First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 18

Pentecost 18:  18 September Luke 16:1-13

If we work backwards through Luke 16, the theme of wealth is obvious. Next week we will consider the parable of the rich man and Lazarus found in 16:19-31. 16:16-18 makes a strong link of continuity between the Mosaic law and Jesus, and illustrates this by strict teaching about divorce, probably to counter divorce and remarriage for monetary gain. 16:14-16 targets the Pharisees for greed. 16:13 suggests that wealth can assume divine status in people’s lives as the absolute value - even then! 16:10-12 is about how we handle money as an indicator of fitness to handle any responsibility. Turning it around the other way our spirituality needs to be informing our financial decisions. Personal integrity and business are not to be treated as two different worlds.

Once we reach 16:9, it becomes apparent that Luke or someone before him has brought together sayings of Jesus in an attempt to throw more light on the parable of the previous verses or to apply it. Already 16:10-12 and 16:13 belong in this category. 16:9 sounds like the kind of practical advice we might find in Ben Sirach, but by referring to ‘eternal homes’ it clearly has something more in mind. Much like 14:12-14, which we had 2 weeks ago, it appeals to our longer term interests. The link with the parable is rather oblique.

16:8b seems also to have been an early attempt to interpret the parable. The ‘sons of this age’ outdo ‘the sons of light’ in cunning, descriptions familiar to us from writings of the time, Christian and Jewish (for instance, the Dead Sea scrolls). So we be like the world of commerce and think about what we are doing, strategise! ‘Strategic Planning’ has, here, its preaching text. The link with the parable remains rather oblique here, too.

What about the parable itself? Was it really so difficult to understand? Obviously, yes. This is confirmed by the count of interpretations which have appeared to the present day which number in the hundreds! I am one of the contributors. Working backwards, still, the problems already begin with 16:8a. Who is doing the praising? Jesus or the rich man? If it is Jesus, what is it he approves of here? Deceit? Surely not. The sacked manager’s cleverness or determination? That seems to be in mind in 16:8b. The self interest? That appears to be in mind in 16:9. Why would the boss praise the sacked man, when he was standing to lose money? Was it honour among thieves? Or, again, the cleverness?

Partly it depends on how we understand the story in the first place. Was the sacked man overcharging and so, when he knew he was to be dismissed, forwent his cut to gain acceptance among his former clients? Or was he setting up a situation which would enhance his master’s reputation as well as his own? Was that part of the strategy? It would be something of a public relations disaster if the master had to go round reinstating the original cost. Losing face was ‘big time’ in the world of the time. So he has trapped his boss into going along with his deceit. Or was it that the boss would say nothing for fear of drawing attention to his lack of true piety as one who charged interest?

Perhaps that is all there is to it: not a very good example nor very effective, but one that means, be clever (but only not in a dishonest way). I suspect there is more to it, though the rogue’s cunning certainly gave spice to the story. It may been a story that was circulating at the time, which Jesus then picked and used for his own ends. How has he used it? What are the connections with Jesus and his ministry?

There are clues. Debt was used more than once by Jesus as a metaphor for sins and forgiving debts, for forgiving sins. Jesus uses the imagery in the Lord’s Prayer. Central to the story is the fact that the rogue had no authorisation to go around cancelling or cutting people’s debts. It was outrageous behaviour. But Luke has been telling us that Jesus’ behaviour was also outrageous. His opponents were saying he had no right to go about welcoming sinners and declaring God’s forgiveness to them. Jesus was a rogue in the system. They denied his authority to do so. That was the point of the previous parables in Luke 15 in which Jesus defended his behaviour.

It seems very likely that Jesus has taken up a popular story about a rogue manager, then used it in self defence and to confront his opponents. He is like the rogue whom they accuse of being unauthorised to forgive debts, but, he asserts, he does so with God’s approval. As the master praised the sacked manager, so, claims Jesus, God will approve his ministry and his radical generosity. Jesus is the legitimate agent. God is that generous!

Jesus often used stories from the commercial world, including those which likened God or himself to rather shady characters (eg. an unjust judge; a ruthless king). Not all elements of the stories fit neatly into the application, with the result that later on led to a plethora of attempts to accommodate them, but the point is usually at a very basic level of behaviour. In this case Jesus is asserting the roguery of grace. The parable is defiant in the face of the criticism that Jesus is subverting the normal values which determine who is valuable and who is not.

The world of debts and debtors was not fantasy for Jesus’ first hearers. While applying the imagery of debt to a broader theme, Jesus was also indicating that he knew what was going on in his world. He knew how oppressive systems worked themselves out in his Galilee to drive people from their land into unemployment and poverty. While it is naïve to read into Jesus’ teaching our perceptions of the complexities of economic exploitation - we can let Jesus stay in the first century uncolonised by our insights - nevertheless the proclamation of the kingdom was meant to be good news for these poor and bring them blessing. How can you assert these things as God’s priorities and not address what is going on?

From such an interpretation of the parable we can then revisit the rest of the chapter. Wealth and exploitation are not simply a moral issue which Christians also need to address, but something quite central to the gospel. No one is to be written off, because what people have held against others has been written off by the roguery of divine grace. That divine grace cancels prejudice and judgement of any kind that renders other people less than human and without rights or poor ‘because they deserve it’. But to take such a stance is to take on the gods.

Epistle: Pentecost 18:  18 September  1 Timothy 2:1-7