Proper 20 • Luke 16:1–15 • September 18, 2016
By Victor Raj
Justice God’s Way
I began to study this text rather carefully on tax day, April 15. Especially in that context, the theme of accounting surfaced in my mind almost instantaneously as I read along. Thoughts about managing wealth, budgeting, income and spending, and claiming deductions on tax returns could not be disregarded. (Similar considerations might have relevance for preaching this text assigned for the weekend close to the September 15 quarterly tax payment due date!)
Study bibles including the American Edition of the Greek New Testament classify this text as the parable of the ‘Unjust Manager’ / the ‘Dishonest Steward.’ If so, how should this part of the teachings of Jesus be understood and what lessons for life could be drawn from this narrative? Questions arise on where exactly in these verses the parable part actually ends and its application for life begins. Our analysis operates on the assumption that the illustrative story ends with verse 7 and verse 8 is a transitional verse, inviting the reader to follow along and figure out what Jesus wants understood from it. This way of reading the text helps to come to grips with Jesus’s intentionality for his hearers, especially his disciples and the Pharisees who were crowding around during much of his public ministry, looking for opportunities to level charges against Jesus as a false teacher and a lawbreaker.
In the first part of verse 8, the steward, uncommitted to his vocation as he was, receives from the estate owner commendation for the shrewdness with which he handled a delicate situation. Ever mindful of the predicament he brought upon himself consequent on the deliberate mismanagement of his master’s wealth, the manager conjures up a way for making friends who might rescue him when he would be in trouble. He foresaw that his misconduct in his official position will cost him his job and jeopardize his future living as the business owner gets to know all about his misdemeanors. Presuming that he will soon be fired, he wanted to secure his future by befriending numerous clients who have been falling short of paying their dues to the estate owner’s investment. Contradicting the custom laws of the time the steward offered the debtors significant and disproportionate reductions negatively impacting the business owner’s assets and net gain.
From that point on the text reads like a catalog of universal truths, lined up one after another, each statement making good sense even if read independently of the other. The reader however is bound to engage the text holistically and understand their meaning cumulatively and chart the course for daily living in God’s kingdom that distinguishes itself in sharp contradistinction to the patterns of behavior in “the present evil age” (cf. Gal 1:4). Jesus challenges his listeners with the question that if the worldly wise appear to be more prudent and intelligent in handling matters pertaining to this world, how much more shrewdly should the children of light be living, demonstrating in word and deed in this world that they are indeed citizens of the heavenly kingdom.
A certain sense of discernment and sensitivity is required of the people of God as they strive to live out their God-given righteousness in a broken world bereft of equality, justice, and peace. St. Luke’s Gospel is conscious of the dilemma the poor, the oppressed, the widows, and the destitute face, and how vulnerable they are in a fallen world, susceptible to being isolated, left behind, and uncared for. For example, the narrative that follows our text in Luke 16 contrasts the life of a wealthy man and Lazarus his counterpart, a beggar who was laid at his gate longing to satisfy his hunger with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s dinner table. According to Luke, the destiny of those who put their trust exclusively in their wealth (mammon) rather than in God, and ignore the cause of the poor neighbor in need is frightening (16:19–31). The appointed reading from Amos 8:4–7 addresses a similar socio-economic issue so graphically. The prophet decries the injustices the affluent inflict on the poor and those who might be at the low end of the social ladder. Businesses that sold grain shrunk the bushel baskets and increased the cost of basic commodities, mixed wheat with husks and cheated the customer with dishonest scales. The unfortunate ones were deprived of their true human identity and devalued less than a pair of sandals. Against the depravation the prophet raised a clarion call for all people to live dignified lives and enjoy justice, peace, and righteousness attuned to the divine design for humanity (Am 5:4).
A similar scenario surfaces in our text as Jesus confronts the pharisaic legalism of his opponents, especially that of the teachers of the law. Jesus calls them lovers of money (15:14), The Pharisees put on a show for the public to notice their piety, while their hearts are far removed from the actual intent of God’s revelation. They pay their tithes on spices such as mint, dill, and cumin, but neglect the weightier matters of the law such as justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Mt 23: 23). They pretend to follow the letter of the law yet circumvent the spirit of the law. The Pharisees, the presumed protectors of the law, built a fence around the law by establishing rules and regulations that would presumably simplify its obedience. By doing so however they became a law unto themselves and blind to the law’s ultimate purpose of leading each person to Jesus the Savior. Jesus came to this world to fulfill God’s law in its entirety to its minutest detail. St. Paul spoke of Jesus as “the end of the law” signifying that those who come to faith in Jesus as Savior have the curse of the law lifted from them before God on account of Christ (Rom 10:4). Jesus himself demonstrated before the people that he came on earth to fulfill the law and not to abolish it (Mt 5:17).
It is therefore significant that the Lord addresses this parabolic saying directly to the disciples, the insiders of his kingdom (16:1). If the followers of Jesus were to learn a lesson from the shrewdness of the worldly wise overseer of another’s property, it is that they cannot at the same time serve God and money. The people of God cannot remain forever neutral to their relationship to the wealth God has entrusted them. Elevating money to the level that is solely God’s tilts the equilibrium of life and finds humanity wanting in anything they are called upon to accomplish in Christ’s name. As Paul counsels, those who are eager for money wander from faith and pierce themselves with many griefs (1 Thes 6:10).
As children of the Light of the world (1 Thes 5:5; Eph 5:8; Jn 12:36), the followers of Jesus let the Light from above shine through them as they live and act as faithful stewards of the treasures of the heavenly kingdom, while on earth carefully and faithfully managing the material blessings God has invested in them for their own wellbeing and for contributing generously to the security and welfare especially of the less privileged and those who struggle to make life’s ends meet. At Jesus’s coming, the kingdom of God has come into our world. As we share Christ with others through our words and actions, Christ will rule and reign in their hearts as well.