This past weekend I preached on The Parable of the Shrewd Manager from the Gospel of Luke (Luke 16:1-13). After the service I had a few people tell me that they’ve always found this text to be rather challenging to understand. In part, this is because it seems as if Jesus is encouraging dishonesty in this story. Throughout the years I’ve had similar feelings and thoughts. In fact, I remember doing a bible study on this very text as a vicar (intern) and still walking away perplexed. The commentaries I went to were of no help, either. For me, The Parable of the Shrewd Manager had become one of those texts that we were not given to understand like Romans 9-11 or that part in Exodus 4 where the Lord seeks to put Moses to death. It had been put there for a particular reason by God and I was to leave it alone and come back to it in the future for possible clarity via the Holy Spirit. Crazy, right? But that’s also the line of reasoning that results from looking at the Scriptures as the inspired and inerrant Word of God. It’s also the line of reasoning that we have coopted from the Greek philosophy of Stoicism in order to feel better about the seemingly mysterious aspects of a given text.
But what if the problem lies not with the text, per se? Rather, what if it lies with us and our own presuppositions? What if Jesus is being rather clear and we just can’t attain such clarity because our minds and our vision is muddied by our own cultural baggage or presuppositions? What if the answers really are right before us? In these last few years as I’ve dug, studied, experienced, grown, regressed in my learning of the Scriptures I’ve become more and more convinced that our cultural presuppositions hold us back from a deeper understanding of Jesus and his words. An example that furthers my point is a sermon I heard a couple of years ago on one of the Lukan Beatitudes, “blessed are the poor”. The preacher claimed that the Lukan Jesus was speaking not of the economically poor but of the spiritually poor. Knowing what I knew about the Gospel of Luke at the time I had to work really hard at not showing signs of discomfort as the preacher went on. Frankly, that claim was incorrect, though, I suppose that could work with the Matthean beatitudes. The Lukan Jesus says that the economically poor are blessed, that’s clear from the context. We know that Luke was writing to a largely elite Gentile audience that had, or was being challenged, to leave behind their family for the sake of the Gospel. In such a world leaving behind one’s family also meant leaving behind the status, wealth and honor of that family. In turn, they had most likely been disowned by their families and became poor because they were following Jesus. Thus, the Lukan Jesus lets these formerly wealthy followers of Jesus know that they are blessed as they learn to live a life on the margins after living a life in the center of Roman society. Hence, the household division the Lukan Jesus speaks of as well as his teaching that unless one disowns their own family to follow him they cannot be his disciple.
My sense, though, is that we miss such meanings and understandings because we are not only working against our present cultural presuppositions but also the baggage of the presuppositions of various church fathers who were also divorced from the cultural context of Jesus. As a result we have layers upon layers of cultural baggage to work through. “Blessed are the poor” gets construed to be purely spiritual because the economic angle makes us uncomfortable given that many 21st century Americans and Westerners have it pretty good. Not only that but we have been raised to believe that capitalism and making money are good things, so far as it is earned honestly. We have theology that backs this up. We have been taught that those of us who are wealthy have been blessed by God and are to use such gifts properly and for the kingdom. We are to be “good stewards.” Church history and tradition have taught that this is meet, right and salutary but church history and tradition is fraught with the very cultural baggage that we have as well. A reading through the Patristics like Augustine reveals that for all his brilliance he was also limited in his understanding of Scripture. He was quite good at proof-texting and using texts to support positions on Christian military involvement and Christian government involvement. The little further back in church history we go we see church fathers like Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian embracing the Roman patronage and hierarchical systems that Jesus taught and spoke against throughout the Gospels. Let us also not forget the way that many of the early church fathers were completely divorced from Jewish understandings of God as well as life in Palestine during the time of Jesus which in turn affected how they read and interpreted the Scriptures. Not only that but some such as Origen and Clement infused Greek Philosophy into their reading of the Scriptures. Clement went so far as to claim that Plato was the Greeks’ Moses. Do you see how such things over time can truly handicap us from understanding the Gospels in their entirety? The scary part too is that it reveals that the church catholic isn’t always a failsafe.
Coming back to the Parable of the Shrewd Manager I’m struck by how challenging it was for me to understand. What’s clear now is that it was in part because I wasn’t looking holistically at the text, that it was one part of a larger whole. But it was also because I had been steeped (and still am) in Western notions of right and wrong. The questions and thoughts that would pop up as I was reading this parable: How could Jesus be condoning such behavior? Shrewdness in business practices? The manager was already fired, what he did was entirely inappropriate and dishonest. Wasn’t it totally self-seeking? Yes to all of these, but I ended up making these the main thing when they really weren’t. What I should have focused on was the amount of energy this manager expended in taking care of the people’s debt (a.k.a. unrighteous wealth) so that they would receive him into their homes. He actually improved their lives by forgiving some of their debts which definitely brought him favor amongst the said people. Smart, cunning, shrewd and intelligent.
Remember who Luke’s audience is and where they come from.
The parallel passage to this section of Luke is chapter 12 where Jesus tells his disciples to not be anxious, to rest in the assurance of God’s benevolence and love for them and for his creation. With God at the center of being, seeking after unrighteous wealth seems pointless because security and preservation are bound up with Him. Therefore, the shrewdness, the intelligence, that energy, should be used to furthering the kingdom, towards sowing seeds of justice and mercy. Imagine what the world would look like if the energy channeled into unrighteous wealth was channeled into such things. We get a glimpse of this in Acts wherein there was no one in need in the early Christian communities because they shared.
On an ending note, a few verses later Jesus condemns divorce which seems out of place according to the topic at hand. Now this seems so because marriage according to our cultural understandings is about love but love had nothing to do with it (thanks Tina Turner!). You see, in the ancient world marriage was about anything but that. It was about building economic, social and political connections and clout. Therefore, because the Torah allowed for divorce, it was often done for the purposes of climbing the social, economic and political ladder for one’s family. This, of course, meant more wealth and more security. Unfortunately, women ended up being tossed aside and used for such purposes. Think about the intelligence and the shrewdness that went into such machinations. Also, notice that such a statement is made by Jesus here for reasons much bigger than the very sanctity of marriage as we so easily assume in the West, particularly in our context today. Notice how our cultural presuppositions and understandings inhibit us from really understanding the force of the text.
There’s much more to unpack with this parable and much that I left unsaid so if you’re interested in learning more these books below are incredibly pertinent:
“Father, Into Your Hands”: The Way of Jesus According to the Gospel of Luke-Acts by Luke Kammrath
The Way According to Luke: Hearing the Whole Story of Luke-Acts by Paul Borgman
Empire Baptized: How the Church Embraced What Jesus Rejected 2nd-5th Centuries by Wes Howard-Brook