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17th Sunday after Trinity

15 September 2016

Proper 20: Amos 8.4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2.1-7; Luke 16.1-13


Tricky: The Parable of the Unjust Steward by Marinus van Reymerswaele

Tricky: The Parable of the Unjust Steward by Marinus van Reymerswaele

Almighty God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you: pour your love into our hearts and draw us to yourself, and so bring us at last to your heavenly city where we shall see you face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


“AN ENIGMATIC parable” is how Luke 16.1-13 is described by David Tiede (“Luke” in The Harper Collins Study Bible, 1989). One of the puzzles that the story of the dishonest manager presents to its audience concerns the logic of justice. Why should the manager be commended for sharp practice (Luke 16.8a)?

The relationship between the story itself and the interpretation that follows constitutes a second puzzle. Here, the same words seem to have shifted their meaning, and “dishonest wealth” has come to refer to the finite and ultimately worthless goods of this world rather than straightforward ill-gotten gains.

The narrative (Luke 16.1-8a) seems at face value to endorse the astuteness of a man who, seeing his employment about to end, rapidly readjusts the outstanding bills of his master’s debtors to lower figures. This will ensure that he has friends when he no longer has a secure income, and the position that goes with it.

How the reduction in debt is actually achieved is explained in various ways by commentators. Tiede takes it that the manager has been adding a large personal commission, as intermediary in his master’s business transactions. By halving the outstanding amounts owed, he is in fact cancelling this commission. There is no actual loss of revenue to his employer.

The master’s approving remarks might then naturally respond to the new wisdom of someone who has come to see, just in time, that fair treatment of others makes it more likely that they will be kind in return (Luke 16.8a).

This concludes the parable. The commentary that follows is clearly demarcated by the more general statement on the shrewdness of the “children of this world”. It is Jesus’s audience, and not the manager, who are advised to “make friends . . . by means of dishonest wealth”, so that when wealth is exhausted, there may be a welcome “into the eternal homes” (Luke 16.8b-9).

Is that, however, the obvious meaning to be drawn out of a story that has dealt with a clear instance of fraudulent business practice, or something very like it (although it was not for that reason that the master had dismissed his employee Luke 16.1)?

Luke has dealt before with the folly of becoming attached to the wealth of this world, when the real riches are the treasure of the Kingdom of God, in the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12.13-21) and the advice on trusting God for everything that follows this (Luke 12.22-34). That is the choice implied in the contrast between “dishonest wealth” and “true riches” (Luke 16.11).

It is not that “dishonest wealth” is intrinsically bad. On the contrary, it can provide the means for learning the virtues of faithfulness and trustworthiness (Luke 16.10-12). It is not, however, an end in itself, and, for that reason, those who choose to live towards the Kingdom must learn another sort of relationship with earthly possessions. Either God or wealth must come first, but putting God first may also sharpen the question of stewardship, as two earlier parables have already suggested.

In the story of the watchful slaves, always ready to greet their master, good service is generously rewarded (Luke 12.35-38). It is closely followed by a parable that shows a master amply rewarding a slave who manages his property well in his absence, but punishing him severely if he has abused his position of responsibility (Luke 12.42-48).

The advice on prayer in the First Letter to Timothy reflects the life of a community that is no longer imminently expecting the arrival of the Kingdom, and thus is challenged to work out how to be Christian in the world, without becoming enslaved to the world’s priorities. It starts from the principle that God’s desire is for everyone to be saved (1 Timothy 2.4), not insisting that coming “to the knowledge of the truth” should be a precondition for salvation. Rather, that will be its outcome.

And, if all are potential candidates for salvation, then all must be prayed for (1 Timothy 2.1-2). There is an element of worldly wisdom at work here; for Christians living in a society where emperors were gods would have found that praying for the emperor, if not to the emperor, made existence more peaceful.

And yet more significant is the divine wisdom that looks like folly to the world (1 Corinthians 1.13-23). This is embodied in Christ, who took on human nature and endured a human death, “[giving] himself a ransom for all”, and mediating between humanity and God (1 Timothy 2.5-6).

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