Last revised: November 1, 2013
Click Reload or Refresh for latest version
PROPER 20 (September 18-24) -- YEAR C / Ordinary Time 25
RCL: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13
RoCa: Amos 8:4-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-8; Luke 16:1-13

1 Timothy 2:1-7

Resources

1. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 154. Schwager cites 1 Tim. 2:5-7 along with Phil. 2 and 1 Cor. 15 as early statements of the basic kerygma, one that provides a re-assessment of history:

Through the resurrection of Christ a new approach to meaning was simultaneously opened up in the consideration of universal history, for it became possible from now on to see conflicts, persecutions, and defeats in a different way. No longer did immediate this-worldly success have to be decisive. History as the history of victors was, at least in principle, overcome, and the question about the truth of those judgments which at first find acceptance through victory became a real one and could from now on lead to subsequent revisions. Truth and immediate this-worldly success were separated. That Christian truth thereby became nonhistorical could only be maintained by someone who thinks that history is fundamentally nothing but a narration of the prejudices of the immediate victors. Over against this presupposition, the Easter faith makes the claim that historical research which takes the activity of God into account is capable of seeing the activity of humans also in a more unprejudiced way. Historical-critical research is therefore not in opposition to the theological viewpoint; rather, the latter provides categories which enable us to grasp more precisely the historical activity of human beings.

We were able to overcome the apparent conflict between the basileia message and the Easter kerygma, on the one hand, by relying on the claim made in Jesus' proclamation and, on the other, by not judging God's activity according to fixed predetermined ideas. Instead we tried to pursue as precisely as possible the way in which Jesus' claim was transformed through conflict, the way in which it was disputed and finally confirmed by God. The basic elements of this drama can be found again -- in more condensed form -- in the post-Easter kerygma, which continually emphasizes the opposition between abasement and exaltation. In this way it is possible to bring out either the opposition between the people who rejected Jesus' proclamation and the activity of God ("The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone"; see also Acts 2:22-24; 3:13-15; 4:9-12; 5:30-32; 7:35-39; 10:37-43) or the distance between the voluntary self-abasement of Jesus and his exaltation by the Father (1 Cor. 15:3-8; Phil. 2:6-11; 1 Tim. 2:5-7). The kerygma expressly contains the four crucial actors in the drama of salvation: the Son who proclaims and surrenders himself, the people who reject him, the Father who judges, and the disciples who witness, in their respective relationships to one another. Therefore the statement of faith implies a historical statement, and vice versa. (pp. 153-154)

Reflections and Questions

1. Schwager's take above raises for me the following reflection (in 2001): As we poise ourselves for war this week, armed with much rhetoric of the victors, perhaps we would do well to consider the viewpoint of the Christian kerygma that turns on its head a history told purely from the perspective of the victors.


Luke 16:1-13

Exegetical Notes

1. I think that Luke intends a significant connection between the Prodigal Son and this Dishonest Steward in that he says of both of them that they "squandered (Gr: diaskorpizo) their property." Of the Prodigal Son in 15:3 he says, dieskorpisen tan ousian ("scattered being or substance"); of the Dishonest Steward in Lk. 16:1 he says, diaskorpizon ta hyparchonta ("scattered resources or possessions"). Then, they both talk to themselves in plotting a scheme to get back in good graces. Finally, they both receive greater mercy than they had even expected or schemed.

2. ta hyparchonta: possessions, property; means, resources. Jesus tells us elsewhere in Luke: (12:15) "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." And (14:33) "So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." (See Proper 18C.) And immediately after this passage Luke tells us (16:14) "The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him." "Lovers of money" is philarguroi hyparchontes. Zacchaeus, who as a tax collector could be classified as a "dishonest manager," gave half of his "possessions" to the poor and paid back those he defrauded fourfold. Would Zacchaeus be a real-life example of a dishonest manager who saw the light and not only quit cheating people but also made recompense?

3. "shrewdly" and "shrewd" in v. 8 is the only occurrence of the adverb phronimos (long second "o") in the NT. The adjective phronimos (short second "o"), however, is quite common and is most often translated as "wise." Does "shrewd" rather than "wise" lend a different connotation?

4. genea, "generation," in v. 8 is a somewhat loaded term for Girardians. "Generation" also speaks of what generates culture. Consider, for example, Luke 11:50-51: "so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation."

5. "his master commended the dishonest steward." "His master" is simply ho kyrios, "The Lord." So it is unclear in the text whether ho kyrios refers to Jesus as the Lord, or to the steward's master. Is it less troublesome to have the parable's master commending the dishonest steward, or Jesus commending him?

6. 16:1-12 have no parallels, but v. 13 has a parallel from Matthew's Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 6:24. Most everything around Matthew 6:24 (6:19-21 and 6:25-34) are paralleled Luke 12:22-34, but Luke has held this one verse out to carefully place at the end of this parable. Perhaps the key to his placement is the word mamona, which is found only in Matt 6:24 and Luke 16:11-13.

Resources

1. In 2010 a fresh approach occurs to me which can be mingled with some of the approaches below (especially the emphasis on forgiveness in #3). Read this parable in parallel with the Parable of the Rich Fool in Luke 12:16-21. A characterization of human sin might be put forward that we are Unjust Stewards because we so often approach our lives like the Rich Fool, namely, thinking ourselves in charge of our own lives instead of realizing that we are but stewards of God's creation. We store up treasures for ourselves without being rich toward God. The Rich Fool is foolish by virtue of thinking himself the master instead of the steward. He talks to himself, leaving his master's desires out of the equation. God's question -- "And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?" -- is sly and ironic because those things were never his in the first place. They were always God's and will remain God's. The question pierces through his ignorance of being a steward and not a master. We in our sinfulness tend to be, or aspire to be, Masters of our Destiny when we are called to be stewards of God's Creation.

At some point, God comes to us for an accounting of our stewardship, like the master to the Unjust Steward, and we are found wanting. We may not be fired; God is more gracious and forgiving than the master in the parable. But when we find ourselves on the outs, do we wise up like the Unjust Steward and find that the key to going on with our lives can be found in the forgiving of debts (see #3 below), in the rebuilding of relationships with fellow debtors? Even the master in the parable can see the wisdom in that. Can the children of light?

Link to a sermon using this approach, "Grace for Our Journey: Becoming Just Stewards."

2. Robert Farrar Capon uses a different paralleling of parables (ch. 14 in Parables of Grace, one of three out-of-print books on the parables; now combined in one volume Kingdom, Grace, Judgment). He proposes that the Unjust Steward is a reverse of Matthew's Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt. 18). In the latter the Master reveals the wisdom of forgiving debts by himself forgiving the unpayable debt of his servant, who refuses to learn that wisdom in retaining the debt of his fellow servant. In Luke's Unjust Steward, it is the servant who teaches the master. The master in Luke's parable behaves by the conventional retaining of debts in firing his steward. The servant then practices forgiveness of debts in his lateral relationships with his master's debtors -- the opposite of the Unforgiving Servant. And it is the Master who then realizes the wisdom of his steward's actions.

But this only leads to an even more surprising conclusion:

As far as I am concerned, therefore, the unjust steward is nothing less than the Christ-figure in this parable, a dead ringer for Jesus himself. First of all, he dies and rises, like Jesus. Second, by his death and resurrection, he raises others, like Jesus. But third and most important of all, the unjust steward is the Christ-figure because he is a crook, like Jesus. The unique contribution of this parable to our understanding of Jesus is its insistence that grace cannot come to the world through respectability. Respectability regards only life, success, winning; it will have no truck with the grace that works by death and losing which is the only kind of grace there is.

This parable, therefore, says in story form what Jesus himself said by his life. He was not respectable. He broke the sabbath. He consorted with crooks. And he died as a criminal. Now at last, in the light of this parable, we see why he refused to be respectable: he did it to catch a world that respectability could only terrify and condemn. He became sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for us losers, and dead for us dead.

3. In 2004 I came upon the following approach, which provides what I believe is the emphasis which makes the most sense of this puzzling parable, namely, forgiveness:

What exactly is being commended in this parable? A key Lukan theme: forgiveness of debts. This is the key point at two excellent website treatments of this passage. One is our sister site on mimetic theory and the lectionary, PreachingPeace.org, where this is the main point of Michael Hardin's "Anthropological Reading." The other is at Sarah Dylan Breuer's lectionary blog, where she most eloquently states the the case:

So here's the big question that I haven't seen commentators in print ask:

Q: What, precisely, is it that the steward does, albeit without authorization and with deception?

A: The steward forgives debts.

The steward forgives. He forgives things that he had no right to forgive. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and to compensate for past misconduct. But that's the decisive action that he undertakes to redeem himself from a position from which it seem he couldn't be reconciled, to the landowner any more than to the farmers.

So what's the moral of this story, one of the stories unique to Luke?

It's a moral of great emphasis for Luke: FORGIVE. Forgive it all. Forgive it now. Forgive it for any reason you want, or for no reason at all.

Remember, this (Luke) is the guy whose version of the "Lord's Prayer" includes the helpful category confusion, "forgive us our sins as we forgive (the monetary debts of -- it's clear in the Greek) our debtors" (Luke 11:4). I could point to at least a dozen moments off the cuff at which Luke raises this point: the arrival of the kingdom of God is no occasion for score-keeping of any kind, whether monetary or moral....

...Why forgive someone who's sinned against us, or against our sense of what is obviously right? We don't have to do it out of love for the other person, if we're not there yet. We could forgive the other person because of that whole business of what we pray in Jesus' name every Sunday morning, and because we know we'd like forgiveness ourselves. We could forgive because we've experienced what we're like as unforgiving people, and so we know that refusing to forgive because we don't want the other person to benefit is, as the saying goes, like eating rat poison hoping it will hurt the rat. We could forgive because we are, or we want to be, deeply in touch with a sense of Jesus' power to forgive and free sinners like us. Or we could forgive because we think it will improve our odds of winning the lottery.

It boils down to the same thing: deluded or sane, selfish and/or unselfish, there is no bad reason to forgive. Extending the kind of grace God shows us in every possible arena -- financial and moral -- can only put us more deeply in touch with God's grace.

Link to the first two-thirds of a sermon that makes use of these insights entitled "Forgiveness at a Time of Crisis."

4. Another helpful reading is offered in the online essay by David Landry and Ben May entitled "Honor Restored: New Light on the Parable of the Prudent Steward (Luke 16:1-8a)." Landry and May do a good job of sorting through all the interpretations (including Scott's below) and offering one that they think avoids the problems of previous attempts to make sense out of this difficult parable. Here is their summary of their interpretation:

1. A master hears that his steward has been misappropriating funds. His honor and status in the community are threatened by the public perception that he cannot control his employees, so he resolves to save face by immediately dismissing the employee.

2. The steward faces a crisis. Being a steward is the only thing that he knows how to do, but the fact that he now has a reputation for dishonoring his master means that he will not be able to secure employment anywhere else as a steward. He tries to get himself out of trouble by restoring his master's honor and salvaging his reputation as a good, loyal steward. He forgives a portion of the amount owed by his master's debtors. People would assume that the steward was acting on the master's orders, so these gestures would make the master look generous and charitable in the eyes of society. The prestige and honor gained by such benefaction would far outweigh the monetary loss to the master.

3. The master hears what the steward has done and praises him for his actions since his honor has been restored. Moreover, the steward is now in a position either to keep his position with this master or to secure one elsewhere, since his reputation for loyalty and good service has been recovered.

The key to their interpretation is their view that, "The prestige and honor gained by such benefaction would far outweigh the monetary loss to the master." They support such a claim by citing numerous ancient sources which indicate the higher priority in the ancient world of honor over wealth. I find their argument compelling.

Link to a sermon that makes use of these insights entitled "Compassion at a Time of Crisis."

5. Bernard Brandon Scott's, Hear Then the Parable, Fortress, 1989, pp. 255-266. There are several notes that might be informative to a Girardian reading.

Scott's reading, as is his usual technique, is to take what he reconstructs as the original parable in isolation from its textual context. He considers the original version to have ended after Luke's v. 8a, with the master commending the slave. His reading suggests that the parable would have elicited the hearer's sympathy for the steward against his master right up to the point where Jesus throws in the surprise ending: the master commends his unjust steward instead of punishing him even more harshly. Natural sympathy for the peasant class would have been against a rich man treating his servants harshly, which is exactly what you get at the beginning. Then, it becomes a delicious story of the servant getting even. But just when you expect the master to again perform according script, he commend the trick the servant played on him -- while also calling it "unjust." So the hearer is reminded that such tricks of getting even are wrong. The story's last move leaves the hearer with the fact that their hero, the servant, has acted unjustly, and their bad guy has shown mercy. Here is Scott's conclusion:
The hearer now has no way to navigate in the world; its solid moorings have been lost. Are masters cruel or not? Are victims right in striking back? By a powerful questioning and juxtaposition of images, the parable breaks the bond between power and justice. Instead it equates justice and vulnerability. The hearer in the world of the kingdom must establish new coordinates for power, justice, and vulnerability. The kingdom is for the vulnerable, for masters and stewards who do not get even. [p. 266]
What do you think? Does this fit your reading? Does it inform your reading? What happens if we bring this reading back into Luke's context, alongside the Prodigal Son?

6. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from September 23, 2001 (Woodside Village Church).

7. Tom Truby, a member of Theology & Peace, used Girardian insights to offer a sermon in 2013, titled "Jesus, the Dishonest Manager."

8. I'd like to at least mention that Gil Bailie "sidesteps" Luke 16-19 in his tape series ("The Gospel of Luke" audio series, tape #9), dealing primarily with examples of the kingdom breaking into this world through being able to see the victim qua victim. It is one of his most brilliant tapes. The three examples he uses are: (1) the Rwandan Holocaust Museum (through the newspaper article "At Church, Testament To Horror," by Donald G. McNeil, Jr., New York Times, Friday, August 4, 1995); (2) a 1995 Smithsonian exhibit on Moki culture and the tombs of Sipan; and (3) the article "New Analysis of the Parthenon's Frieze Finds It Depicts a Horrifying Legend," by John Noble Wilford, New York Times, Tuesday, July 4, 1995.

9. Don't forget the theme which Gil Bailie has keenly called to our attention in his treatment of Luke's gospel: those who do not gather with Jesus scatter (Luke 11:23). "Scattering" is skorpizo in the Greek (link to word study). A more emphatic form diaskorpizo is used of both the prodigal son and the unjust steward to describe what they do with their property, their substance. Their being is scattered, wasted. How can their substance be gathered again?

Reflections and Questions

1. When Jesus refers to the manager as dishonest in verse 8, to what dishonesty is he pointing? The squandering of his possessions at the outset? His writing off of his master's debts? Or both? Was the former merely incompetence, prodigality, but not dishonesty? Was the latter, as claimed by some interpreters, merely a markdown of his own profit margin and thus not the cheating of his master? In what does his dishonesty lie? Landry and May argue that "unjust" refers to the "misappropriating funds" which originally got the stward fired, not to his actions that restore his master's honor in the community, for which he is commended by the master.

2. Does Luke mean for us to relate the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Dishonest Steward for anything more than the fact that they exist in his text side-by-side? The meaning of the former seems most clear and compelling; the meaning of the latter most confusing and repelling. Yet Landry and May argue:

Most commentators see the Prodigal Son as the third in a trio of parables in Luke 15, following the Lost Sheep (15:4-7) and the Lost Coin (15:8-10). However, the similarities between the Prodigal Son and the preceding parables have been overstated, and the similarities between the Unjust Steward and the Prodigal Son underappreciated. Rather than a trio of parables in Luke 15, followed by an unrelated parable in Luke 16:1-8, there is in this section a pair of doublets: the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin form the first pair, and the Prodigal Son and the Unjust Steward form the second pair.
I agree. In addition to the linguistic tie mentioned above, I believe there are other structural similarities. They both squander or scatter their possessions. They both talk to themselves in trying to hatch a way out of their fixes, and both are saved in the end by mercy, compassion. The Prodigal Son "comes to himself" (his father has knowingly let him go) and plots a scheme to live once again off of his father's being, albeit as a hired-hand this time instead of as a son. He hopes his father will have at least enough compassion to make him a hired hand. But the father preempts his plan with a prodigal show of compassion that restores his living as son.

The Dishonest Steward doesn't "come to himself," he is discovered by his master, who presumably will not show mercy on him like the prodigal father. But the steward is able to scheme another way in which to rely on mercy: if not from his master, then from his master's clients. But the bottom line in both stories is to find a way to warrant mercy and be welcomed home. Before the Prodigal Son even has a chance to work his scheme, he finds his father running out to welcome him home. The dishonest steward shows mercy to the master's clients in a way, according to Landry and May, that will reflect kindly on the honor of the master within the community. Whether in the home of another wealthy person or in the home of his current master, he expects the end result to be that "people may welcome me into their homes." Jesus even counsels such shrewdness that "they may welcome you into eternal homes." Being welcomed home seems to be the goal in both Luke 15 and 16. Compassion definitely plays a role in Luke 15, one that is pure grace. I'm presuming mercy plays a role in the parable of the dishonest steward, as well, but it is a mercy that the steward thinks he can purchase by himself showing mercy to others. It is not a purely gracious mercy, but one presumed upon as part of an exchange.

Is this what Jesus is getting at with his contrast between children of this age's generation and children of light? Children of the light should be wise enough to know about the kind of gracious mercy that our prodigal father shows us. But how often do we put faith in that mercy? Are we even a little bit faithful to such mercy? Or do the children of this age's generation even outdo us when it comes to mercy, albeit an exchange form of mercy? If we are like the elder brother, then we probably don't want to celebrate mercy. We'd rather rely on our own competence: we aren't incompetent boobs like the prodigal son or the dishonest steward who squander our possessions away. No, we know how to take care of our possessions. (Like the Pharisees, are we also "lovers of possessions"?)

3. Link to a 1998 sermon making use of these themes entitled "The Reign of Compassion." I used Scott's perspective in that sermon, however, assuming that the steward was acting in a way to get even with the master. I now find Landry and May's interpretation more persuasive, especially in light of the stress I put on mercy and compassion as crucial to Jesus' message about God's reign in these parables. A Girardian perspective should make it more clear that 'getting even' is the opposite of mercy and compassion. Getting even, revenge, is what human reigns are generally founded on, while God's reign is founded on mercy and forgiveness.

The unjust steward in facing a crisis does show mercy; he forgives his master's debtors large portions of their debts. But this shrewdness would not be commendable in Jesus' eyes if it also represented at the same time vengeance on his master. No, with Landry and May's reading, the steward's mercy to the debtors also reflects on the master, and so it is also a means for restoring what his previous actions had diminished, i.e., his master's honorable standing within the community. Thus, the parable ends with a commendation. Jesus seemingly leaves it to our imagination, though, to finish the story. One would presume that the steward's somewhat contrived mercy does yield a greater mercy: being able to remain in the employ of his master.

4. Can these reflections be linked to the wider theme of gathering and scattering? The gathering that is generated by masters of this age is not based on mercy. It is based on the merciless scattering of those expelled for the sake of the rest. When someone finds himself expelled like the dishonest steward, he must go looking for mercy as a commodity of exchange. If even someone like him can get it, then how foolish it is for the children of light to get caught up in the merciless scattering of the victims that presents itself as gathering. God offers us a mode of gathering based on mercy, on forgiveness as a free gift.

5. In 2001 this Gospel Lesson falls only twelve days after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon. Faced with a crisis, will the nation respond with mercy or with vengeance? Somewhere in between? Even a little faith in the way of mercy could yield a greater faithfulness to it. On the other hand, a little vengeance, a little righteous violence, could yield a huge crescendo of violence (which, I think, is what Bin Laden is banking on). Mercy or vengeance? In which direction will history take us?

Return to Year C Index

Return to "Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary" Home Page

Link to another Resource for Preaching from the Perspective of Mimetic Theory: PreachingPeace.org

Link to "The Text This Week" -- the Most Comprehensive Lectionary Site on the Internet