One of the lads at Fight Club on Tuesday night approached me with a question: “You know that parable Jesus tells about the merchant who found the pearl of great price?”, he asked. “Yeah”, I said. “Well, I want to know who is the merchant in the story supposed to be?”
This is not the standard sort of question I get at fight training and it’s indicative of the fact that we’re getting a new breed of fighters coming through our doors lately – Christian boys, who listen to sermons, even be they bad sermons!
Now, I know it’s not my job to judge other people’s preaching, but this young fighter had heard someone preach to him on this parable in Matthew – a preacher who had tried to explain the parable by demonstrating how each character in the parable corresponded to a particular person in real life, and this approach to interpreting Jesus’ parables is, in my opinion, the wrong approach.
The technical name for this sort of interpretation of the parables is the ‘allegorical’ approach, where we interpret each parable as an allegory. An allegory is a story where each character in the story corresponds to a character in real life. Lots of famous stories (like ‘Pilgrim‘s Progress‘) and even nursery rhymes are allegories.
‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary’ is, I believe, an allegorical nursery rhyme about Mary, Queen of Scotsand indeed, if you want to fully understand the rhyme, it will help if you have some idea of the historical figure that the allegory is referring to. Likewise, there may be someone here today who can tell me who ‘Peter, Peter, Pumpkin eater’ really was in real life, but I suspect we may need someone with greater expertise in European history to unlock that secret!
Even so, this is the role any number of preachers see themselves in when it comes to Jesus’ parables – that it is their job to unlock the allegorical keys to the parable, telling us which character refers to who, and so unlocking the hidden message of the story.
Now the reason I mention all this is because people who take the allegorical approach to Jesus’ parables have a hell of a time when it comes to this parable – the ‘Parable of the Shonky Steward’– because it’s not obvious which Biblical characters the figures in the story could possibly be supposed to represent.
The hero of the story is an accountant who gets caught fiddling the books. The supporting characters are his business clients, whom he systematically dupes. And behind him strands the business owner – the ‘master’ – who somehow uncovers the fact that his manager has been cheating him, but who nonetheless ends up congratulating his crooked employee for being a shamelessly clever bastard in the way he secures a future for himself through further wheeling and dealing with his master‘s assets!
Let’s run through the story one more time, and this time in a little more detail, lest you think I might have sensationalised it in my summary!
The story begins with the discovery that the manager is a crook. The exact nature of his crime is not stated. We are told only that he was ’wasting his master’s assets’ , which. might suggest that he wasn’t so much dishonest as just incompetent, and yet his subsequent actions make it clear that this manager was anything but incompetent!
Nonetheless, the shonky manager is confronted with his crime and he makes no defence, which we can take as an admission of guilt. The master at this point could have presumably then handed him over to the police, but instead he shows himself instead to be a gentle and generous soul, and he just quietly gives the manager his notice.
The shonky manager at this point soliloquises to himself about his options, and taking up honest work or joining the unemployment queue are not two he is willing to consider. Instead, he sees in His master’s generosity a window of opportunity, and so he makes the most of the time he has left in his job. He calls in all his master’s debtors, cuts their debts in half, and so builds up an enormous residue of goodwill towards himself, all at the Masters’ expense of course!
The master, it seems, is left in a bind. When he realises what is going on, he has the option of now belatedly calling in the police and reinstating his creditors’ original debts, but the problem is that he (along with his shonky manager) is already being toasted by everyone in town at the local pub. His generosity is the talk of every home, and indeed they are all wondering how this good-natured director is going to keep his company afloat with such recklessly generous acts, and he is wondering the very same thing himself.
I was reminded of a story that I was told about Henry Ford, that he at one time donated $50 to a small local hospital, only to read with horror the following day, in a local paper, that he had reputedly made a donation of $500! What was he to do? Ford contacted the paper, who promised to print up a full retraction in the next issue, making it clear that he had actually only donated $50, and yet he was already the talk of the town – loved and admired by all for an act of generosity that hadn‘t actually taken place!
In Ford’s case, I was told, he agreed to donate the $500, providing that he could choose the verse from the Bible that was to be displayed over the new entrance to the hospital. They agreed, and he chose the verse from Matthew 25:35 to be displayed right out the front of the hospital: “I was a stranger and you took me in”
In the case of the duped master in the parable, who presumably lost a lot more than $500, more sinister options come to mind. No doubt he had contacts who could have discreetly taken care of this shonky ex-employee, and have had him sleeping with the fishes long before the sly rogue got a chance to enjoy the hospitality of all his new-found friends.
But the master is not like that, and no doubt the shonky manager had traded off that knowledge. He laughs it all off. Indeed, we are told that he commends this cheating sleaze-bag accountant, shaking his head but smiling nonetheless and saying, “Congratulations, you sly bastard.” (nb. that’s the Australian translation).
And Jesus then concludes this story by Himself commending the example of the shonky steward to His disciples: “You could learn something from this guy!”
“Learn what?” is the obvious response! In what possible way is this guy supposed to reflect the ideals of discipleship? And if this guy represents the disciple, does that mean that the warm-hearted but soft-headed boss-man is supposed to represent God?
An allegorical interpretation of this parable is not easy. We don’t normally think of God as being quite so morally flexible when it comes to lying, stealing, using and abusing. Indeed, we like to think of God as the one who is going to judge all those things! But even if we can get past the depiction of God as the boss, can we really identify ourselves with this sleazy white-collar criminal? Surely this man embodies almost everything that Jesus railed against! He lies, he cheats, he manipulates and he loves money! He is lazy, dishonest, arrogant and shameless. He may have all the qualities it takes to make a great and successful politician but hardly any that we’d normally associate with Christian discipleship!
And yet perhaps, as I’m suggesting, the key is to recognise that this story is not an allegory. Perhaps this is instead some more of Jesus’ wisdom teaching!
You will remember that we heard some of the wisdom teaching of Jesus a couple of weeks ago when He encouraged us to hate our mothers and fathers and partners and children and to basically despise everything and everybody that means anything to us if we want to move ahead as disciples! (Luke 14:25ff)
We observed then that Jesus’ wisdom teaching appears to most people to be a form of insanity! He told us that the way to make real relationships is to let go of everybody that we care about and that the way to secure ourselves a future is to give away every possession we have.
When we hold up this parable alongside these other dialogues of Jesus from the surrounding chapters of Luke‘s gospel, it d ’t start to look any more acceptable, but there does appear to be something disturbingly consistent about it all.
If you love Jesus, you’d better not hold on too tightly to anybody else, and if you want to follow Jesus, you’d better be prepared to lose all of your material wealth, and if you want to know how to handle money, take your lead from this sleaze-bag criminal accountant, for he was smart enough to know the most valuable thing that you can do with money – that is. buy yourself some friends!
“And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” (Luke 16:9)
It doesn’t look a whole lot more acceptable as wisdom teaching than it did as an allegory, but there’s a consistency there – a consistent craziness at any rate!
You’ll remember a few weeks ago that we had our ‘Jets at Prayer’ service, and had Manfred Moore – American NFL football hero – with us.
One of the big steps for Manfred in being part of our service that Sunday is that he said it was the first time he had ever taken alcohol inside a church building! In his tradition they use grape juice of course, and I could sense that he was subtlety suggesting that grape juice might be a healthy alternative for us too.
I told him bluntly that I hate grape juice, at least in a church context, and not because I dislike the taste. I don’t. It’s a lovely, sweet, sugary and insipid thirst-quencher on sultry day. Conversely, I appreciate that wine is volatile stuff. It has impact. It tastes strong. It’s the stuff that gives courage to wavering hearts and helps dull the pains that we can’t handle. In a social context, it makes conversations flow and can help build relationships, but if you have too much of it, everything gets a little risky, and things start to get out of control and, as I said to Manfred, ‘how true to the Gospel is that!’
Jesus, you will remember, was accused of a lot of things. He was called a revolutionary and a traitor, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of sinners and sex-workers, but one thing He was never accused of was of being safe and boring!
I don’t know what you do with the parable of the dishonest manager. This guy is impulsive, arrogant, sly, and just so much the person we don’t want in our church.
And yet, in other ways, he is so like Jesus!
Indeed, Biblical scholar Robert Capon suggests that the unjust steward is Jesus! Why? Well, firstly because he dies and rises. Secondly, because, as he rises, he raises others with him, but mainly, says Capon, because he’s a criminal, just as Jesus was a criminal – accused as a criminal and executed as a criminal – from where He continues to associate Himself with the unrespectable and the morally dubious.
So maybe the ‘Parable of the Shonky Steward’ is an allegory after all, even if not the allegory that anybody initially expected!
In truth, I’m not sure what to do with this story – how to categorise it, classify it, and explain it, let alone tame it. Like so many of the teachings of Jesus, it provokes, excites, incites and insults, and defies simple explanation. And isn’t that so like Jesus?
He who leads us forward is often hard to pin down, difficult to penetrate and downright impossible to contain, yet always provocative, always radical, always giving, always bleeding, always loving.
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, September 2007.