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

The commentaries at workingpreacher.org this week offer emotional support and solid exegetical encouragement for us preachers. “It is far easier to comment on this text,” Kendra Mohn writes, “than to preach on it.” Yes, I resemble that remark. Five posts into the week, and we’re not much closer to a message.

Mohn notes that when it comes to living our faith in the real world, we might see our only options as accommodation or resistance. “But the reality for most people, whether in the Roman Empire or the United States in the twenty-first century,” Mohn continues, “is more akin to negotiation, weighing options and choosing who or what to prioritize in the next decision with less-than-ideal options. Perhaps Jesus’ admiration for the shrewdness of this generation has this kind of orientation in view.”

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There’s much to be said for this perspective. This can certainly help us to understand what Jesus might mean by the idea of making friends with unrighteous Mammon. “Devotion to God, faithfulness in stewarding God’s gifts, is the priority for a follower of Jesus,” Mohn says, “But it is never easy in a world full of negotiation where wealth demands our loyalty. Recognition of this challenge drives us again to our need for Christ to reconcile us to God and to one another,” Mohn concludes, “and the response of mercy and forgiveness at the heart of the Gospel.”

This is a standard and appropriate Lutheran “second use of the law” move with the text. On our own, we can’t find our way to a right relationship with God or with one another. The realities of sin, death, and the devil will overwhelm us, despite our best intentions. The Law forces this realization upon us and drives us back into the loving arms of Jesus. Resting in those arms, we are given the wherewithal by the Holy Spirit to serve our neighbors freely in love.

I think that’s right and proper, and it may be one of the places I end up in my message. But Luther’s theology of Law and Gospel is a tool for interpreting the text. It is not in and of itself in the text. I’m not ready yet for that approach as the way to get off the horns of our homiletical dilemma.

Mitzi Smith helps us to stay connected to the enslaved status of the manager and what that means for our interpretation of the text. She reminds us that the accusations directed at the steward would have been taken at face value. Enslaved persons were regarded, by their enslavers and the culture, as inherently greedy and corrupt. However, the parable reminds us as readers that the system itself is greedy and corrupt, filled with opportunities for gouging the poor who were indebted to the master.

“Jesus seems to side with the slave manager,” Smith writes, “given the dilemma that slaves face and since the slave is not the owner of the dishonest wealth. Perhaps this is how we should read the verses that follow,” she continues, “Luke’s Jesus often sides with folks considered “sinners and tax collectors” (5:30-32; 7:34).” Siding with the oppressed requires honest dealings in the world. Otherwise, how would anyone trust us when we are dealing with the things of heaven?

Yet, Smith reminds us that treating the masters dishonestly was a form of resistance on the part of those enslaved in the American system (and elsewhere). I must wonder if the master regarded the steward as “unjust” because the steward was using his position to help the oppressed rather than the master. I continue to think it is critical to remind people that the enslaved steward’s “unrighteousness” is determined by the master and not by some objective standard of procedural or ethical justice.

Smith reminds us that the use of enslavement metaphors and tropes in the gospels should give us trouble, knowing what we know now. We will need to pick apart those metaphors and tropes to get at what they mean in the text. Smith makes an excellent suggestion for the meaning of our text in the end. “We should choose to be more conscious and strategic in our daily transactions and speech so that we contribute less to the pursuit of wealth for ourselves and others, particularly in the service of greed and creation of poverty and at the expense of equality and the justice and love of God.”

Barbara Rossing provides a clear description of the loan and interest system at work in our text. “To try to understand this parable…and the attached sayings,” she writes, “we need a mini-course on the economics of Roman-occupied Galilee in the first century.” Yes, that’s certainly the case, but it won’t make for much of a sermon. That’s the problem.

Nonetheless, it’s helpful to know that rich rulers and landowners charged loan-shark interest rates in order to accumulate more wealth and power. The result was that the poor lost their land, homes, families, and sometimes their lives. The prophet Isaiah pronounces a woe on those “who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!” (Isaiah 5:8, NRSV). Yes, that will be a well-received text quote with my new farmer friends in southwest Iowa! But there it is.

It was this predatory practice of putting together large estates at the expense of the poor, according to Isaiah, that resulted in the desolation of the Exile. Rossing notes that both the master and the steward were part of a system that exploited desperate peasants and was emptying out the land. The parallels to what continues to happen in the American agricultural system are painful and obvious.

Rossing notes that the system was rife with hidden charges, penalties, conditions, caveats, and codicils (she doesn’t add those categories, I did). When such agreements were executed with illiterate peasant farmers, the results were predictable. Indebtedness became debt slavery became forfeiture and imprisonment.

In 2020, payday lenders in Nebraska were restricted by statute from charging more than 36% annual interest on their short-term loans. You can read the details here. As a result, those businesses have packed up and left Nebraska. Representatives of the industry note that with this limitation, the businesses could not make any money – given the default rate of forty percent or more. The implication was that there was something wrong with the lenders, not with the business model.

These representatives warned that without the payday lenders, low-income borrowers would turn to less reputable, and legal, sources of loans. In effect, they warned that these borrowers would have to turn from state-licensed loan sharks to the real kind. They predicted that the law was a bonanza for the illegal lenders, who had no concerns about “consumer protection.” Data so far shows that this has not happened, but that was the dire prediction.

This was the story from the perspective of the proprietors.  But what if the problem is with the business model rather than the borrowers? Borrowers, according to a state report, paid an average 405% annual rate in 2019 on their loans. “As a result,” the article reports, “borrowers can end up in a spiral of debt, in which they pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees over time and fall further and further behind financially. Some lose bank accounts or even end up in bankruptcy.” That’s the story from the perspective of the borrowers.

Former customers of payday lenders have found alternative sources of financial help that do not charge loan shark rates. Nonprofit organizations are stepping in to provide helpful and hopeful alternatives to the former system. This law has made life for low-income people better overall.

I mention this as a contemporary example of the sort of system in which the steward found himself. I’m not sure he set out to be a hero, but perhaps he became one in the end. He found himself in a place to either serve himself as he had before or to do some good for others. “What is important is to situate the parable in the broader economic context of how Jesus was reviving village life by reviving biblical covenantal economic life, forgiving debts and giving people new hope,” Rossing writes, “In Luke, the joy of the Gospel is the joy of God’s healing of relationships, including economic relationships,” she continues, “Jesus repeatedly warns that we cannot be disciples while accumulating wealth at the expense of the poor” (my emphasis).

I continue to think about where this whole section of Luke ends up – the Zacchaeus story. Jesus comes across his path and brings salvation to his house. Zacchaeus realizes that he is in a position to do good in response to having Jesus in his life. He realizes that any other choice is no longer possible if he is to follow Jesus. Zacchaeus chooses wisely, just as the steward in our parable chose wisely in how to deal with the stuff of this age.

If I am following Jesus, I’m going to be in places where I can do some good. It will likely cost me something. I am unlikely to be the only or prime beneficiary. I may even have to flee for my life on a few occasions, so I better have a good exit strategy in place. I can use unrighteous Mammon to serve God. But I cannot use God to serve unrighteous Mammon. Which will it be for me?

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.

Glancy, Jennifer A. Slavery in Early Christianity. Kindle Edition.

Goodrich, John K. “Voluntary Debt Remission and the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1—13).” Journal of Biblical Literature 131, no. 3 (2012): 547–66. https://doi.org/10.2307/23488254.

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.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Udoh, Fabian E. “The Tale of an Unrighteous Slave (Luke 16:1-8 [13]).” Journal of Biblical Literature 128, no. 2 (2009): 311–35. https://doi.org/10.2307/25610185.

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