Today’s lesson covers a grab-bag of parables, many about money. Before getting to them though…
I’ve made this point before, I think, but it’s worth repeating here. Note that none of these parables comes from the Gospel of John. Matthew says that Jesus taught the crowds in parables; “indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable.” (ESV Matt. 13:34, my emphasis.) It’s a very strong contrast; Matthew has Jesus not teaching anything without parables, but you can’t even find the word “parable” in the Gospel of John, because Jesus never uses parables there.
How do we explain this? Although they are historical in a sense, the Gospels are not, strictly speaking, histories. This is hinted at by the four superscripts, The Gospel According to Someone. Each author has shaped the record to emphasize different aspects of Jesus. This “shaping” has extended farther than many modern readers realize or are initially comfortable with. The default assumption is that scripture, in order to be true, must be history, and moreover, must be history by modern standards. The ancient writers of the gospels operated by different standards, and this is one reason why they are different from each other. (Another is that they used different sources.)
Several of these talk about riches and money, always a fraught subject. We have the rich young man who’s told to sell all he has and follow Jesus; the widow’s mite; the rich fool who lays up treasure for himself; the extremely puzzling parable of the unjust steward, in which Jesus tells us to make friends with the mammon or riches of unrighteousness.
A note, then, first on mammon. This is an Aramaic word, appearing in the New Testament only here in the synoptic gospels transliterated instead of translated into Greek. While usage, not etymology, determines meaning, I found it interesting that mammon may well be a noun form of the root ‘mn, whence we also derive our words for faith, belief, and amen. As a (mem-preformative) noun, then, mammon would have meant at an early stage, “that in which one trusts.” Mammon appears at Qumran, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as
in both Hebrew and Aramaic texts of the post-biblical period… Although a neutral term in itself, in later Jewish usage (esp. the Targumim) the word develops a predominantly negative meaning with connotations of the improper, the dishonest, the sinful aspect of wealth…
[Jesus] seems to regard Mammon as an enslaving force or even as a god that one can serve: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon”. Here Mammon is personified as an evil and superhuman power that stands in competition to God and by possessing people can even keep them from being devoted to God and make them hate Him. – Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible
I focus on the parable of the unjust steward, because I have no idea what it means. Jesus’ explanation (vv. 10-13) and final explanatory line of the parable in some ways do more to confuse than clear up.
“his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth (mammon) so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” (NRS Lk. 16:8-9 )
Part of this seems to be saying to Jesus’ disciples “be shrewd like the worldly people, but don’t be evil.” But I can’t figure out how making friends of “dishonest wealth” has us welcomed into eternal homes. So below, I copy a few of the interpretations and notes among my resources.
Faithlife Study Bible (a free resource from Logos.)
Following His parable of squandered wealth and subsequent impoverishment (see 15:14–16), Jesus delivers another parable about the proper use of material possessions. Interestingly, His protagonist is a household manager who appears to win the respect of his master by acting dishonestly. However, his actions in vv. 4–7 are not the source of his dishonest reputation; that comes from v. 1.
Jesus’ point here is to highlight how the use of one’s material possessions can determine his or her future. The manager in His story senses the urgency of the situation and responds with wisdom to the master’s warning of future judgment….
His actions in reducing their debt are not dishonest; rather, he is simply eliminating his commission as financial manager. His master applauds his quick thinking (see v. 8) so the manager’s actions in vv. 4–7 should not be disparaged. He is called dishonest in v. 8 due to the accusations in v. 1.
The measure of olive oil (100 baths, about 850 gallons) represented the yield of nearly 150 trees and was worth about 1,000 denarii, no small sum. The measure of wheat (100 cors, about 1,000 bushels) represented the yield of about 100 acres and was worth about 2,500 denarii. The percentages of debt forgiven differ, but roughly the same amount of money is forgiven in each of the sample transactions (about 500 denarii). These renters are all relatively well-to-do in their own right, and thus might make use of a manager themselves in the future.
In hard times, masters would sometimes forgive part of the debt, writing it off as a loss, in return for being considered benevolent….
ll these changes of notes required only small marks on the papers, made by the clients themselves; and if the projected income thereby appears less, it will be harder to recognize that the master’s profits affected by the manager’s embezzlements are really diminished.
More important, the manager has gained public favor for himself and for the master as a generous benefactor; if the master punishes the manager now, it would appear to the public that he were doing so because of the manager’s benevolent act. The criminal manager could be jailed, but he wisely stakes everything on his master’s honor as a generous man….The moral of the story is: Use possessions to serve people, because you are only God’s managers of anything you have.
[Jesus] is not praising this corrupt manager’s goal of “looking out for Number One,” but his cleverness and intelligence in pursuing his mistaken goal. Further, his comment that the worldly are more creative in working toward their aims than those enlightened by trusting God are in pursuing the goals God has set forth for them seems to be true today as well as then. Many well-intentioned people are bound, when seeking solutions, by lack of imagination, freedom and grounding in reality.
9 [Jesus] urges his followers not to use the materials of this world in a wicked way but for noble ends, so that their friends, God the Father and Yeshua the Son, may welcome them into the eternal home, just as the manager can expect his newly purchased “friends” to welcome him into their worldly homes.
Commentators are uncertain of the extent of the parable, for a number of injunctions about the use of money have been appended to it. Because they relate in different ways to the events in the parable itself, they are likely to come from various occasions in Jesus’ ministry and to have been brought together by Luke in a somewhat artificial manner. vv. 7, 8a, 8b, and 9 have all been suggested as endings of the original parable. That v. 9 is part of the parable is unlikely. It uses the same Greek word, translated ‘dishonest’ in NRSV in both instances, in a way that is different from its use in v. 8. The servant is ‘dishonest’ in our understanding of the term. All mammon (NRSV wealth), however, is called ‘dishonest’ in the sense that it is material possessions understood as the things in which one puts one’s trust and that therefore encourage an acquisitive attitude and a self-reliance; it separates one from God (hence ‘unrighteous’ is probably a better term). ‘The meaning is worldly wealth as opposed to heavenly treasure’ (Marshall 1978). If v. 9 were part of the parable, it would be encouraging us to use our wealth gained dishonestly in a way that brought us some benefits: it would be virtually condoning dishonesty! On the other hand, it is unlikely that the parable stops at the end of v. 7. The reason this is sometimes suggested is because of the problem of v. 8. Why would ‘his master’ commend one who had actually defrauded him even if he had acted shrewdly? The Greek of v. 8 has simply ‘the lord’ and, since this is the term that Luke uses frequently in the journey narrative to refer to Jesus, the verse is then accepted as a comment by him on the parable. Such a view, however, leaves the parable too open-ended and avoids the shock that is at the heart of so many of Jesus’ parables. The real challenge is the master’s commendation of the steward. What does this say, not only about the steward but also about the master?
It is sometimes maintained that the master’s commendation of the steward does not present a problem. In order to bypass the biblical prohibition of usury, when a loan was made the interest was often added to the capital as a single figure. It is this final figure, that would have included not merely the master’s interest but also the steward’s legitimate commission, which was being reduced. The master was not being harmed but was actually being made to appear generous to the debtors. Ingenious though this explanation is, it does not account for the parable’s description of the steward as ‘dishonest’. Moreover, it does not allow for the fact that Jesus’ parables are not simple, realistic stories, but rather tales of unusual situations which challenge so much of the accepted and natural order of things.
It seems then that the parable proper ends at v. 8a with 8b being Jesus’ own comment on the story. v. 9, ‘And I tell you’, marks Luke’s introduction to the further, but not necessarily related, sayings of Jesus. Read thus, the parable tells a story of an inefficient (v. 1) steward who, facing dismissal for his indolence, meets the crisis with uncharacteristic vigour and ingenuity. The master, though defrauded, recognizes the initiative and, himself working fom the perspective of ‘unrighteous mammon’, actually commends the steward’s shrewdness. There is nothing to say that he reinstates him, but sharing in his worldly stance, he can appreciate a sensible move, indeed an ingenious one, when he sees it. ‘If only’, says the parable, ‘the sons of light had the same appreciation of the crisis confonting them in the drawing near of the Kingdom, and the same energy in meeting it.’
This parable is directed to the disciples. To understand the parable it is important to separate the parable proper from comments on it. Although not unanimous, the view is widely held that the parable ends at 8a, and hence the commendation of the steward was for his prudence. What the steward had done is not clear: either he reduced the bills by subtracting his own commission (in which case he would not have been dishonest) or he permitted falsification of the amounts owed his master. The latter seems more likely. If v. 8b is commentary, then the lesson is that people of the world demonstrate an astuteness (neb) from which children of light (1 Thess. 5:4-5) can learn. And wherein is the astuteness? Verse 9 says it lies in using possessions so as to gain rather than lose one’s future. Verses 10-13 provide further commentary on wealth but not necessarily related to the parable. Each of these verses states a proverbial truth, vv. 10-12 framed on a lesser-to-greater argument, and v. 13 an either/or statement, but none of them depend on the parable for the truth being stated. The Pharisees, here called lovers of money, were, unlike the Sadducees, generally urban and business people. Their making fun of Jesus may imply that they regarded prosperity as God’s reward for righteousness (Deut. 27-28). Their self-justification may have been in the form of alms and other works of merit, but God’s assessments are usually a reversal of our own.
N.T. Wright Luke for Everyone
Was the Bible against making money out of other money, or was it—was Jesus, indeed—telling us we should use any sharp financial practices we could to get ourselves out of difficulties?
The problem is made worse in some of the usual translations of verse 9, which seem to say that you can buy your way into heaven; and by the puzzle of verse 8, where it isn’t clear whether ‘the master’ who is commending the dishonest steward is the master in the story, or whether this is Luke’s reporting of what ‘the master’, Jesus, said about it all. How can we sort all this out?
The first thing to do is to understand how the story works. It looks as though the master in the story had himself been acting in a somewhat underhand manner. Jews were forbidden to lend money at interest, but many people got round this by lending in kind, with oil and wheat being easy commodities to use for this purpose. It is likely that what the steward deducted from the bill was the interest that the master had been charging, with a higher rate on oil than on wheat. If he reduced the bill in each case to the principal, the simple amount that had been lent, the debtors would be delighted, but the master couldn’t lay a charge against the steward without owning up to his own shady business practices. Thus, when the master heard about it (I think ‘the master’ in verse 9 is certainly the master in the story, not Jesus), he could only admire the man’s clever approach.
But the second thing is to realize, as the whole setting in Luke helps us to do, what the parable is really about. It is, after all, a parable, not a piece of moral teaching about money and how (not) to use it—though, as with the sayings about feasts in chapter 14, we find some moral teaching on the subject placed alongside, which does rather confuse the issue, at least to begin with.
If we were faced with a first-century Jewish story we’d never seen before, about a master and a steward, we should know at once what it was most likely about. The master is God; the steward is Israel. Israel is supposed to be God’s property-manager, the light of God’s world, responsible to God and set over his possessions. But Israel—as we’ve seen in so much of this gospel—has failed in the task, and is under threat of imminent dismissal. What then ought Israel to do?
The Pharisees’ answer was to pull the regulations of the law even tighter, to try to make Israel more holy. This, as we’ve seen, had the effect that they were excluding the very people that Jesus was reaching out to. Jesus, in this parable, indicates that if Israel is facing a major crisis the answer is rather to throw caution to the winds, to forget the extra bits and pieces of law which the Pharisees have heaped up, and to make friends as and where they can. That’s what ‘the children of this world’ would do, and ‘the children of light’—that is, the Israelites—ought to do so as well, learning from the cunning people of the world how to cope in the crisis that was coming upon their generation.
Thus, instead of hoarding money and land, Jesus’ advice was to use it, as far as one could, to make friends. A crisis was coming, in which alternative homes, homes that would last (not ‘eternal habitations’ in the sense of a heavenly dwelling after death), would be needed.
This parable thus appears to be directed very specifically to the situation of Jesus’ own hearers. How can it be reused in our own day?
Obviously it has nothing to do with commending sharp practice in business or personal finance. Rather, it advises us to sit light to the extra regulations which we impose on one another, not least in the church, which are over and above the gospel itself. The church passes through turbulent times, and frequently needs to reassess what matters and what doesn’t. The twentieth century saw the so-called ‘mainline’ churches in many parts of the world—the traditional denominations—in decline, with newer churches, not least in the Third World, growing and spreading. What should traditional churches do when faced with their own mortality? Perhaps they should learn to think unconventionally, to be prepared to make new friends across traditional barriers, to throw caution to the winds and discover again, in the true fellowship of the gospel, a home that will last.
Lastly, some of the best readings about money come from idealist Hugh Nibley, implicitly and explicitly analyzing certain LDS traditions about money, Work We Must, but the Lunch is Free (skip down to “Two Masters”) and the follow-up, Yes, But What Kind Of Work?
Lastly, as always, you can support this site and my research by making Amazon purchases through this link, or the Support My Research links at the bottom of the About page. You can get updates by email whenever a post goes up (subscription box on the right). If you friend me on Facebook, please drop me a note telling me you’re a reader.