Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Shrewd Steward: Luke 16:1-13, a short perspective

Luke 16:1-13: This parable is often too hard for folks to deal with and so sometimes it is dropped from the preaching schedule altogether. But something about this story that really strikes a nerve in people. According to Sarah Dylan, most commentators say that this is about how the shrewd steward acts decisively and Jesus is describing the “inbreaking of the Kingdom of God call[ing] upon us all to act decisively.” Just as for Dylan, this is not enough for me. Therefore questions must be asked. Was Jesus really commending a crook? Is it purely allegorical? If so, whom does the master represent? What is it that the shrewd steward does? Taken at face value, this story makes Jesus sound as though he approves of deceit. But let’s look further. Let’s answer the last question. What is it that the shrewd steward does? Well, the shrewd steward forgives debt.

So, it seems this passage for Dylan is about forgiveness, an overarching theme throughout the Gospels, and one that can hardly be dismissed. If it is about forgiveness, then despite the reasons the steward forgives, despite that he had no right to forgive, he forgives and it perhaps redeems him in the eyes of his master. What are the implications for us as Christians if Dylan is correct? Then we must forgive, even if forgiveness helps us, even if we have no right to forgive, even if it doesn’t benefit us at all. We must forgive with flagrant irresponsibility even.

There is another theme however, this one highlighted by Fred Craddock. Verse 10-11 says, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” (Hmm, perhaps this is justification for more churches to accept tithe from Lotto winnings.) This shifts the focus onto another theme throughout the gospels, being faithful with what is given you. It is also found in the parable of the talents. Craddock sees the meaning in this parable much more straight forward and simple (not simplistic) than Dylan.

For Craddock, these two verses concern the stewardship of possessions. Considering all the dangers in possessions, “it is possible to manage goods in ways appropriate to life in the Kingdom of God”(Craddock, Interpretation: Luke 191). He says this is an argument of a fortiori (from the lesser to the greater, specific to the general). If one is responsible for the small things then one will be responsible for the large things. Jesus perhaps is saying , “No, really, you should sweat the small stuff.” Craddock says that very few of us will do huge things this week, win a war, win a gold medal in the Olympics, build a better mousetrap. However, we might vote, encourage a friend, share a meal with friends. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.”

Between the two views, Dylan and Craddock, we can see that even forgiving in the very little can lead to flagrant forgiveness in the very big. Seeing these two views together can give us a balance between. Perhaps we should be like the shrewd steward, wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove.


Anonymous said...

I find that I understand this passage better when I found it in the Message.

Luke 16:1-13 (The Message)

The Story of the Crooked Manager
1-2Jesus said to his disciples, "There was once a rich man who had a manager. He got reports that the manager had been taking advantage of his position by running up huge personal expenses. So he called him in and said, 'What's this I hear about you? You're fired. And I want a complete audit of your books.'
3-4"The manager said to himself, 'What am I going to do? I've lost my job as manager. I'm not strong enough for a laboring job, and I'm too proud to beg. . . . Ah, I've got a plan. Here's what I'll do . . . then when I'm turned out into the street, people will take me into their houses.'

5"Then he went at it. One after another, he called in the people who were in debt to his master. He said to the first, 'How much do you owe my master?'

6"He replied, 'A hundred jugs of olive oil.'

"The manager said, 'Here, take your bill, sit down here—quick now— write fifty.'

7"To the next he said, 'And you, what do you owe?'

"He answered, 'A hundred sacks of wheat.'

"He said, 'Take your bill, write in eighty.'

8-9"Now here's a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you'll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior."

Evan and Julia said...

Ah, yes, wise as serpents and harmless as doves . . . especially when it's with someone else's money, especially the rich!

Evan and Julia said...

It's also more understood in its surrounding context and in the larger contex that is Luke. For Luke there is always this larger than life theme of "the Great Overturning."

dana said...


I was wondering where you found that great pic of the shrewd manager? Do you have the citation info? I'd love to use your image.


Evan & Julia Abla said...

I couldn't find good citation. I found it here and thought it was a brilliant image.

Anonymous said...

This is the remarkable art work of Kazakhstan Artist, Nelly Bube (Bubay). Here is one of the links I have -