Three Men and a Parable

Three Men and a Parable

It has to be one of the most perplexing of parables:

The Parable of the Dishonest Steward, Luke 16:1-13:

mccollough picture

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’

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Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me?

I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.

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I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’

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And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

On Sunday, May 17, I was grateful to have guest preacher, Charles May 2015 054McCollough with us, to help us untangle the parable. Charles is a UCC pastor, theologian and sculptor. He worked for the national staff of the UCC in adult education and social justice. His book, The Art of the Parables, examines Jesus’ parables using his own sculptures (see the sculptures in the scripture text above) which draw on the work of William Herzog (Parables as Subversive Speech).

It is true gift for any preacher when whatever was shared, is shared back and my dialogue with Charles about this parable and the sculptures he had made, prompted two responses.

May 2015 096Denis Streeter and has been writing poetry for 15 years and writes 2-4 poems a month, and always provides me after I preach with very insightful reflections and critiques. Charles’ sermon prompted Denis to write a poem in response which arrived on my cell phone during lunch with Charles and Carol McCollough.  They were amazed as was I.  A preacher’s dream – someone who not only heard, but remembered and integrated in their own life and situation a scripture and sermon.  Denis caught the heart of Charle’s refections on the text:

“The Dishonest Steward”
The orator says
Let’s put this in a cultural historical context
This was written in the time of the Roman Empire
So rendering to Caesar what was Caesar’s was not much choice
So Jesus was creating a parable of a corrupt system
Something anyone could relate to, by showing how life really was
The guy swindling his master is found out
And told he’s fired
So he thinks…
What can I do?
I can’t dig and I won’t beg
I’m financially ruined
So he thinks…
I know!
I’ll reduce the debt by 50% for one and 20% for another
He does and the master is impressed by his shrewdness and let’s him keep his job
And why not?
His master is more likely to be repaid
You know
Lower your interest rates…
It’s in your own interest
It rewards a shrewd even devious nature
Jesus is saying
Look we live in a corrupt system
I’m just pointing it out
You know it’s true
Nobody really did that
Counter-intuitive
So how do you live in this world
Well some scholars say this
Some scholars say that
Let’s put this in a cultural historical context
No one can decide what to make of the parable
Just work around the edges like the grand equivocator
Theologians, philosophers, historians
Are rewarded for seeing the “big picture”
Even when it doesn’t say anything
Working around the edges
It’s a devious nature that sucks in the intellectuals
Reaping rewards
Certainly beats digging and begging
Who wants to get their hands dirty
Well…what about knowing the system and working within it
With your own…some would say…God given gifts
What about working with clay
Sculpting your own images
It doesn’t have to be clay
It could be poetry
The sculpting of ideas, shaping of words
Make something different
Delve into the mud and create
Iconoclast your way
Remold and cast away
You will not lose your interest
And you may keep some change.

Denis Streeter  5/17/15

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Burton Smith is a computer architect, church choir member and May 2015 051something I didn’t know, a Biblical scholar as well! He shared another take on the parable with me on Sunday and wrote up some comments for me to share:

I came to a different understanding of the “parable of the dishonest manager” than the one in your sermon this morning.  Basically, I prefer to read the parable backwards, as follows:

Verse 9 mentions “dishonest wealth” rather than dishonest management of it. Could Jesus be talking about Caesar’s wealth?  And what is this allusion to a welcome in the “eternal homes”? Maybe the welcome is in the next world rather than this one.

In verse 8, what kind of master is it that is in favor of the forgiving of debts? I think I know who it was Jesus had in mind. But in what way was the manager’s behavior “shrewd”? Could it be that he was beginning to store up riches in heaven by giving his master’s “dishonest riches”, over which he had full but temporary control, to his fellow human beings?

The manager’s stated motive in verses 3 and 4 is to make the master’s debtors grateful enough to feed and house him later. Simple enough. He was probably as surprised as we are when the master tells him in verse 8 he had acted “shrewdly”. Verses 5-7 increase the shock.

Verse 2 implies the master disapproved of the manager’s behavior, but the master’s call for an accounting at the end of the manager’s tenure reads like judgement had already been passed. Perhaps it was the manager’s life itself that was ending; in either case, he would not be able to redress his pursuit of “dishonest wealth” once his tenure ended. And this may explain Jesus’ words in verse 9.

So that’s what I make of this parable. By the way, the content of verse 11 supports my thesis, I think. What does it mean to be faithful with the “dishonest wealth”? Jesus tells us over and over: we must give it to the poor and follow him. The world and everything in it belong to God, and so verse 12 reminds us that if we cannot be faithful with what belongs to God how can we expect a reward of our own? We are all managers of the wealth we think is ours, but God is our master and expects us to behave shrewdly with his riches.

01ebf374cba5bed1a29338392e99e377b57fb6b388Dialogue. Discovery. Insight. The heart of what parables are all about.  Stirring up new ways of looking at our lives.  And why the world of parable interpretation knows no end.  So grateful for these three men, three takes on a parable.

And now, the most important part.  What about you? What’s your take?

As Denis invites us,

What about working with clay
Sculpting your own images
It doesn’t have to be clay
It could be poetry
The sculpting of ideas, shaping of words
Make something different
Delve into the mud and create
Iconoclast your way
Remold and cast away
You will not lose your interest
And you may keep some change.

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