The parable of the unjust steward has baffled and perplexed preachers and readers of the Bible perhaps since it was first written down by Luke. To begin with, it’s difficult to understand because on the surface Jesus appears to be commending unscrupulous, deceitful activity by the manager (steward). The manager has just been fired by his wealthy master for cooking the books. Then he turns around and secretly goes to each of the people who owed money to his master and works out a deal to pad his own pocketbook as well as ingratiate himself to them for possible future business ventures.
The temptation with all parables is to rush to allegorize them. Obviously, the master must be God (after all, that’s the way it works in other of Jesus’ allegory parables). Put yourself in the manager/steward’s place (or perhaps give that role to Jesus). Allegories can be such great fun. Everything in its place. All very tidy. But I think that’s exactly the wrong thing to do here.
Likewise, it’s almost as easy to turn this parable into some sort of road map for Christian stewards who live within capitalistic societies. Shrewdness (the softer term for cunning) comes in quite handy in managing money, and it certainly appears Jesus commends the manager for his shrewdness not his dishonesty. Manage your money wisely and make it grow and thus help bring God’s kingdom on earth a little closer. There’s wisdom interspersed in there, but I just can’t bring myself to complete agreement that is the right or best approach to this parable.
Having been a writer/editor almost my entire adult life, I know the value of words (forget that “one picture is worth a thousand words” quote artists and photographers are always throwing in our faces), how they can express beauty and power and immense meaning, with both depth and breadth. Words on paper, at least.
What I try to do with a parable is imagine Jesus actually saying the words, in the context they occurred.
Here he’s been talking with “tax collectors and sinners” (code words for the seedier elements of society) while Pharisees (important and proper religious authorities) are listening in from a distance. Jesus has just told three stories of a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son (the Prodigal). And so he’s made the point that everybody is of great value to God (yeah, even you tax collectors, sinners, and Pharisees). But then he tells this crazy story about a lying, despicable, cheating businessman who has conned his chief investor out of untold amounts of money, gets caught, turns around and does even more underhanded business deals which will help tide him over until his next job and ingratiate himself with an expanded network of other business people. And for all that chicanery, his “master” commends him for his shrewdness. He’s still fired, mind you. (Not hard to picture Donald Trump in this story, is it?)
What if there’s a little more to this story that’s not written in words. Something you had to be there for originally to truly appreciate. What if Jesus told his story with a wink and a nudge of his elbow to the ribs of the guy standing next to him? What if Jesus was being sarcastic?
Oh, no, you probably would say: “Not our Lord Jesus. The ‘perfect’ man. The holiest one ever to walk the face of the earth. God in the flesh.”
But, of course, that’s not the guy telling stories to this little gathering of society’s outcasts. People I’m pretty sure could recognize and appreciate a little (or a lot) of sarcasm when they hear it. I really like the thought of Jesus of Nazareth having a wicked sense of humor.
Maybe, just maybe Jesus isn’t counseling folks to go over to the dark side for the sake of the kingdom, to become the Bernie Madoffs of his day (or for my Canadian friends, first-century Conrad Blacks; Black, incidentally, owned the newspaper where I had my first job as a reporter–let’s just say he was refining his “skills” back in the day). Jesus is not saying the ends justify the means. And I don’t think he’s even telling folks to be good little capitalists so they can grow their money for the sake of the kingdom (or the church), although given the popularity of today’s “Prosperity Gospel,” apparently lots of people today do.
No, Jesus’ primary point, I think, is pretty much the same as what Bob Dylan sang about decades ago: “You gotta serve somebody….”
Look at it this way: There’s the children of darkness operating over here. And over there are the children of the light. Which group are you in?
Jesus may have been telling the story directly to tax collectors and other assorted “sinners,” but he knew the Pharisees were listening in, too. And so he wanted them to ask themselves the same question: Which children are you? And, just as importantly: Which children are you when you’re doing the “little things” as well as the “big things”? How faithful are you to God? Who are you/we serving?
*Portions adapted from the ForeWords archive