Ten or twelve years ago I had the privilege of attending a conference on interpreting the parables for preaching. The leader was David Buttrick. Professor Buttrick is a recognized authority on the theory and practice of preaching and wrote one of the best books I have on the parables.
Buttrick said of the parable found in Luke 13:1-13, “it has embarrassed Christians for centuries. Clearly the parable embarrassed Luke for he keeps adding verses—8b, 9, 10-12—trying to find an acceptable moral for the story.” Buttrick went on to ask, “How could Jesus tell the story of a crook and, what’s more, seem to approve of the crook’s behavior?” (1)
It appears to me that Jesus seems to endorse the secular ethic of “the end justifies the means.” So my question: Are we mis-reading the intent of the parable, or is it okay occasionally to use dishonest means to achieve an honest end? Or is there more to the story than meets the eye?
The Travelers Group, the insurance and financial services conglomerate did a series of commercials several years ago, that I thought were intriguing. Let me give you a couple of examples:
Scene: A lone canoe being paddled across a calm lake.
Tag line: This is not a canoe; it is an aerobic workout before breakfast.
Scene: An oversized tractor combine being driven down a rural road.
Tag line: This is not a farmer; it is an investor driving his capital investment.
Scene: A Little League baseball game underway on a summer afternoon.
Tag line: This is not a baseball game; it is cash flow for the ice-cream truck.
Scene: A young girl turning somersaults with her friends in an open field.
Tag line: This is not a gymnast; it is a future physicist learning about gravity.
There were other such commercial spots, each told with pictures and captions and without the usual voice-overs. The message seemed to be that there was more to each of these scenes than the obvious–in essence more than meets the eyes. The viewer’s initial impression about the scene was not wrong; it just failed to take in the full range of possibilities. Thankfully, the ad agency spelled out the not-so-obvious for those of us who are a little slow on the uptake.
I think we can acknowledge that the scriptures are full of these more-than-meets-the-eye images. Consider the following scenes:
Scene: An old man and his aged wife and their possessions scape
Tag line: This is not moving day; it is a nation builder heeding the (call) voice of God. (Abraham)
Scene: A small, hand-hewn tomb with a great rock rolled to one side.
Tag line: This is not an ancient gravesite; it is the opening to a new world order.
O.K., I don’t have the creative abilities of the ad agency employed by Travelers Group. But I hope you get the point–there’s more than meets the eye. There are many other scenes and taglines we could create as we consider the biblical narrative. The parables of Jesus are also a lot like the Travelers Group television commercials– there is usually more to them than the obvious.
The problem is that Jesus doesn’t always provide the tag lines–for those of us who don’t quite get it. That we don’t always get it–should not necessarily embarrass us, for we are in good company. The Disciples didn’t always get it either.
There is the story of the rich young man who approached Jesus and asked, “Teacher what good must I do to have eternal life?” First Jesus attacks the use of the word “good” Then asked the young man about keeping the commandments? The response “I have kept all these, what do I still lack?” Then Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasurers in heaven; then come follow me. The young man walked away grieving–for he had many possessions. One biblical commentator said Jesus responded with the biblical equivalent of “Duh!” when he said how difficult it will be for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven; it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
Now if our Madison Avenue Advertising Agency had written his lines, Jesus might have said something like, “This is not a heaven-bound person of wealth; it is a knobby-kneed camel trying to do the impossible.”
When it comes to parables, sometimes Jesus offered an explanation, for example, Jesus told the Parable of the Sower to the great crowd which was following him, and later explained it to his disciples when they asked what it meant. (Luke 8:4-15).
However, Jesus told other parables which are difficult to understand—parables which were left unexplained.
The parable of the unjust steward is certainly one of them. How are we to understand a parable that seems to compliment a dishonest steward? How are we to accept a teaching that implies that the ends justify the means? Most of us, at some point in our learning experience, have been taught just the opposite–that the ends do not justify the means.
It is not just a matter of whether you win, or how much you accomplish, or how far up the corporate ladder you ultimately climb; it is also a matter of what you did to get there. To win by cheating is no victory; to gain the whole world, but lose your soul in the process is no accomplishment.
So, putting aside for the moment our actual practice, at least in theory—we know that the ends do not justify the means. That being true, how are we to understand this parable from Jesus that seems to imply the opposite?
It may help if we explore what Luke’s author did with the parable. Remember David Buttrick said that the parable has embarrassed Christians for centuries, and added that “clearly the parable embarrassed Luke for he keeps adding verses—8b, 9, 10-12, trying to find an acceptable moral for the story”. I tend to believe that the parable Jesus told ended in the first part of verse eight, with the words “The master commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness”.
What follows is Luke’s attempt to explain it. So is there more to the story than meets the eye? I read several commentaries on the parable, biblical scholars in general have concluded that the parable is about securing eternal life —and the fact that the steward is dishonest is unrelated to the story’s focus.
There are several layers to the story. We know that like tax collectors, the master’s steward probably added a “fee” for their services, that the master didn’t know about. That’s why tax collectors were wealthy and hated. One interpretation is that when the steward realized that his livelihood was in jeopardy, he quickly saw a solution.
It is probable that his master didn’t know about the “fee” he added on, and the debtors didn’t realize that the steward padded the account for himself. So in his shrewdness, the steward told the debtors to reduce their bills by the amount he had added on. The master, we’re told “commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness!” I think, we can conclude that when the steward was dismissed, he would be welcomed into the homes of the debtors, who seemed to think he had been generous toward them! The rest of the reading seems to support that scenario.
1.The dishonesty of the steward is unrelated to the focus of the story,
2. However, how the steward managed the books to secure his future is.
Since he subtracted his own commission as a way of reducing the debtors bills, in which case he was not dishonest.
Since the debtors did not know he was fired, they thought the reduction was legitimate and praised the owner who in turn commends the steward.
The parable is more about securing eternal life, along the line of thought that our behavior in small things prophesies (or predicts) behavior in matters of major importance. I think that best fits the story told in the parable. I suspect that if I had written a paper on this paper, my seminary professor would have commented, “Safe interpretation, I wished for something more radical and breath taking from you!” You see Prof Boomershine, thought I should think outside of the box more than I did!
More than meets the eye. Perhaps what is being praised in this parable is not the means or the ends themselves, but the fact that they existed. In other words, the servant had a goal and a plan for reaching that goal, and those are being commended.
Could Jesus be subtly asking about our goals and about our plans for seeing them come to reality?
Not our goals for retirement, not our honey-do list, not our next major purchase, not even our vacation plans. But our discipleship goals, our ministry goals, our spiritual growth goals, our putting-faith-into-life goals. Do these goals exist? Do we have specific plans for making them become reality? Are we working our plans? Are we making progress toward our goals?
If truth be told, for too many of us these types of goals exist more in the form of wish lists than of action plans. We intend to become more serious—but….!
While standing with the disciples, standing on the sidelines criticizing the steward for his unrighteous actions, we may hear Jesus say wistfully, “Yes, but at least he did something.”
So, what do we do with this parable that seems to compliment dishonesty? We can’t simply ignore it, throwing up our hands in despair, moving on to other, easier parables to examine.
Our natural inclination is to stand in judgment over this steward and his actions, by warning ourselves not to follow his example. Perhaps we need to sit with this parable, or, better, let it sit with us. Knowing that the road to understanding will not be easy and that we will be met with many more faith challenging cul-de-sacs than throughways.
If we do that, maybe we will discover that in its less than obvious way this parable isn’t really about dishonesty after all, but about something else entirely.
The point of the parable?
It appears to be “There is more to it than meets the eye.” Jesus apparently used it, Luke recorded it–and with it added editorial comments. Yet, this is one that merited commendation. And in that it may be a lesson worth waiting for.
If we were to create a tag line for this parable what would it be?
Something to ponder this week!
1. Speaking Parables. David Buttrick pp 209-216
2.Preaching Through the Christian Year C. Fred Craddock et al. p.414