Proper 20C

Last revised: December 10, 2022
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

Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation

In 2022 this was the first week in a series of four stewardship sermons: this week, Proper 20C, “Stewardship 101: ‘Making Friends’ with Wealth“; Proper 21C, “Stewardship 101: The Dead-End of Hoarded Wealth“; Proper 26C (displacing the Proper 22C texts), “Stewardship 101: Living into a Citizenship of the Common Good“; and Proper 23C, “Stewardship 101: Living into Gratitude as Being Truly Human.” The key to this first stewardship sermon is Jesus’ characterization of the parable as being about “making friends with just wealth.” A biblical principle of stewardship, combined with Mimetic Theory, is that all of our systems of economics derive from the logic of sacrifice, or sacred violence, so to some extent are unjust. The way to turn that wealth just is to use it socially for the common good, as modeled by the early Christian communities in Acts. First nation peoples also extend the social use of wealth by keeping in mind all of one’s descendants out seven generations.

* * * * * * * *

Opening Comments, Part 2: With the transition from the transcendent parables of the lost and found in Luke 15 to this new parable in Luke 16, the only indication of scene-change is one of changing addressees. The earlier established and continuing scene is that “large crowds were traveling with him” (Luke 14:25). At the beginning of Luke 15 there is a delineation: there are “tax collectors and sinners” amidst the crowds, at which

 the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2).

It is to “them,” presumably the Pharisees and scribes, that Jesus directs the great parables of lost and found.

At the beginning of Luke 16, then, there is no indication of changing scene or overall audience. But Jesus changes those whom he is addressing: “Then Jesus said to the disciples. . . .” (Luke 16:1). In other words, after directing the lost and found parables to the Pharisees and scribes, he now turns to the disciples to direct the ensuing parable to them. If the disciples had been tempted to feel superior to the Pharisees and scribes, as Jesus is directing such powerful parables of grace to them, it is apparently now their turn — which I believe is confirmed by Jesus’s follow-up comment: “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” (Luke 16:8). If the disciples begin to presume themselves as children of light, that doesn’t mean they can’t still learn from the children still living largely by the darkness of this age.

We need to pause for a moment to consider the Jewish eschatological language as more temporal than spatial. Salvation doesn’t divide between peoples or communities in space, a clearly delineated “us” and “them.” Salvation pivots on what God does to change the qualitative nature of periods in time. There is this age dominated by the darkness of human sin; God will bring (is bringing) about, through the Messiah, a new age — a new reign of God’s light.

The messianic tweaking of this eschatology after Jesus is raised (alone ahead of a general resurrection) is that the two ages now overlap. Jesus the Messiah has inaugurated the new age of God’s reign in light, but the age of darkness continues to flail about. Salvation is not a moment, an instantaneous transition from one age to the other; it is a process by which the fallen creation is being renewed, redeemed. As such, there is no easy separating of the wheat from the weeds, children of darkness from children of the light. There are only children of God living in the overlapping ages and thus in various stages of the process of being redeemed.

So I believe the transition from Luke 15 to 16 manifests this eschatology. Jesus speaks to the Pharisees and scribes in parables that invite them to see the gracious light of forgiveness in God’s reign. But then he also turns to the disciples to show them what the transition from debt-keeping to forgiving might look like in this situation of two overlapping ages. Even “children of light” can learn from others in this time in which we are all in transition together, all of us undergoing the process of being redeemed.

Do these observations about addressees and eschatology help us to read the parable more fruitfully? I think so. Speaking to the Jewish leaders in Luke 15, Jesus uses unconventional figures to stretch their imagination toward forgiveness. Speaking to his disciples in Luke 16, Jesus now chooses more conventional characters who continue to live by the rules of debt-keeping according to ‘this present age.’ The rich man is not a stand-in for God, as the Prodigal Father is in Luke 15. No, this parable now plops us in the too-familiar setting of oppressive economics that yields a divide between rich and poor, and a few mid-level managers (stewards) in-between. We are not given the details, but this particular manager is not performing up to par and so he’s fired, commanded to give a final accounting of his job-results. It is under these standard conditions of injustice — the conditions of this age — that the manager awakes to the light of debt-forgiving as alternative to the conventional world of debt-keeping. About to be demoted to the status of the oppressed, he at least acts to make friends among the oppressed. Even his master can see the wisdom of this and commends him. With nothing more to lose, the manager has made gains within his new community among the poor workers of the master’s land. I ventured a sermon in 2016 from this perspective, “Reign of Compassion.”

In Everything Must Change, Brian McLaren considers this parable from the perspective of framing a narrative — which I think fits the eschatological framing we’ve set here. The inauguration in this world of God’s reign by Jesus the Messiah establishes two narrative framings within history. A narrative of imperial domination is now being challenged by a narrative of nonviolent resistance to imperialism. We live inside both these narrative possibilities at once. How can we see it work out in the messiness of a history proceeding as an overlapping of ages? Sometimes, we disciples of Jesus might even look to a person still living by the conventional narrative. McLaren frames it thus:

Specifically, consider the so-called parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16:1-16. Seen in terms of the imperial narrative, the story is transformed from an ethically difficult text to a politically dynamic one. The steward in the story “switches sides.” He stops working for the wealthy landowner and starts working for the oppressed poor. So he isn’t actually unjust — that would be the judgment of people within the imperial narrative who see the landowner’s position as legitimate. From Jesus’ perspective, outside that imperial narrative and within God’s liberating framing story, the steward is wise rather than unjust — wise enough to defect (as the rich young ruler should have done) from the service of the wealthy elite to give a break to the poor who are being crushed by the societal machinery driven by the imperial narrative. Jesus is saying that switching sides — choosing to serve the needs of the poor instead of working the system that favors the rich — is a way of “laying up treasure in heaven,” of working for a higher spiritual economy rather than the “unclean” imperial economy. Switching sides is not unjust; it’s smart. It’s a good investment, far better than short-term profiteering from an economic system based on the imperial narrative. (97)

Much more below.

Amos 8:4-7

Questions and Reflections

1. It’s become part of my perspective that the prophetic dimension of discipleship to Jesus has been dormant throughout much of Christendom — the church as imperialist codependent. The tradition of the Hebrew prophets was largely reduced to prophesying the coming of the Messiah who saves individuals for heaven. Through much of my ministry, I’ve not been comfortable preaching a text like this one, which is overtly a prophet speaking hard truth to power. And as I become more comfortable with it, many in the congregation still are not. Speaking out against economic injustice in the tradition of Amos is an essential ingredient for the emerging church.

2. Evidence that the church’s codependence with imperialism is a mixed bag, however, is the pairing of this passage with the day’s Gospel. It definitely enhances the prophetic dimension of Jesus’s ministry in telling the Parable of the Unjust Steward — which is the fourth of five consecutive parables, building toward the Rich Man and Lazarus, a glimpse of the consequences Amos is prophesying.

1 Timothy 2:1-7


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 Unjust Steward, pointing to at least three parallels:

  • using similar language: “squandered (Gr: diaskorpizo) their property” (NRSV). 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”).
  • The Prodigal Son and Unjust Steward 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 — a father who interrupts the speech and throws a party fit for a son, and a master who commends his manager’s wisdom.

2. The term used for “manager” throughout this passage is oikonomos, from which we get our words economics or economist. In today’s terms, it might be a CFO, Chief Financial Officer, or some level of middle management in a corporation. What I believe is clear here is that Luke’s Jesus has decidely turned to subject to economics.

3. It is crucial, I believe, how one translates adikias in vv. 8 & 9 — translated as “dishonest” in the NRSV and “unjust” (v. 8), “unrighteous” (v. 9) in the KJV. And it is used to modify a different noun in each verse. NRSV: “dishonest manager” in v. 8, and “dishonest wealth” in v. 9 KJV: “unjust steward” in v. 8, and “the mammon of unrighteousness” in v. 9 (which reflects the genitive construction in the Greek; more below).

Many commentators in the English language go consistently with “dishonest” and base their arguments around that rendering. But there are potentially misleading aspects to not noting the possible variances in translating adikias — the singularity, in fact, of translating it as “dishonest.”

First, I think it is important to know that the word in these verses is related to the crucial NT word group around the root dik: dikaioō, to justify, make right; dikaiosunē, righteousness, justice; dikaiōsis, justification, vindication. Much of Protestantism is based on this word group (even if incorrectly, as argued by Douglas Campbell in his monumental work The Deliverance of God). I would argue that translating adikias as “unjust” or “unrighteous” is a choice more consistent with the rest of the NT.

It is important to note, too, that adikias is not even an adjective, as it is used in the English translation “dishonest manager.” adikias is a noun used as an adjective here by Luke via a genitive construction — literally, “manager of dishonesty” (ton oikomonon tēs adikias) and “wealth of dishonesty” (tou mamōna tēs adikias, translated as “the mammon of unrighteousness” in the KJV) — if we accept the translation “dishonest,” in the first place. Its being a noun is important when looking for it use and translation elsewhere in the NT, where, for the most part, it is used as a noun. Here is how adikias is translated elsewhere in the NT in the NRSV: “evil” in Luke 13:27; “unjust” in Luke 18:6; “false” in John 7:18; “wickedness” or “wicked” in Acts 1:18, 8:23, Rom 1:18 (2), 1:29, 2:8, 6:13, 2 Thes 2:10, 2 Tim 2:19; “injustice” in Rom 3:5, 9:14; “wrongdoing” or “wrong” in 1 Cor 13:6, 2 Cor 12:13, 2 Pet 2:13, 2:15, 1 John 5:17; “unrighteousness” in 2 Thes 2:12, 1 John 1:9; and “iniquity” or “iniquities” in Heb 8:12, James 3:6. Bottom-line: of the 25 occurrences of adikias in the New Testament, only in Luke 16:8, 9 does the NRSV translate it as “dishonest.” Most instructive is Luke’s own closest parallel in Luke 18:6, where ho kritēs tēs adikias is translated in the NRSV as “unjust judge.”

Let’s be honest: “dishonest” has very different connotations than “unjust.” “Honesty” is a very different thing than “justice.” For me, “dishonest” reflects primarily on the trustworthiness of individuals, whereas “unjust” is often used of systemic fairness. This makes a bigger difference in vs. 9 when paired with “mammon.” “Dishonest mammon” would generally involve a dishonest person. A dishonest person taints the wealth. “Unjust mammon,” on the other hand, could involve a person who seeks justice, but the wealth involved is still trapped in systemic injustice, tainted by the system. For example, I may seek dismantling of systemic racism while, as a white person, still remaining trapped in a system that continues to privilege and benefit me. Similarly, if one considers an economic system to be inherently unjust, all wealth or “mammon” is tainted by that injustice. So the New Jerusalem Bible has an interesting and, I believe, accurate translation of Luke 16:9: “And so I tell you this: use money, tainted as it is, to win you friends, and thus make sure that when it fails you, they will welcome you into eternal dwellings.”

4. tas aiōnious skēnas, vs. 9, “the eternal homes” (NRSV). skēnas most often designates a temporary shelter like a tent, booth, or hut. It can also generally mean a dwelling or home. Even more crucial is the word aiōnious, most often translated as “eternal.” The problem is that “eternal,” meaning endless time to the point of being atemporal, is more of a Greek or modern idea, not really a Jewish one. The Greek word itself can be transliterated into an English word like “eon,” which is closer to the Jewish concept of an era or age very much in time. N.T. Wright argues in numerous places (one of them being his book How God Became King, pp. 44-45) that aiōnious is an effort to translate into Greek the Hebrew word ha-olam. Crucial to the Jewish worldview is the concept of time as divided between the “Present age,” ha-olam hazeh in Hebrew, and the “age to come,” ha-olam ha-ba. (In other words, “eternal life” is really more about the Jewish idea of the “age to come”; for more see the page “‘Eternal life’ in Scripture.”) In this context, I think that aiōnious has more the connotation of “long-lasting” or “permanent.” We’re talking here about a stable living situation, not one’s home in eternity.

Coupled with the observations in exegetical note #3, how does this effect the reading of Luke 16:9? The NRSV translation makes it sound like Jesus is supporting the idea that children of light can dishonestly accumulate wealth on the way to the afterlife, our eternal home in heaven. (Perhaps it could be used as a prooftext for the Corleone family in The Godfather series!) Or how much does the reading change in light of the Jewish idea of two ages? Mammon is the term for wealth in the present corrupt and unjust age. All wealth is unjust as part of an unjust age. But what happens if the children of light begin to use that unjust wealth in genuinely compassionate ways? The Unjust Steward, a child of this age, uses it in compassionate ways for his own benefit, to wheedle his way into people’s homes. Can children of light use the unjust wealth of this age in genuinely compassionate ways that helps to usher in the age to come?

5. 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 an unjust manager who saw the light and not only quit cheating people but also made recompense?

6. “shrewdly” and “shrewd” in v. 8 is the only occurrence of the adverb phronimōs 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?

7. 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.”

8. “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? It is crucial, perhaps, to note that the manager himself refers to the rich man as his kyrios in v. 3: “now that my master is taking the position away from me. . . .”

9. 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.


1. Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, pp. 97, 239, fruitfully reads this passage in the context of imperialist economics vs. a reframing in the Kingdom of God. The steward exemplifies “switching sides” from one economy to the other. Our value judgments about the steward depend on from which framing narrative we are judging. He begins with theme of living authentically by one framing narrative:

. . . consider how Jesus constantly rebukes hypocrites — masked people who try to live by a dual narrative. They wear an imperial mask, in public, living by its narrative, but then they unveil another counterimperial face in private (or vice versa). Jesus calls people to live with integrity, wholeheartedly inhabiting one integrated, holistic framing story rather than playing at two. “No one can serve two masters” — a repeated theme of Jesus — also speaks to the impossibility of living faithfully by a dual narrative (Luke 16:13; Matthew 6:24). (95)

And then more specifically the parable (also quoted above in the Opening Comments):

Specifically, consider the so-called parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16:1-16. Seen in terms of the imperial narrative, the story is transformed from an ethically difficult text to a politically dynamic one. The steward in the story “switches sides.” He stops working for the wealthy landowner and starts working for the oppressed poor. So he isn’t actually unjust — that would be the judgment of people within the imperial narrative who see the landowner’s position as legitimate. From Jesus’ perspective, outside that imperial narrative and within God’s liberating framing story, the steward is wise rather than unjust — wise enough to defect (as the rich young ruler should have done) from the service of the wealthy elite to give a break to the poor who are being crushed by the societal machinery driven by the imperial narrative. Jesus is saying that switching sides — choosing to serve the needs of the poor instead of working the system that favors the rich — is a way of “laying up treasure in heaven,” of working for a higher spiritual economy rather than the “unclean” imperial economy. Switching sides is not unjust; it’s smart. It’s a good investment, far better than short-term profiteering from an economic system based on the imperial narrative. (97)

And later in the book McLaren is more pointedly considering the economic cog in our modern suicide machine of unsustainable consumption.

My old King James Bible inserted a title for the parable found there: “The Parable of the Unjust Steward” — but the word “unjust” revealed more about the presumptions of the Bible translator than about the teaching of Jesus. Again, Jesus uses the common economic situation in Galilee, where Roman taxes forced many small farmers to sell their land to rich landowners, reducing them to the status of tenant farmers. As we’ve already noted, landowners would frequently hire managers, or stewards, to be the middlemen, demanding a portion of crops from all the tenant farmers and saving the landowner from this unpleasant task . . . a task that would bring landowner and tenant face to face.

The middleman/manager in Jesus’ story has been accused of poor management and waste, so the landowner demands an account. Jesus conveys the man’s inner dialogue: “What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg — I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses” (vv. 3-4). He goes to all the tenant farmers and cuts their debts: a debt of nine hundred gallons of olive oil is reduced by half, a debt of a thousand bushels of wheat is reduced to eight hundred.

To many modern readers, this move sounds like injustice, because we view it from the detached and privileged perspective of the landowner class. But Jesus sees the entire system as unjust. And so in his story, the man isn’t condemned for malfeasance. By reducing an unfair debt that would further advantage the rich and further oppress the poor, the steward is actually decreasing injustice by assisting the disadvantaged tenant farmers, so he is praised for being shrewd. In essence, he has defected from the systemic injustice of the dominant system and has switched sides, seeking to help the poor instead of making a profit for himself by assisting the rich.

Jesus follows up the parable with words we’ve already heard from him: “No one can serve two masters. . . . You cannot serve both God and Money” (v. 13). Interestingly, Luke offers this epilogue to the parable: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus” (v. 14). Obviously, they like the current system and see no injustice in it; the societal system is “working” for them in a way it isn’t “working” for the tenant farmers. But Jesus tells them their concept of justice is skewed: “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight” (v. 15). (239-40)

2. In 2010 a fresh approach occurred 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.”

3. 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.

4. 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,, 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 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.”

5. 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.”

6. 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.

  • “was accused,” dieblethe, is a morpheme of diabolos. It is a hostile form for bringing charges that might be translated as “demonized.” It involves “the heaping of reproaches and blackening of his character.” [p. 261]
  • The word for being separated from his position also has violent connotations. Scott writes: “Stewardship is not simply ‘taken away.’ The Greek aphairetai uses the metaphor to cut off, to tear away — a matter of violence.” [p. 262]

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 to script, he commends 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?

It strikes me that this conclusion fits our approach as laid out in the Opening Comments above: In this time of overlapping ages very few, or none, of us are wholly good or bad. We need to always be open to learning from each other. But the secon part of Scott’s conclusion is also very important: a realigning of what power means, which has become a consistent theme in my preaching. The power of love, reaching out to the most vulnerable, is the true power in this world, not the power of coercion.

7. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” offers this blog on the text, “A Rogue and God’s Kingship.”

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

9. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2013, titled “Jesus, the Dishonest Manager“; and a sermon in 2016, “Forgetting to Forgive“; John Davies, a sermon in 2016, “Forgive Anyway!” (which is adapted from my 1998 sermon, “The Reign of Compassion“).

10. 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.

11. 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 steward 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?


Print Friendly, PDF & Email