Saturday, September 10, 2016

Serving Two Masters

The parable of the dishonest manager, a piece of the gospel reading for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 16:1-13, is one of the most puzzling of Jesus' parables.  The puzzle revolves around verse 8 where Jesus reportedly says "[the] master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly."  This commendation is jarring.  How could a faithful master commend this man? Perhaps part of the problem is that we assume motivations are more important than actions.  Are they?  Or perhaps we are assuming that the master's values are ours?  Or maybe our very assumptions about the consistency of God's mercy are being questioned.  In any case, our assumptions are being challenged here, and when we are forced to grapple with our assumptions that always leads us to new insights.  We must, therefore, pay attention to this.

(The following questions I find helpful for examining a passage from a Law/Gospel perspective.  For more on this perspective, please see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Until the last two verses in the text, the audience for these words are the disciples of Jesus.  The summary teaching verse in the passage seems to be verse 13:  "No slave can serve two masters... You cannot serve God and wealth."  With these things in mind, the Word is functioning primarily as a call to obedience.  Jesus is teaching his disciples how to follow him; i.e. to be faithful in even little things and to serve only God, not wealth.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?   The functions of law or gospel are not present here.  It's true that Jesus calls attention to the unfaithfulness of the dishonest manager, but this is not done to drive his listeners toward God, but to teach them about faithfulness.  The Law always drives us toward God.  The gospel function of the Word gives us the gifts of grace.  These functions are absent here.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are Jesus' disciples, those listening to this parable and the subsequent teaching.  We are the ones who need to be reminded that faithfulness in little things is important.  We are the ones who are continually trying to find ways to serve two masters.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Since neither the Law nor the Gospel are present in this text we are hard-pressed to see couplets in the text.  Nevertheless the main teaching offers a few ideas:  serving wealth/serving God; children of this age/children of light.

5.  Exegetical work:  There are several interesting commonalities between this parable and the parable of the Prodigal Son, just prior to this in Luke 15:  The dishonest manager was accused of "squandering" his master's property - this is the same word used for the actions of the younger son who traveled to the far country and there "squandered" his property in dissolute living.  Also the conversation the dishonest manager had with himself once he realized how much trouble he was in is reminiscent of the conversation the younger son had with himself once he realized he needed to return to his father.  Finally, the jarring commendation of the dishonest manager by the master reminds us of the extravagant welcome the younger son receives from the father.  In neither case is the wickedness of the offender denied, nor is it a stumbling block for the one with whom reconciliation is sought.

There are a number of good commentaries on the parables of Jesus.  Two that seem particularly helpful with this parable are Bernard Brandon Scott's Hear Then the Parable, and Kenneth Bailey's Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes; A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables of Luke.  Scott summarizes the parable this way:  "The parable presents a counterworld to the hearer's normal, implicit world.  In that normal world of patron and clients, power and justice are coordinates.  The rich man possesses power, and his initial judgment, arbitrary and summary, can be carried out because he is powerful.  The steward also possesses the power of a victim: he draws the hearer to his side by sympathy, allowing one and all to enjoy his getting even....By a powerful questioning and juxtaposition of images, the parable breaks the bond between power and justice.  Instead it equates justice and vulnerability." (Scott, p. 266)  Bailey gives us a very extended analysis of the parable, leaving no stone unturned in examining this puzzling parable.  Finally he says, "...the parable of the Unjust Steward is a parabolic ballad followed by a three-stanza poem on Mammon. The parable in an unforgettable backhanded way illuminates, from a unique angle, the splendor of the grace of God in which alone the believer must trust." (Bailey, p. 118).

Blessings on your proclamation!

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