reflection, Levine and Witherington remain only with questions about the text. Whichever way we might jump in our interpretation, they argue, we are “trapped” by the parable (443). They find themselves in good company, since they argue that the Lukan author is trapped as well. The evidence of this dilemma is the Lukan interpretation that begins at Luke 16:8b. They regard the following verses as a floundering attempt by the Lukan author to bring some clarity to an otherwise murky text.

If the Lukan author found this parable such a dark maze of interpretive pitfalls, however, why did the Lukan author include it in the text at all? This parable doesn’t arise in the other canonical gospels. Therefore, the Lukan author chose to include it and found it both meaningful and useful. While we don’t get to read the author’s mind or intentions, I find it a stretch to argue that the Lukan author, so skilled in composition and interpretation throughout, decides to include an indecipherable text. The sheer fact that the author chooses to include this parable says to me that it means something important. And it says to me that this meaning was available to the Lukan audience and may well be available to us if we keep digging.

Malina and Rohrbaugh assume that the arrangements in the parable make first-century business sense. They focus first on the commissions paid to managers and fiscal agents for dealing with the property matters of the wealthy. They note that the amounts mentioned in the parable could not be such commissions, however, due to the extravagant amounts (page 374). The manager, in their view, has been skimming the profits and is in the process of being caught out. He has to develop an exit strategy quickly before word gets back to the community and he is completely screwed.

The steward’s scheme puts the owner in an honor-shame vise, according to Malina and Rohrbaugh. If the owner “retracts the actions of the manager, he risks serious alienation in the village, where they would have already been celebrating his astonishing generosity. If he allows the reductions to stand,” they continue, “he will be praised far and wide (as will the manager for having ‘arranged’ them) as a noble and generous man. It is the latter reaction on which the manager counts” (page 375).

That’s some useful background as well. At the least, it would seem that the parable would not be nonsense and non sequitur for the first audiences. Yet, we get no help on what to do with the story even when we understand it. In the next post, I hope to do some additional digging with the help of a more recent article.

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.

Levine, Amy Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

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.

Sherouse, Alan. “The One Percent and the Gospel of Luke.” Review and Expositor 110 (Spring 2013): 285-293.

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