August 4, 2020

Short-Term Loss, Long-Term Gain

By Chaplain Mike

Today’s post will consist first of some exegetical work, breaking down this difficult passage—Luke 16:1-13— so that we can grasp its meaning. This will be followed by a brief meditation to drive home the gospel message of Jesus. I encourage you to read the passage carefully, work through the study, and then prayerfully contemplate today’s meditation.

Understanding this Passage
To grasp this parable, which some have called the most difficult to understand of Jesus’ stories, we must first make clear the organization of the passage. Of particular interest to the reader is figuring out where the parable ends and how the sayings after the parable relate to Jesus’ story. In my view, this is how the passage flows:

  1. The parable (16:1-8a)
  2. The lesson of the parable (16:8b-9)
  3. Additional saying 1 (16:10-12)
  4. Additional saying 2 (16:13)

So, the text consists of (1) a story, (2) a lesson from the story, (3) and two extra, complementary sayings that have been attached to the passage in order to make additional applications about discipleship.

Next, we must clarify the meaning of the parable.

  • Part One: A businessman fires his field representative for being unfaithful with his boss’s money and accounts.
  • Part Two: The field rep realizes that, without this job and with a damaged reputation, he has no future. So he makes a plan to impress others so that they will help him in days to come.
  • Part Three: The field rep goes to each of his boss’s debtors and writes off his own commission from what they owe. In so doing, “his master was not out any money rightfully his, the servant himself absorbed the loss, amends for previous wastage were partially made, and the man gained new friends who would care for him after his firing” (C. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables, p. 244). I find this to be the most satisfying explanation of the steward’s actions. This view is set forth in Joseph Fitzmyer’s commentary [The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries)].
  • Part Four: The business praises the field rep, whom he had fired for unfaithfulness, commending his cleverness in securing a future for himself.

Third, we must clarify the meaning of Jesus’ application of the parable in 16:8b-9.

  • Followers of Jesus can learn a lesson from the people of the world: they know enough to humble themselves and sacrifice in the short term in order to gain long-term security.
  • Even so, Jesus’ disciples should exhibit their faith in their use of temporal things like money and possessions so that they will be welcomed by God into his eternal Kingdom.

Fourth, we must clarify the additional lessons that have been attached to this story and its lesson in 16:10-13.

  • The first additional saying (10-12) draws a lesson from the parable as a whole. With three illustrations that employ a “lesser” and “greater” contrast, Jesus tells his disciples that genuine faith is exhibited in the ordinary affairs of life, such as the way we handle our money and possessions.
  • The second additional saying (13) summarizes a general perspective on wealth, putting money and possessions in their proper perspective, and reminding Jesus’ disciples that God alone is worthy of our ultimate loyalty.

A Meditation on the Unjust Steward

What am I to do? My master found me out! I’d been skimming off the top, using creative accounting to line my own pockets, cheating him out of his full due. The auditing department followed the paper trail, and it led them to me. I thought I had covered my tracks, destroyed the evidence, shredded the essential documents, but I must have missed something. All I know is that he called me in the other day. The jig was up. Before I knew it, I was out of job.

So what am I to do? When the news gets out, my reputation will be shot, so it’s certain no one will hire me to be a field representative again. How could they ever trust me? Getting good references is out of the question. I don’t have any family to help me. I’m not cut out for manual labor. Doggone it, I’m not going to beg! I’ve got to find something. Got to figure something out here.

Wait a minute, don’t panic! I’ve still got a little time. Maybe if I act quickly I can still do something to make this right. Let’s see…yes, I think it will work. I’ll go back out on the road immediately, revisit my old accounts. I’ll offer to cut out my commission on the sale if they’ll pay me on the spot. They’ll be thrilled! Maybe down the line they’ll even offer me a position or some help when they find out I’m in need. And that way, I can make up the debt I owe my boss and maybe save my reputation. I can afford to take a loss in the short term if it will help me in days to come.

(A week later…)

Sir, I know you fired me last week, but I want you to know that I’m here to make things right. Look, here is your money from the accounts I managed. And here’s the ledger to show what I collected. I cut out my own commission to make up for the shortfall you found out about. You can check it out with all your clients. I hope we’re square now.

(The boss responds…)

Man, I never wanted to see your face again, the way you cheated me. To be honest, I hoped you’d be reduced to begging to pay for your unfaithfulness. But I’ve got to hand it to you. You found a way. I still don’t trust you, and you’ll never work for me again. But I’ll admit, you’re a clever son of a gun. We’re even. Now get out of here.

(The unjust steward leaves, and thinks to himself…)

Whew. Back to square one for me. But at least the past’s behind me. I think I’m gonna be alright.

Today’s Gospel
Luke 16:1-13 (NASB, alt.)—

1Now He was also saying to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and this manager was reported to him as squandering his possessions.
2“And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an accounting of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’
3“The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg.
4‘I know what I shall do, so that when I am removed from the management people will welcome me into their homes.’
5“And he summoned each one of his master’s debtors, and he began saying to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
6“And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’
7“Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’
8“And his master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly.

For the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light.
9“And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings.

10“He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much.
11“Therefore if you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you?
12“And if you have not been faithful in the use of that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?

13“No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Comments

  1. I never heard the explanation put forward that the steward was discounting his own commission. I have to say, seeng as how it ‘s called the Parable of the Unjust Steward, I figured he was doing a bit of creative accounting there to fiddle the accounts and build up debts with his master’s creditors so he could impose on their hospitality when he was kicked out 🙂

    But perhaps it’s more like the banks recovering bad debts;okay, there’s no way you can pay the whole hundred measures, but pay back fifty or eighty, whatever you can. Then he can go to the master and say “Okay, maybe I permitted your debtors to get out of hand, but on the other hand, here’s what I’ve got back for you even if you thought there was no hope of getting any return.”

    I think this parable joins in with the text you were discussing about what does it mean to say “The Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence and the violent bear it away”, and also perhaps with the Parable of the Talents.

    We’re the debtors who can’t repay, no two ways about it. The steward? Maybe the Chosen People of Israel, who have time and again failed their Lord, and more particularly the leaders (and for us Gentiles, our religious leaders also) who have not led the people in the right ways but permitted them to go astray. So when the Lord of the harvest, or the Master who planted the vineyard, comes to look for reward, the ungrateful tenants have nothing to show. But that does not mean there is no hope.

    Look, the violent bear it away! The Kingdom permits itself to be seized by the unscrupulous! Run and grab this chance any way you get! And like Abraham bargaining with the Lord (will you spare Sodom for the sake of fifty righteous men? How about forty? How about ten?) God will permit Himself to be cheated for love’s sake. Righteousness will be given to us, salavation will come, even if we trick and connive it.

    We should not be too proud to stoop and beg for undeserved mercy. God is not too proud to stoop down to us.

    Ack. Gonna watch the Papal Mass of Newman’s beatification now on livestream, rather than doing wacky exegesis. Might be of more benefit to my spiritual state, and certainly will be a lot less imposition of my opinions on innocent others 😉

  2. I never used to understand this parable. Then a point came in my life when I started allowing myself to wrestle with the teachings of Jesus on wealth (“sell your possessions and give to the poor”) and the example of the early church. As I shifted from giving 10% and stockpiling the rest to wondering if Jesus calls us to something more radical than that, I re-read this parable and suddenly it made sense in a whole new way:

    The boss approves when the manager gives away his money, which is the opposite of what we’d expect. Suppose for a second that the boss is consistently backwards: that what he fired the manager for was investing his money well, spending frugally, and growing his wealth. What if the boss has an idea of good money management that is exactly opposite the manager?

    Jesus gives the key to the parable in verse 12: “If you have not been faithful in the use of what is another’s…” He is saying that we are all in the manager’s place: in charge of money that is not our own (it belongs to God) and that we cannot control forever (we are mortal). Moreover, we have a boss (God) whose idea of good money management is the opposite of what they teach in business school: God wants us to give our money away, “shrewdly”: discerning who will be most grateful to receive it and giving it to them. (That is, figuring out how to give that money away to be a blessing to those who need it most.)

    It’s as if the manager was working for the Gates Foundation, but he didn’t read his job description. He didn’t realize that, although the endowment he controlled provided for his own needs, that money wasn’t there for him to spend on himself, or even for him to invest well. It was there for him to give away. But his master’s disapproval forces him to shift his perspective, and he starts to do what Jesus calls all of us to do as well: giving that money away as if it will be gone tomorrow and it wasn’t ours in the first place.

    The difficulty in understanding this parable is that there is no way to interpret it such that it will make sense in our lives. Instead, we have to reinterpret our lives to square with the parable.

  3. Thanks for the post. I have often read this passage and thought…wow that was a bit odd. I wonder if God is just telling us we are a bit dense and not even as wise as our worldly counterpart. Oh yes, we do need to focus on investing in things of eternal significance.

  4. Thanks Chaplain Mike for writing this out. I had always thought that it was possible that the manager was only giving up his commission, so I’m glad to see others thinking that’s a possibility as well.

    Another aspect I find very helpful in understanding this passage is taking the beginning all the way back to 15:1, and taking the end to 16:15. You’ll notice he’s addressing the Pharisees from 15:1-2, and still is in 16:14-15. I think it’s all one long teaching for them to hear.

    At the beginning of ch 15, the Pharisees are upset that Jesus is welcoming “sinners”. Then Jesus tells the three parables about “lost things” to show that the Pharisees should actually be rejoicing at these new found children of God (while instead they are acting the like the older brother, being upset with the father).

    Then I believe the Shrewd Manager is the fourth parable in this series. NASB shows this with the “also” in 16:1. It is the Pharisees who have been squandering God’s possessions. They’re the ones “who loved money” (16:14). They’re the ones not using the material possessions God’s entrusted to them on the short-term earth to further instead the long-term Kingdom of Heaven. I really do believe it should be seen as a series of four instead of a series of three.

    • Thanks for bringing the context in; I too think it’s important to read it in the light of the growing divide between Jesus and the religious leaders.

      • Yeah. I also find it interesting the this parable about handling worldly wealth was really a teaching for the Pharisees. How they had been apparently valuing wealth instead of gaining eternal friends (whether that means using it to gain new believers, or if it means pleasing God so you’re welcomed into heaven, I’m not sure). Though I think the conclusion of “What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight,” sums it up. The Pharisees were both loving money, and also justifying themselves by their good works (see older brother in 3rd parable). I guess both could be seen as “worldly wealth?”

    • When you extend from verse 1 to 15, it does seem the shrewd manager is the Pharisees. Then when you consider what will happen to Jerusalem in a few short decades, it almost seems like prophecy. Their time is almost up.

  5. “What a great laudable exchange:
    to leave the things of time for those of eternity,
    to choose the things of heaven for the goods of earth,
    to receive the hundred-fold in place of one,
    and to possess a blessed and eternal life.”
    – Saint Claire of Assisi

    I know this parable to told by Jesus to the apostles, but the subject is the Pharisees. In a period of dire poverty and crippling taxes by the Romans, Herod, and the temple, the Pharisees were living like kings. At the same time, they were tying unbearable religious burdens upon the poor. They were under a double condemnation: they were both those to whom much was given (shepherding of the people of Israel) and much was expected; they are also the ones to whom were entrusted with little things (temporal wealth) to whom greater things (eternal wealth) would not be entrusted. I think it is significant that Jesus warned the apostles against following the Pharisees’ example. The sons of both Eli and Samuel fell into the trap of using their pastoral duties for the opportunity for abuse and ill-gotten gain. The old testament reading for today, Amos 8:4-7, makes it clear that many of Israel’s leaders fell to this temptation.

    But I think your title nails it: short-term loss for long-term gain: resisting the temptation to seek personal wealth – even when it is acceptable or no one sees – in order to gain the wealth of eternity is the shrewd, rational choice.

    The Tozer quote I posted on the Saturday ramblings regarding the lucrative salaries of mega-church pastors seems to fit here, too: “Promoting self under the guise of promoting Christ is currently so common as to excite little notice”.

  6. I found the insights of Kenneth Bailey’s “Poet and Peasant” illuminating. He points out that “in a backhanded way the actions of the steward are a compliment to the master. [The steward] knew the master was generous and merciful. He risked everything on this aspect of his master’s nature. He won. Because the master was indeed generous and merciful, he chose to pay the full price for his steward’s salvation.”

  7. Last week at our cell group we also looked at this parable. We looked at a commentary be a prof EP Groenewald, the information based on an article by a Duncan Derrett from 1961. . He has a bit of a different take on the parable. This is shortly (hopefully with no mistakes) what he says. The Jews were and are not allowed to take interest from each other. Apparently the practice in those days were to skirt this command by adding the interest directly to the selling price. In this way they got the interest while appearing to follow the letter of the law. When the manager was threatened with being fired he just wrote of the illegal interest. In this way he not only gained the thanks of the buyers but also cleared his conscience. The reaction of the owner could also be taken to mean that he knew, and may even have given the orders, to take the illegal interest. The manager was used as insulation by the owner. If the manager were just fired the whole interest taking-business might have come to light and that would have put the owner in trouble. So, by writing off the interest, the manager not only cleared his conscience before God, he also cleared the owner’s conscience. The owner might have been a pharisee if you take that Jesus was speaking about them.
    To me this explanation goes along with ‘Flywheel’ and Zaccheus, just as yours. For me it just fills in a few more blanks.

  8. Brother Bartimaeus says

    Just to do the obvious, spirtualization of the text, isn’t Jesus the steward? He squanders God’s grace, cutting the debts men owe God, and making God happy with the result.

    Some have said the intended audience is the Pharisees, but the Essenes were more strict in ritual purity and Sabbath observance. I thought the phrase “sons of light” sounded important, and indeed it is in one of the Dead Sea Scroll’s apocalyptic texts, refering to the Essenes themselves. That seems to indicate some type of critique of Essene adherence and expectation of 100% purity as a means to salvation.

    Peace