I remember reading about Jesus’ parables and laughing as a minister confessed, when asked if he would ever write a book on them, that the pastor would when he finally understood “The Shrewd Steward” (see Luke 16:1-13). By that time he had only been preaching about 50 years.
I share that because if you’ve ever scratched your head over one of the most enigmatic of the Gospels two-dozen or so parables, it’s at least comforting to know you have good company. So how to tackle it?
With prayer and with others. A group of about 65 friends and I recently spent four days going through Jesus’ parables in depth and filmed our discussions. (That’s now available through Bible Roads as an online course for Bible Study groups, for those who want to join in the discussion and have their own as well.) Stories we’ve known well are sometimes the best for going deeper, especially in a rich exchange with others who love them as well.
One of the discoveries made is that looking at the parables in the order they’re presented (whether in Matthew or Luke where most occur), helps lay the groundwork for each subsequent one, as they can build on each other, or at least have related themes. For example in Matthew’s gospel, the parables reflect on aspects of the Kingdom of Heaven, whereas in Luke many focus on how we care for our neighbor.
The ‘dishonest manager’, as the parable is sometimes called, has similar components to other Gospel stories–a wealthy owner, a servant and a vineyard—but there the similarities end. While the story is part of Luke’s larger theme about the dangers of wealth, the tale twists and turns so that we’re not quite sure where it’s going or what is its main point.
Unpacking it, we recall that Luke often highlights the dangers of wealth to spiritual maturity, and this parable is part of several that address this. The steward, a slave really, is in charge of his absentee master’s vineyard, and we think this story might be reminiscent of Jonah, teaching us by negative example. After all, the steward wasn’t living up to his master’s expectations for the job and is fired. As the shrewd steward realizes he is ill equipped for hard labor or for begging, the manager schemes to get money from those who owe his master.
Going to his master’s creditors, the steward renegotiates their debt downward, making them obligated more to him now, than the master. The master gets what he is owed, but minus the commission the steward would have earned. Just when we think we understand that this is a simple story not to cheat others, the master praises the steward! What?
The Master/owner praises his steward for quick thinking and actions, perhaps revealing a bit of the same roguish element in the master. This is when the sometimes-scrappy Message translation, with its idiomatic phrasing, can be helpful. Luke writes:
Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior” (Luke 16:8,9).
Luke has several other points he makes to lend insight into the text, but if we stated the rest here you wouldn’t have any fun in your own discoveries. Enjoy digging into one more of Jesus’ profoundly rich and timeless parables—hopefully with friends.
Dig into the Parables like The Shrewd Steward more through the BibleRoads Online video course: “Jesus Parables”.