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.

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

And just when it was going so well…I am reminded with some force that there’s always more than one way to read a parable. I am reminded further that we always read from a social position – either actual or imagined, or both. Goodrich’s analysis is solid and well-documented. It is also written implicitly from the viewpoint of and for the benefit of the landowners and masters in the imperial system. The system assumes that it is good, right, and necessary for the landowners and masters to get their money, regardless of how that money is made.

This is an agricultural parable. Therefore, the landowner makes a large portion of his money from the free labor of enslaved laborers and managers. That is not a political statement. That is an historical and demographic reality of the first-century Mediterranean. The enslavement of people to work the land was a regular feature of small, medium, and large agricultural operations in that context. Columella’s agricultural manual assumes the use of enslaved laborers, as do the letters of Pliny the Younger. Very few in that context question the system of enslavement itself.

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Christian New Testament documents also rarely question the imperial system of human enslavement. Jennifer Glancy examines at length the figure of the enslaved person in Jesus’ words in the Lukan account. The figure of the enslaved person shows up with some regularity in Jesus’ sayings and stories and less often in his interactions with real people. “Because so many of Jesus’ sayings preserved in Luke and Matthew feature the figure of the slave,” Glancy writes, “they create the impression that Jesus’ audience was as familiar with the world of slaveholding and enslavement as with the worlds of farming and fishing” (Kindle Locations 2112-2113).

Glancy refers to our text, and specifically to verse 13, to examine “the double bind” clamped on enslaved persons who were in fact owned by two or more enslavers. That’s a common occurrence in the first century (at least in Egypt, where we have documentary evidence in the form of contracts, etc.). Yet even the documentary evidence is written from the perspective of and in the interest of the enslavers.

We can surmise these difficulties when two enslavers disagreed on time-sharing, or on freeing the enslaved person. It appears to have been possible, for example, for an enslaved person to be “half-free” if one enslaver renounced ownership! “Considered in the context of ancient slavery,” Glancy writes, “Jesus’ warning against serving two masters no longer sounds vague and metaphorical but resonates with the actual tensions implicit in the not uncommon occasion of a slave caught between the demands of two or more masters” (Kindle Locations 2134-2135).

Was the Unjust Steward a free person or an enslaved person? And what difference would that make in our interpretation of the parable and succeeding verses? Fabian Udoh brings that conversation up to date in his article. While the majority of scholars regarded the (fictional) steward as a free person, Mary Ann Beavis shook that consensus and reasserted what had been a minority opinion. Udoh builds on Beavis’ work and may shake some of my settled assumptions as well.

Udoh reads the parable “in the context of the social and ideological world of chattel slavery.” Especially when it came to agricultural and mining concerns, the use of enslaved labor was the norm. Free hired labor was the exception to that rule. “Slave labor was exploited wherever land was sufficiently concentrated in private hands,” Udoh writes, “so that a permanent workforce was needed outside of what the family could provide” (page 312). Udoh notes that Columella, in his first-century farming manual written a few decades before the Lukan account, declares that an estate manager for a farm should be appointed from among the slaves.

“Consequently, although the Roman Empire cannot be said to have been uniformly a slave society,” Udoh notes, “since the empire was a political (rather than economic) unit in which various modes of production coexisted, chattel slavery, wherever possible, was the most usual mode of production” (page 313). As N. T. Wright has noted, chattel slavery was as ubiquitous in and necessary for the economy of the Roman Empire as electricity is for the contemporary world.

Udoh argues that our Unjust Steward was a managerial slave or a freedman. The classical definition, going back at least to Aristotle, of an enslaved person was that of a “living possession.” The enslaved person is deemed to have no separate personality from the enslaver and is in fact an extension of the enslaver’s body and is therefore inhabited by the enslaver’s “soul” (creepy, I know). “These conceptions enabled the person of servile status (slave and freed),” Udoh declares, “to be the preferred agent for private household management and estate management in the Roman Empire.”

The Lukan account describes the steward as an “oikonomos.” This is the term most often applied to enslaved persons in management positions. This is the case in Luke 12:41-48, in the discussion on faithful and unfaithful enslaved persons. And it is likely, according to Udoh, the case here as well. The steward might have been a freed person, but that would change the dynamics of the relationship with the master very little.

One challenge of reading this parable, Udoh, notes is that it does not interrogate the system of enslavement. The picture we have of the enslaved person contains “the slaveholders’ fantasies, fears, ideals, values, and agenda.” This is a parable, not a sociological case study. The steward “is a literary character – but a character,” Udoh argues, “if he is to be comprehensible, with an underlying social reality” (page 328). The parable does not give us details about the realities of Roman enslavement. Rather, we should use what we know about Roman enslavement to interpret the parable.

From the perspective of the enslavers, a “just” steward would always and only represent the interests of the master. “Servile subservience and loyalty,” Udoh writes, “were necessary for the personal safety of the slaveholder and the stability of slavery as a system of economic exploitation” (page 329). Enslavers in the Roman system (and in the American system, by the way) were always afraid that the enslaved would murder them in their beds, steal them blind, and/or rise up in rebellion. Therefore, servile subservience and loyalty were encouraged with brutality.

An ”unjust” steward would resist being used as an extension of the master’s body and soul. Enslavers expected such resistance. They labelled such resistance as lazy and criminal. The enslaved were described in enslavement literature as greedy, drunken wanton, reckless, cowardly, cruel, stupid, and dangerous. The Lukan account, according to Udoh (and Glancy as well) takes these opposing types, created by and for the masters, for granted (page 330).

So we come to the “unjust” or “unrighteous” steward in our text. The steward “is said to be ‘unrighteous,’” Udoh argues, “not because his actions were ‘dishonest’ by an extrinsic, universal, moral code but because he was disloyal and caused injury to his master’s interests” (page 331). I think this is a critical insight for our interpretation. In another historical context, “unjust” equals “uppity.” If we read the parable from the view of the enslaver, then we see the steward as a criminal, and we collaborate with the enslaver. But what if the steward is a resistor rather than a felon?

Let’s look again at the parable. The gossip mill generates accusations, never proven, against this highly vulnerable manager. The enslaver gives no thought to due process or investigation since an enslaved person does not deserve such consideration. The manager doesn’t begin to look for alternative employment. Instead, as Udoh argues, he creates an escape plan. He’s not looking for new work. He’s trying to survive with his hide intact.

Udoh believes the manager builds that plan by falsifying the master’s accounts. I’m not sure, based on Goodrich’s work, that such a conclusion is required. I think the strategy of giving everyone a “win” (including the steward) is still a valid observation here. The enslaved person always understands the “system” better than the enslaver and has to be “shrewd” in order to survive. In the end, the enslaver recognizes this cleverness, I think, and decides not to beat the hell out of the enslaved manager.

In this analysis, Udoh notes, the steward doesn’t become “just” by the end of the story. He receives the enslaver’s praise at the precise moment, in Luke 16:8a, when he is described as the “unjust manager.” He has continued to shrewdly pursue his own interests, which for the moment may coincide with those of the enslaver and the debtors. “Why does the parabolic Lord praise the unfaithful manager?” Udoh asks. “Perhaps, so that the Lord can urge the ‘children of light’ similarly to be prudent ‘in their generation…” (page 335).

But don’t lose sight of the nature of that “prudence.” I quote some of Udoh’s concluding sentences. “If the Lord’s (sic) praise means that, in spite of the expectations and anxieties of the propertied classes, Justice is on the manager’s side, then Luke has told a subversive tale. Subversive because this would be the only text in the NT that commends, even if incidentally, such servile behavior as would threaten the stability of the system of slavery itself…” (page 335).

We may find ourselves captive to unjust systems and structures. How can we work as Jesus followers to subvert those systems and do some good for the oppressed? That’s a subtle question, but I think it works with this text.

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.

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

I have loads of privilege. How will I use that privilege? I think this question is at the heart of our text this week.

If you have the time and energy to read Goodrich’s article, I’d encourage you to do so. I will summarize and comment on his work here. Goodrich notes that our parable “is widely considered the most puzzling of Jesus’ teachings.” There is no scholarly consensus on how to interpret the story or the application which follows it. Goodrich chooses to focus on Luke 16:8, “how the steward can be commended…for reducing the debts owed to his master” (page 548).

Goodrich first reviews the existing explanations for what’s happening in the text. It’s good to briefly list those here. We will see that we’ve visited a few of them in previous posts. One option is that the steward got the master’s approval by somehow forgoing either his normal commission or the amounts he was in the process of stealing. But the parable states that all the debt was owed to the master, not just a portion. In addition, the numbers don’t make sense in terms of known first-century management practices or legal customs.

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A second option is the one suggested, for example, by Malina and Rohrbaugh. This option proposes “that the steward’s actions were fraudulent but were nonetheless worthy of commendation on account of his acquisition of public admiration for the master, who received honor for appearing to concede to such generous benefactions” (page 549). This position goes some way to explaining the situation. However, when it comes to property management, talk is cheap. Honor doesn’t buy luxury goods. This perspective still assumes the steward is a swindler.

A third option is that both the master and Jesus commend the steward for developing an ingenious escape plan. But it is the reduced debts themselves that the master finds prudent and praiseworthy. “Furthermore, if the steward’s actions are indeed fraudulent,” Goodrich writes, “then it is unlikely that he would have successfully found a home or future employment with the master’s debtors, since they would have every reason to fear that the steward would commit similar crimes against them” (page 550).

That last point is fairly weak. Malina and Rohrbaugh note that the steward acts with haste. This haste may be the way the steward gets his welcome guaranteed before the word gets out. Nonetheless, the plan is not the reason the steward is called “shrewd.” It’s the debt reduction itself.

Still other options propose that the parable is a negative example. Or the parable is a description of the end of the age rather than one of life in the current age. Punting the parable into a new epoch solves the problems too neatly, however. The bite of the parable and others like it is that it makes sense in terms of daily life, but there’s a rhetorical twist that gets us in the end.

All of these options assume that the steward is screwing the master financially in some way. “But,” Goodrich argues, “these assumptions rest on a limited understanding of the purpose and function of debt remission in the ancient economy” (page 552). Based on texts of the time, Goodrich seeks to demonstrate “that the instability of land tenancy during the early imperial period quite often required wealthy proprietors to reduce debts (rents and arears) in order to enable and encourage their repayment, as well as to secure the longevity of their tenants and their own profitability” (page 553).

Renegotiating and writing down the debts of tenants wasn’t sharp under the table dealing. Such actions were part of the steward’s regular job, Goodrich argues. “Debt remission in antiquity, then, was advantageous both to landlords and tenants,” he writes, “an insight that has significant implications for the interpretation of our parable” (page 553).

Modern property owners and tenants will get this immediately, I think. Commercial property owners will often forgo the first year’s rent on a property in order to get it occupied long-term. Banks re-negotiate the terms of loans in order to get continued payments rather than having to deal with a default. Farm and business loans are re-drawn in light of the past year’s performance. This is what loan managers do. They manage the overall debt portfolio to produce both short-term returns and long-term sustainability.

It’s not the least bit mysterious. In this light, the steward is unjust because he hasn’t been doing his job, not because he cheats the owner in the end. Somehow, he’s been using his position to benefit himself at the expense both of the owner and of the tenants. That’s the behavior which has to change.

Goodrich examines ancient texts that deal with tenant farming arrangements in order to make his case. He reminds me that some time I want to read Columella’s first century farm management manual (as well as more of the letters of Pliny the Younger), but that’s for another time. These texts indicate that rent remission was a common management practice in the first century imperial system. Rent remission “proved to be not only a sensible course of action to secure consistent and long-term profitability, but also a prudent strategy for obtaining debt repayment” (page 555).

Confiscating assets from tenants would satisfy the short-term debt but would make the tenants incapable of producing future crops. Finding new and reliable tenants was a risky proposition for landowners.  “Thus, remitting part or all of a tenant’s rent remained the wisest course of action for proprietors who wished to keep their farms occupied and cultivated” (page 558). In addition, debt remissions made the current tenants even more beholden to the landowner. And the reputational benefits to the landowner were the icing on the economic cake (not the chief reason for debt remission, as Malina and Rohrbaugh would argue).

Could stewards exercise such debt-reducing power as part of their management portfolio? The documentary evidence tells us that such was the case, for example, in Roman Egypt in the first century.  “It was,” Goodrich writes, “well within the power of a steward to write and adjust leasing contracts, as shown in those extant rental applications addressed not to landlords but to their stewards” (page 562). These days, for example, most renter complaints are directed not to the owner, but to the manager, and are rectified (if they are) by the manager.

Documents exist showing that stewards reduced debts, just as we see in the parable. Debt remission gave the landowners increased leverage with their tenants, obliging them to pay the debts still outstanding. There was also increased pressure to make timely future payments. The existing debt virtually guaranteed that the renters would have to renew their leases. The result was stable tenancy and consistent income. As I think about it, another result might be sharecropper slavery. That requires more thought, but not now.

With this context in mind, Goodrich suggests, we can come to a plausible reason why the master praises the unjust steward. The steward has developed a bad reputation. The steward has not kept adequate records to refute that gossip. The injustice of his actions refers to the squandering, not the debt remission. The differing amounts of remission were likely based on the renter’s ability to repay. The remissions were partial, so the landowner would get some income from the land that year. Goodrich argues that the reductions were permitted and above board. This is what stewards did. The fact that the steward could squander the master’s wealth and was expected to keep records his work demonstrates that management of that wealth was the norm.

The steward makes generous adjustments and expects to be rewarded. That’s obvious. And the steward is praised by both the landowner and Jesus for such shrewd management. “But it would be wholly inconsistent with the character of the master,” Goodrich argues, “for him to penalize the steward for mismanagement (vv. 1-2) yet praise him for slashing profits (v. 8), that is, unless the reductions show the steward somehow to be faithfully supporting the master’s interests (vv. 10-12)” (page 565).

The master praises the steward because everybody wins.

This interpretation makes it much easier, Goodrich notes, to connect the parable to the interpretation in vv. 9b-13. “If this interpretation is correct,” he writes, “and it is concluded that the steward acted wisely, honestly, and faithfully at the climax of the parable, then he becomes precisely the kind of disciple Jesus is describing in vv. 10-13” (page 566). The steward is faithful with unrighteous mammon and with what belongs to another. He illustrates service that is faithful toward God as opposed to what which is directed toward money (mammon). The steward “who had previously squandered his master’s resources eventually proves faithful by reducing debts and thus creates greater allegiance between the landlord and his tenants” (page 566).

I have loads of privilege. How will I use that privilege? Will I use it only to benefit me and people like me? Or will I use it in such a way that everybody wins? The first option is “diabolical,” according to the text. The second option is “commendable.” The potential for applications abounds.

A question gnaws at me, of course. Where is the good news in this text? More on that next time.

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.

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.

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.

Message for Luke 15:1-10

14 Pentecost C

September 11, 2022

I wish I could have a tranquil faith. I wish I could never stray from the safe path. I wish I could always jump in the right direction. Alas, that’s not me – never has been. When it comes to following Jesus, I’m a lot like the lamb in this video.

Some of that travail is years in the past. But it’s no less painful or powerful. So, when God reached out in Jesus to find me and bring me back, I thought it was a joke. When I heard the voice of God telling me to go to seminary, I was sure God had the wrong number. When the Holy Spirit blessed me with a call into ministry, I was positive that someone would figure out pretty quickly just how much of an imposter I was in this God and grace business.

Yet, the joke was on me.

That’s why I connect so personally to our gospel reading. Jesus will eat with anyone. Prior to Luke 15, Jesus has eaten with Pharisees at least three times. These meals erupt in controversy, but that doesn’t mean the meals were failures. That’s just what happens when you get some teachers together to debate the finer points of the Torah.

Jesus will eat with anyone, regardless of theological, social, or political inclination. That’s worth noting in a time when we tend to gather more and more only with people who look, think, talk, and behave like us. Then, as now, eating with anyone and everyone is a countercultural activity.

Jesus also accepts dinner invitations from the “wrong” kinds of people. He parties with the poor and the rich, the reviled and the respectable. It’s not bad enough that he sits down at the table with the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. He’s having a good old time with traitors and collaborators, with those who play fast and loose with their religion and probably fast and loose with a lot of other rules as well.

Why does Jesus welcome sinners and eat with them? Maybe it’s because, as Billy Joel noted, “the sinners are much more fun.” But I think it’s also because when there’s a chance to throw someone a lifeline, Jesus is going to do it. If Jesus finds someone who’s lost, Jesus is going to move heaven and earth to find them.

That message saves lives. I was privileged to be part of a congregational prison ministry called the FEAST. Part of that ministry was and is a Sunday meal together including inmates from the community corrections center, members of the congregation, and other volunteers, family, and friends.

I remember a FEAST partner (we call our inmate friends “partners” in that ministry) who was sure there was a catch to all of this. Nobody in their right mind would do this for free, he thought. “What do you people really want from me?” he asked. “We’d like to know how you want your burger cooked,” one of the volunteers replied.

We hoped our time together might change all of us for the better. But that wasn’t a condition for being together. Over time, my friend began to soften a bit. He was less defensive and paranoid. His shoulders relaxed. He even smiled a few times. After a few months, he came to me with a broad grin. “I’ve figured it out,” he told me. “I know what you people want.”

“Well, tell me,” I said, “what is it that ‘we people’ want?” He laughed as he spoke. “You don’t want anything. You just give yourselves and your time and your love for free. It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. I didn’t think such a thing was possible. But do you know what really gets me?” he asked. “No,” I said, “I have no idea. Tell me.”

“All of a sudden, for the first time in my life, I don’t want anything either. Because,” he took a deep breath, “I know that God wants to give me everything.”

If I hadn’t been there myself, I wouldn’t have believed it. Yet, nearly twenty years later, that conversation rings in my mind as clearly as the Sunday we had it. It didn’t work that way every time. Some never got over their suspicion. Some took what they could get and left. But many more had precisely the same experience. After a lifetime of judgment and punishment, grace changed their hearts and their lives.

The story may sound like a cheesy exercise in self-congratulation. I apologize if that’s what you get. What I know is that those of us who appeared to be on the “giving” end of the deal were (and are) the ones who benefitted the most. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a greater privilege than to watch week in and week out as living, breathing human beings were transformed by the power of God’s grace in Christ. That grace was embodied in meals, friendship, acceptance, and love.

I still get chills when I remember this experience.

Why does Jesus welcome sinners and eat with them? The sinners are more fun. I suspect there really is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine righteous who need no repentance. The challenge to the ninety-nine is to accept the joy when such a transformation happens.

This works out different ways in different settings. But the challenge of the Good News is there for all of us. In the last few weeks, Jesus has made it clear that he offers real freedom to those who fully follow him. When we receive and accept that invitation, can we take joy in offering that freedom to others?

If we reflect the image and likeness of God in our lives and conduct, we Jesus followers won’t be satisfied while any sheep and coins are still lost. Part of our calling is to understand that we are incomplete, that we are lost as long as we settle for flocks made up only of people like us.

God won’t settle for a partial victory. God is not content with finding most of the family, but not all. If we are thinking practically, we know that the sheep-owner should have settled for the ninety-nine lambs who stayed home. If we are thinking practically, we know that the woman should not have turned her house upside down for a coin that either would turn up on its own or could be replaced.

But today we meet the impractical God. Today we meet the God who will not stop looking until all have been found, reclaimed, returned, and restored. When God finds us in Jesus, will we join the search for the others? God wants all of us, and God wants us all. Let’s pray…

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).

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

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.

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

15 Pentecost C; September 18, 2022

Part One

Text Study for Luke 16 1 to 13

15 Pentecost C…September 18, 2022

Part One

Let’s begin with textual and contextual matters. It is critical for interpretation to see just how intimately connected this text is with what precedes. That is certainly the case in terms of vocabulary. The household manager is accused of “squandering” the boss’s wealth, just as the younger son “squandered” his newly-acquired inheritance. There is the sense in both cases that the characters are dissipating wealth and property which don’t really belong to them. That’s instructive in reading both parables.

There is a moment of reckoning for the protagonists in many of the parables in this section of the Lukan account. For our dishonest manager, that is a literal moment of reckoning. “Get your accounts in order,” the boss says. “You’re done here.” The younger son has a reckoning which is more of a personal epiphany. In the following text, the rich man has a reckoning as well. But that moment of epiphany comes too late to do him any good.

The moment of reckoning, in several cases in the Lukan account, comes with an internal dialogue on the part of the protagonist. That’s a feature of the Lukan account, and we’ll revisit that issue in more detail as we go along. The internal dialogue for our main character this week involves a realistic and complex calculation about how to survive his employment catastrophe. This might give us a hint, in retrospect, about the character of the internal dialogue of the younger son. It seems likely that the son’s internal dialogue is also a matter of practical calculation rather than of remorse and repentance.

The dishonest manager is far more practical and resourceful than the younger son. He knows he’s not cut out for digging ditches. He’s too proud to sit along the road with a begging bowl and cloak. He makes an honest evaluation of his resources and preferences. Could we say that the dishonest manager “counts the costs”? After all, that is his real job in the household and likely what he’s best at. He makes a plan to ensure a soft landing once he’s been tossed out on his ear. If only the younger son had been equipped with such strategic foresight.

The plan is to accumulate allies in advance – those who are beholden to the manager for their good financial fortune. The dishonest manager is looking for people who will welcome him into their homes when the need arises. What, if anything, does this have to do with the complaint that Jesus “welcomes” (same verb) sinners and eats with them? I’m not sure it’s a coincidence that Jesus is partying with tax collectors – those who end up with the property of others and who have a sharp accountant’s pencil always to hand.

It’s interesting that the Lukan author doesn’t employ the “rule of three” in this particular joke. Therefore, we can reasonably expect that the dishonest manager dealt the same way with each debtor. There was no narrative twist in a third example. This is how he behaved with “each” of his lord’s debtors.

We’re not dealing with impoverished people in this story. Jesus tells it to his disciples, rather than to the crowds in general (verse one). But this is a story about people of means – the sort of people represented by the Lukan addressee, Theophilus. A discount of fifty baths of oil would amount to some four hundred gallons. This would be the annual production of about four hundred olive trees.

A discount of twenty koroi of wheat would be around two hundred bushels (about twelve hundred pounds). Oil and wheat are semi-luxury items for the impoverished in the first-century Mediterranean. Poor people would eat barley and scrimp on the oil. The average imperial citizen might use a quarter cup of oil per day and consume up to a pound of wheat per day, if they had it. So, we’re talking about oil and grain merchants in this text, not retail consumers.

Greek has lots of words for “thinking.” The one at play in our text is “phronimos,” which has to do with practical and public intelligence. This is the intelligence that helps you get along in the community, not the intelligence that helps you read Aristotle. The dishonest manager was a sharp operator, a cunning manager. And the boss praises the manager for his street smarts.

The word the NRSV translates as “master” is the Greek word, “kyrios.” It can certainly mean “master.” But any Christian listening to the Lukan account would hear the double entendre here. The listeners would have to wonder just what the connection of this parable is to following their “master,” Jesus – whom they call “Lord.” I think translations ought to maintain this tension rather than resolving it by using “master.”

Yet, it’s clear that the “lord” in the parable is not the same as the “Lord” who is telling the story. The lord in the parable regards the manager as shrewd, crafty, and a sharp dealer. Jesus is the one who labels the manager as “unjust” or “unrighteous” (Greek = adikios).

When we get to verse eight, we need to wonder when the parable actually ends. Many commentators would put the end of the parable in the middle of verse 8. They would see the second half of the verse as the beginning of either Jesus’ commentary on the story or the Lukan interpretation of the parable. In either case, the words of interpretation are addressed to the disciples. They are the ones told to make friends with unjust mammon in order to have a soft-landing spot among the children of this age.

Now, Jesus, which way is it? On the one hand, disciples are to make friends with unjust mammon as a survival strategy in a difficult world. On the other hand, disciples cannot serve both God and mammon. Serving God means hating and despising mammon. If we recall some previous work on “hating,” we can get through this one. Disciples may well be able to use unjust mammon for short term tactics. But we must beware that possessions do not take possession of us. That, of course, will take us to the parable that follows.

If, as a disciple, I’m not trustworthy enough to balance my management of stuff and my devotion to God, then how will I handle the deep mysteries of God’s reign? That’s the upshot of the discussion of small matters and large matters. I’m not sure the NRSV extrapolation in verse eleven is all that helpful. The Greek doesn’t point to “true riches.” Rather, the verse points to that which is true. This is about more than faithful property management.

A stewardship chord is struck in verse twelve. The question is not about how we deal with the stuff that belongs to us. The question for disciples is how we are dealing with what belongs to another. That is manifestly the case in the story of the dishonest manager. It is covertly the case in the parable of the two sons. The property never really gets separated from the father. Neither the younger son nor the dishonest manager has dealt faithfully with the property of another. Will we as disciples do a better job?

It’s not clear that the household manager is an enslaved person. That may be the assumption of the parable. However, the word for “slave” is not used in the parable. The manager may be a free person who is employed as a manager. Or the manager may be a freed person who is bound to the boss by previous condition of servitude. Or the manager may be a household enslaved person.

The last seems the least likely since the manager is going to be cast out to fend for himself. An enslaved person caught with his hand in the till might lose the hand rather than his job. An enslaved person probably wouldn’t need to know what he was going to do as a result of his loss of position. That fate would be determined for him. Again, the social situation is that of someone who can determine his own destiny at least to some degree.

The lectionary doesn’t deal with verses fourteen through eighteen. We may be able to spend some time on those verses before we’re finished with this section. But for now, we can wonder how it all fits together. Perhaps the Pharisees – whom the Lukan author describes literally as “friends of silver” – are the models of those who have learned how to make friends with unrighteous mammon. But perhaps that friendship has turned into servitude.

While it may not be clear to some readers, it strikes me that the issue in these verses is the ways in which the religious leaders have cozied up to the structures of wealth and power around them. They have accommodated to the commercial system and been rewarded. They have accommodated to the political realities of life under Herod Antipas rather than pay for their resistance with their heads, like John the Baptist. Jesus calls out Antipas’ adultery in his current marriage, even if the Pharisees will not.

Just as a side note, if verse eighteen is a swipe at Herod Antipas, the rich man in the following parable may be a parody of the Galilean ruler as well. That puts an interesting twist on that parable, but that’s a conversation for the next set of posts.

Text Study for Luke 15:1-10 (Part Five)

All three of these parables seem more than a bit “over the top.” The sheep owner leaves the ninety-nine to search for the wandering lamb. Upon finding the lost one, the owner doesn’t go back to the remaining flock. Instead, the owner heads home and throws a party. The woman turns the house upside down and inside out to find the displaced drachma. Then she spends that drachma, and perhaps more, to host a party celebrating the recovery of the precious coin. These are odd behaviors.

What if these parables are part of Jesus’ stand-up routine, rather than neat little morality tales? I have found Doole’s article on observational comedy helpful in reflection on these texts. I hope you might take the time to read it yourself, but I’ll hit the high spots as I continue my message preparation for Sunday. Doole argues, based on contemporary research, that the Lukan account is the funniest of the gospels. He seeks to demonstrate that our parables are not only sharply critical of Jesus’ opponents but that this criticism is couched in the language of laughter.

Photo by Monica Silvestre on Pexels.com

Todd Strong describes the process of comedy writing. He suggests that most of the jokes we tell involve some degree of exaggeration. “Exaggeration jokes work by first evoking a fairly common, day-to-day image,” Strong writes, “and then exaggerating one or more aspects of that image to such an extent that the ensuing pictures in the minds of the audience members become ridiculous, and funny.” That sounds a great deal like our two parables (and the third one, as well, but that’s for another time).

To illustrate his point, Strong invokes the work of Nebraska native son, Johnny Carson, whom Strong describes as a “master at telling exaggeration jokes.” Carson’s trademark line – “it was so (small, big, fat, skinny, etc.”) followed by the audience response – “How (blank) was it?” became a cultural staple for a generation of television viewers. The set-up gets listeners to imagine the scene in question from their own experience. The punch line takes that standard imagination and exaggerates it to absurdity.

The description in the previous paragraph is almost a schematic of our two parables. Jesus invites his listeners to imagine the scene. “Which man of you?” Jesus asks the crowd. Immediately, they are imagining themselves as sheep owners. With that dynamic established, Jesus doesn’t have to ask the question about the woman. Listeners are already there. By extension, Jesus doesn’t have to ask the question about the father. Listeners are immediately thinking about their own family situations.

Then Jesus ratchets the absurdity to extremes. Doole points to this joke-telling practice in a number of Jesus’ parables: the friend at midnight in Luke 11, the persistent widow in Luke 18, the great banquet in Luke 14, the unjust steward, and the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16. Each of these stories observes some typical human behavior and then elevates that behavior to the heights of folly. “So,” Doole summarizes, “it is interesting that previous research has already demonstrated the significant role of humor in Luke 14 and Luke 16, which surely suggests that Luke 15 is fertile ground for further investigation of Jesus’s humour in Luke’ (page 185).

If the Doole’s argument is valid, then a first conclusion has to do with the tone of our messages on our text. When possible and appropriate, I think it’s helpful for a message to reflect not only the content of the text in question but also the tone and style of the text. Stories tend to call forth more stories. Jokes elicit more jokes. The tactic Jesus uses in our text is to get the folks laughing and then gently slip the rhetorical knife between their ribs at the end.

Of course, we must remember the words of actor Edmund Gwenn as he faced the end of his life. A visitor commiserated that his journey toward mortality must be terribly difficult for Gwenn. “Dying is easy,” Gwenn is supposed to have replied, “Comedy is difficult.” Even that deathbed line is an example of the nature of comedy – human situation raised to an absurd level and then then punch line lands. Any experienced preacher knows the truth of that (exaggerated) sentiment about comedy. Nonetheless, if Doole is right, we have our invitation right in the text.

Now, what about the details of our own comedic parables? Doole notes that Jesus is speaking to a mixed audience where the potential for laughing at one group and with another is great. “At this point in the Gospel,” Doole writes, “we have a mixed group, the perfect audience for the observations of Jesus on social absurdities” (page 187). In addition, standup comedy depends on audience interaction. Clearly, Jesus calls for that interaction as he begins the parable in Luke 15:4.

The Lukan author was apparently familiar with the conventions of classical humor. Doole notes five such conventions. Humor was a feature of the meals known as symposia, where a variety of people is present and where dialogue and debate are on the menu. The Lukan account would be half its current size if such gatherings were deleted from the text.

Speakers entertain the guests by comparing typical and exaggerated human characteristics or behavior. Common sense wisdom is used to make elite behaviors appear foolish. While the punchlines are joyful, they still put the Pharisees and scribes “in their place.” And the humor can be used for persuasion and/or censure, not only for entertainment (pages 189-190). The parables of the lost and found fit these parameters and would speak to the modestly elite target audience of the Lukan account.

So, on to the parables. Doole suggests that going after the lost sheep is not unusual behavior, in the experience of the audience. What’s crazy is that the sheep owner doesn’t go back to the ninety-nine. The audience might have seen this as careless and even ridiculous. Perhaps this was a typical rookie mistake or the work of one who was not going to be a shepherd for long. In the same way, the woman’s reaction is out of all proportion to the value of the coin. But just as some shepherds might have made a rookie mistake, so some women might have succumbed to such irrational exuberance.

The charming foolishness of the sheep owner and the woman pales in comparison to that of the forgiving father. Here Doole reminds us of Paul’s words regarding the foolishness of God in 1 Corinthians, chapter 1. That’s a worthwhile connection to make in our messages. When it comes to being rescued from ourselves and this broken world, there’s a real sense in which “the joke’s on us!”

“Luke’s story of the two sons, just like those of the sheep and coin, draws on observation of human behavior when people are confronted with loss,” Doole writes, “and the disproportionate joy that defies traditional values when that which was lost is recovered. We can all laugh at the actions of the father because we see our own foolishness in him,” Doole continues, “Yet the implied meaning of this joke is that God acts in the same foolish way” (page 204).

“The joke,” Doole concludes, “is on those who thought they understood God” (page 207). That’s an idea that’ll preach.

I have had no reason to expect that things would turn out well between God and me. I envy those folks whose journey with God has been relatively straightforward and uneventful. I don’t have that gift of a modestly tranquil faith. I am the sheep who nibbled itself lost. I am the coin who fell between the couch cushions. I am the son who told a variety of families that I had no interest in what they offered. Like the lamb, I fell into ditches. Like the coin I sat useless in the dark. Like the son, I hoped for a measure of survival but despaired of the possibility of acceptance and love.

Some of that travail is years in the past, but it’s no less painful or powerful. So, when God reached out in Jesus to find me and bring me back, I thought it was a joke. When I heard the voice of God telling me to go to seminary, I was sure that God must have the wrong number. When the Holy Spirit blessed me with a call into ministry, I was positive that someone would figure out pretty quickly just how much of an imposter I was in this God and grace business.

Yet, the joke was on me. And it continues to be on me. I return over and over to the words of Brennan Manning. In The Furious Longing of God, he writes, “Those of us scarred by sin are called to closeness with Him (sic) around the banquet table. The kingdom of God is not a subdivision for the self-righteous or for those who lay claim to private visions of doubtful authenticity and boast they possess the state secret of their salvation. No,” Manning continues, “The men and women who are truly filled with light are those who have gazed deeply into the darkness of their own imperfect existence” (page 32).

And there are the words of Cory Asbury’s “Reckless Love” — “Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God Oh, it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine. I couldn’t earn it, and I don’t deserve it, still, You give Yourself away. Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God, yeah…”

Yeah.

Resources and References

Abraham, Heather R. “Segregation Autopilot: How the Government Perpetuates Segregation and How to Stop It.” https://ssrn.comb/abstract=4006587.

Burke, Trevor J. “The parable of the prodigal father: an interpretative key to the third Gospel (Luke 15: 11-32).” Tyndale bulletin 64, no. 2 (2013): 216-238.

Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.

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.

Doole, J. Andrew. “Observational Comedy in Luke 15.” Neotestamentica 50, no. 1 (2016): 181–210. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26417475.

Kilgallen, John. “Was Jesus Right to Eat with Sinners and Tax Collectors?” Biblica 93, no. 4 (2012): 590–600. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42617310.

Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

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

Mannermaa, Tuomo. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World. Kindle Edition.

Manning, Brennan. The Furious Longing of God. David C. Cook, 2009.

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

Swanson, Richard W. https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2022/03/20/a-provocation-4th-sunday-in-lent-march-27-2022-luke-151-3-11-32/.

Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 2005.

Wright, N. T. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Luke 15:1-10 (Part Four)

Just a reminder, friends, that I’m back in the weekly preaching business for a while. So, I’m even more interested in your feedback and comments than previously. Please feel free to add comments to my posts. I’d be glad to hear your thoughts regarding the texts, the posts, and your own reflections as we move toward the crafting of messages for our worshipping communities.

“Was Jesus right,” John Kilgallen asks in his Biblica article, “to eat with sinners and tax collectors?” Kilgallen notes that the Pharisees were also in favor of the repentance of sinners. In the Lukan account and elsewhere, however, it is clear that they differ with Jesus on their outreach strategy. The reported strategy of the Pharisees was to avoid contact with the sinners.

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This strategy, according to Kilgallen, accomplished two things. It kept the Pharisees from being influenced toward sin by the sinners. And it communicated the disapproval which might lead such sinners to a change in worldview and resulting behavior. “If the Pharisees held other Israelites in lesser esteem,” he writes, “it was only as a confirmation of their impatience with sins and sinners against the Law” (page 590).

I think it’s important to be fair and accurate in our portrayal of the Pharisees in the Lukan account. It is not fair and accurate to suggest that, somehow, they did not care about the welfare of the “tax collectors and sinners.” They sought the holiness and wholeness of the people of God. They put more emphasis, perhaps on the “holiness” than Jesus did. But that was a difference in strategy and not a lack of care.

Jesus, on the other hand, chose to approach the sinners – to welcome them and eat with them. As we’ve noted previously, one realistic concern was that such interaction would communicate approval and therefore would not lead to repentance and reform. Kilgallen suggests that the Lukan author is at pains to show that Jesus’ outreach strategy was successful and, in addition, received the Divine stamp of approval.

It might be worth the time, in a sermon, to track Jesus’ consistent path in the Lukan account when it came to welcoming and eating with sinners. In Luke 5, Jesus calls Levi, the tax collector, to follow him as a disciple. Levi answers the call. “And abandoning everything, [Levi] got up and followed him” (Luke 5:28, my translation). This little verse vibrates with verbs. Levi leaves it all behind. The verb for “getting up” is a cognate for “resurrection.” Was Levi dead and now alive, according to the Lukan author? I wonder.

Levi hosts a huge feast in his home. Jesus and his disciples are the guests of honor. The word for “joy” is not in the text, but it’s fair to presume that the feast was fun. The Pharisees and their scribes “grumble” to Jesus’ disciples. That’s a form of the same verb in 15:2, applied once again to the Pharisees and their scribes. “What’s the reason you (pl) eat and drink with the tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30b, my translation). It’s clear that this is a textual companion to the opening of Luke 15.

Jesus replies to the grumbling. “The healthy have no need for a healer; instead, the ones in a bad way have such a need. I have not come to call the just ones but rather sinners into repentance” (Luke 5:31b-32, my translation). As Kilgallen notes, this description is not an argument in favor of Jesus’ strategy but rather a simple assertion of that strategy. The argument comes as we move through the Lukan narrative.

Kilgallen next takes us to Luke 7. Jesus compares himself to John the Baptist and says, “There’s just no pleasing the people of this generation!” John the Baptist was an ascetic prophet, and they accused him of having a demon (Luke 7:33). Jesus (“the Son of Man”) has come “eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look! A man who is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. And Wisdom is justified on the basis of all her children.” (Luke 7:34b-35, my translation).

The cryptic proverb is the key to this text, according to Kilgallen. A wise understanding of Jesus’ strategy looks at the results, the outcomes, “the children” produced by the strategy. To drive home the point, the Lukan author takes us to a dinner in the home of Simon the Pharisee. There, a woman bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. The Pharisee expects Jesus to distance himself from the woman. Jesus welcomes her overture.

The difference in strategy is clear. And the results are obvious. The woman’s sins are forgiven. She has shown great love. She has enacted and embodied that love, at great risk to herself, in a highly visible fashion. Her trust has saved her, and she can go in peace. This is how Jesus’ outreach strategy works in practice.

Now we come to our parables in Luke 15. Kilgallen suggests two lessons from the first two parables. “They show us that it is unremitting searching that finds what was lost, not disinterest in or distance from the sheep. Certainly,” he continues, “leaving them lost achieves not a thing.” The second lesson is that finding the lost produces joy and celebration. This second lesson “confirms the value of searching, achieving happiness for going after what was lost until it was found.” For Jesus, searching is the only way to bring about repentance (page 596).

The third parable makes clear the stakes of the searching and finding. This is a matter of life and death for the one who is lost. The father says that the lost son was dead and is now alive. Remember that when Levi responds to the call to discipleship, he rises up to follow. The joy evidenced in the finding finds its way to heaven itself. Kilgallen argues, “whatever can produce joy in heaven is worth doing. One cannot prefer not searching after sinners, if one is convinced that such searching is the way, the best and necessary way, to produce joy, and life” (page 597).

This third approach to welcoming sinners and eating with them gives the justification for Jesus’ outreach strategy. “That heaven rejoices over the result of Jesus’ winning over sinners is assurance that the means is justified by its effect,” Kilgallen writes. This heavenly celebration is “further proof that Jesus’ way of trying to convert sinners to repentance is valid” (page 597). But there is one more story – specific and personal.

As we’ve noted before, this trajectory in the Lukan account climaxes with the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19. Zacchaeus climbs a tree to get a better view of the parade. Jesus calls him down and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home, presumably for a meal. Zacchaeus responds with joyful repentance. He promises to fulfill the Torah concerned with reparations and repayment. What’s not to like?

Yet, the story is interrupted by familiar words in verse 7. “And when they saw this, all were grumbling and said, ‘He has gone down to enter the house of a man who is a sinner” (my translation). The vocabulary is rich here. We have the same verb for “grumbling” that we found in Luke 15. Now it’s not just the Pharisees and the scribes who grumble, but rather all who saw it. The verb for “going” has the clear sense of “going down” (the kata- prefix in the Greek). Jesus is “lowering himself,” they say, by entering the home of this notorious sinner.

“For our purposes,” Kilgallen writes, “the most striking feature we find in this story is the fact that we have been given a clear example of the result which comes from Jesus’ fraternizing with sinners” (page 598). In regard to our text, Kilgallen argues, “These parables are meant to encourage those sinners who listen favorably to Jesus, but equally are meant to make clear to Jesus’ critics the supreme value of his efforts to encourage repentance” (599). The Lukan author is at pains to demonstrate that Jesus’ outreach strategy is effective, ratified by heavenly celebration, and gives life in the midst of death.

So, what do we preachers do with this analysis? We have the good news that the God who comes to us in Jesus seeks us relentlessly to save us. I’m not sure if I’ll use any quotes from Francis Thompson’s The Hound of Heaven, but such quotes would be well-placed. We have the great privilege to share that good news with any and all. And we have the rule of thumb that if it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for us. The strategy for responding to “sinners” is to welcome them and eat with them, whatever that means.

We should observe that in this strategy, Jesus never hosted a single dinner himself. He went out. He got himself invited. He invited himself. He was interesting and enjoyable enough to generate the invitations. He engaged in dialogue and debate. He stirred the theological pot. He was “out there,” and that’s our place as Jesus followers too.

Resources and References

Abraham, Heather R. “Segregation Autopilot: How the Government Perpetuates Segregation and How to Stop It.” https://ssrn.comb/abstract=4006587.

Burke, Trevor J. “The parable of the prodigal father: an interpretative key to the third Gospel (Luke 15: 11-32).” Tyndale bulletin 64, no. 2 (2013): 216-238.

Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.

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.

Doole, J. Andrew. “Observational Comedy in Luke 15.” Neotestamentica 50, no. 1 (2016): 181–210. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26417475.

Kilgallen, John. “Was Jesus Right to Eat with Sinners and Tax Collectors?” Biblica 93, no. 4 (2012): 590–600. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42617310.

Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

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

Mannermaa, Tuomo. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World. Kindle Edition.

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

Swanson, Richard W. https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2022/03/20/a-provocation-4th-sunday-in-lent-march-27-2022-luke-151-3-11-32/.

Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 2005.

Wright, N. T. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.