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

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a sermon for Sunday yet. I think I’m getting closer to something that’ll preach. It’s just that the research is so darn much fun! I know, I have weird hobbies.

Garwood Anderson offers a general analysis of the parables in the Lukan account. However, he returns several times to the Parable of the Unjust Steward and offers some interesting thoughts. He deals with the parables in the Lukan account as part of the narrative and as edited and framed by the Lukan author. “I argue that Luke regarded the parables of his sources as both problematic and salvageable,” Anderson writes, “and that his treatment of the parables is a rehabilitation in which both conservative and adaptive tendencies are evident” (730).

Photo by Arthur Sparinskij on Pexels.com

The characters in the Lukan parables all face some sort of social and/or moral crisis in the course of their daily lives. While not all the protagonists are victims, all are in some sense “vulnerable to the vagaries of life.” They come from a variety of social and economic locations, yet, “what all characters share is a moment in which they must deliberate, internally or externally, and act, sometimes creatively” (page 731).

The Lukan parables feature a “rogues’ gallery” of protagonists. “One of the most arresting and charming features of the Lucan parables,” Anderson writes, “is that they are filled with an array of shady, picaresque, or otherwise unsavory characters” (page 731). I had to look up “picaresque” and was pleased to find “rascally” as a synonym for the word. As one who grew up on Looney Toons, I have a fond association of “rascally” (well, “wascawy”) with “rabbit” (well, “wabbit”) – namely Bugs Bunny, as pursued by the intrepid Elmer Fudd.

Anderson’s analysis and vocabulary is a reminder to me that I might really want to treat this parable as a comedy rather than a case study. Bugs Bunny was and is a loveable rogue. While I wouldn’t want him as a travel agent (“I musta taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque”), I can’t help but like him. I wonder if our parable paints a similar picture of the “Unjust Steward,” a clever fellow who always seems to get the better of ponderous and pompous rich guy.

“The charm of the Lucan parables lies in no small measure in this teasing playfulness and indulgence of wry humor,” Anderson continues, “yet the very strangeness that captures the interpreter’s attention creates a dilemma when these parables are integrated into a larger narrative that projects its own vision of the good” (page 733). Anderson notes that the steward is commended, perhaps, for embezzlement, but Ananias and Sapphira don’t turn out so well in Acts. Characters that should represent God in several of the parables are not figures we’d prefer to have in our immediate families. He notes that the Lukan author includes such tensions and does not avoid the questions such tensions present.

Anderson describes six “disambiguating interpretive practices” the Lukan author uses to smooth out the tensions. I’m not sure I’ll use “disambiguating” in a sentence again for a while (if ever), so I took the chance to do it twice here. Applicable to our parable is the identification and use of a narrative audience. The audience (as noted in previous posts) in Luke 15 is the Pharisees and the scribes. In our parable, the audience is the disciples. Jesus returns to the Pharisees and scribes for the rich man and Lazarus and back to the disciples in Luke 17:1.

Anderson suggests that the Lukan author uses three audience categories for three purposes. When the audience is the crowds, the parables tend to call for a decision. When the audience is the religious leaders, the Lukan author is scoring polemical points. When the audience is the disciples, the purpose is ethical and communal instruction. These are clues to the audience then and now as to the reading strategy and posture we should adopt.

Our text has the most significant example of the next Lukan practice Anderson lists – “aphoristic addenda.” That’s how he refers to Luke 16:10-13. He argues that “these aphorisms counterbalance the scandal of the parable, clarifying that it is only for [the steward’s] shrewd actions…not at all for his dishonesty, that the manager is commended” (pages 738-739). Yet the contrasts in these verses also further interpret the parable. The manager has made prudent use of another’s wealth in order to secure his future, Anderson argues.

We have examined Anderson’s final interpretive practice, use of internal monologue, at some length in an earlier post. But it is worth noting his conclusions on this practice. The use of the internal monologue makes the characters, including our manager, more human, vulnerable, and ambivalent. But the monologue also allows the Lukan author to clarify for us as the audience where things are headed. “By making the characters’ motives transparent,” Anderson writes, “Luke lets the readers see the actions for what they are and the characters for who they are” (page 748). We need not make the rascal less rascally in order to get something constructive out of the parable.

Anderson argues that Lukan parables are marked by “their startling employment of characters of questionable rectitude who respond to crises with dubious virtue” (page 748). Wow, do I resemble that remark! But I think that’s one of the joyous values of our parable. The Lord (not the landowner in the parable) can make loving use of even such characters as those in our text this week. If that’s the case, there may be hope for me too.

Anderson offers three conclusions. First, the Lukan author keeps the traditions the author has received and deals with them. We can wrestle with the author’s commentary on the tradition, but we don’t get to discount it, any more than the Lukan author could. Second, some of these parables may not be special to the Lukan author because no one else knew them but rather because no one else had the nerve to tackle them. Third, the Lukan author tames these wild parables to some extent. But by using them, the Lukan author allows most of the radical character of the stories to come through, allowing us to be shaken by them as well.

While I’m not sure I can go along with all his conclusions, I think the commentator who best reflects some of Anderson’s insight on our text is Robert Farrar Capon. He compares the Parable of the Unjust Steward to the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. He sees our parable as the reversal of that parable. In both cases, he argues for this punchline: “grace works only on those it finds dead enough to raise” (Kindle Location 3952).

In our parable, Capon continues, it’s the landowner who won’t die to the bookkeeping system that keeps them all in bondage. The steward is already dead to that system since he’s lost his position (and perhaps soon his physical life). “[A]nd because he is freed by his death to think things he could not have thought before,” Capon writes, “he is the one who, from the bottom of the heap, as it were, becomes the agent of life for everybody in the parable” (Kindle Locations 3955-3956).

Capon argues that the steward shakes the master loose from his bondage to an unjust system. Therefore, Capon continues, the unjust steward is a Christ-figure in the parable. He gives life by dying and in dying finds life. Most important, he declares, “the unjust steward is the Christ-figure because he is a crook, like Jesus” (Kindle Location 3962). Grace cannot come to the world through established channels of respectability. Those channels are about life, success, and winning. Grace works through death, failure, and losing. This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.

I wonder what the response will be if I announce that the steward is a crook like Jesus. Capon has no doubts about the response. We church folks won’t like it and don’t like it. “Unfortunately,” he writes, “the church has never been able for very long to leave Jesus looking like the attractively crummy character he is: it can hardly resist the temptation to gussy him up into a respectable citizen” (Kindle Locations 3972-3973). Thus, we communicate the notion that church is a place where only respectable citizens are welcome.

I’ve only had fleeting glimpses of “Bugs Bunny churches.” Once in a while we Jesus followers in America have tweaked the nose and pulled down the cap of the establishment – but not very often. That’s because we have been and are “the establishment,” especially we White American middle and higher class Americans. The capacity for tweaking and cap pulling resides especially in the Black church traditions. We White Jesus followers are not the least bit skilled in poking fun at ourselves, much less at the systems that have served our privileged interests so well. We need to take lessons from our siblings in other traditions.

I think, however, that we’re going to have to become a lot more skilled at such nose-tweaking in the coming years as we cease to be part of the dominant cultural structures in Western societies. Who knows? That could be fun.

Resources and References

Anderson, Garwood P. “Seeking and Saving What Might Have Been Lost: Luke’s Restoration of an Enigmatic Parable Tradition.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 70, no. 4 (2008): 729–49. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43726401.

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.

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