Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Luke 16.1-13
Proper 20 - Year C

Other texts:


THE CONTEXT

Green (The Gospel of Luke) sets this chapter within a larger context:

Many have noted how the opening parable of ch. 16 is related to the parable of 15:11-32, especially in terms of vocabulary and style. Both, for example, begin with a reference to "a certain person" (15:11; 16:1), have central characters who "squander" property (15:13; 16:3) and encounter life-threatening choices (15:15-17; 16:3), narrate the surprising action of the "certain person" mentioned in the opening verse (15:20-24; 16:8), and so on. More consistently overlooked is the interesting parallel that develops between the younger son of 15:13-24 and Lazarus the beggar in 16:21-23. Although the prior autobiography of Lazarus is missing, both come to be portrayed as inhabitants of the cesspool of social status only to have their lots dramatically reversed. The structural similarities between chs. 15 and 16 remind Luke's audience that the immediate backdrop of Jesus' teaching to the disciples in ch. 17 is his portrayal of table fellowship as an appropriate means for including such outsiders as toll collectors and sinners in the community of the lost-but-found. In ch. 16, Jesus grounds this message about table fellowship more fundamentally in his overall teaching about possessions: Wealth should be used to welcome another cluster of outsiders, the poor who are incapable of reciprocating with invitations of their own or of helping to advance one's own status. [p. 587]

Later Green states about our text: "... the parabolic instruction he now provides is closely tied to the preceding material, especially 14:1-24; 15:1-32 -- all three having to do with intricately related issues of hospitality" [p. 589]

Within this chapter, the opening and closing stories are about wealth: This week's text is 16:1-13 -- "The Dishonest Steward" and next week's: 16:19-31 -- "The Rich Man and Lazarus." Both of these stories begin with the statement, "There was a certain rich man" (vv. 1, 19, see also 15:4, 11). What about the verses in between these two texts (16:14-18)? I'll make some brief comments about them and how they might fit in these stories at the end of my notes. As you can see below, the parallels and lack of parallels in the different sayings probably indicate that Luke put these diverse sayings together.

Our lesson can be divided into four sayings:

The in-between-verses include four sayings:

Our text is addressed to disciples (v. 1) but Pharisees, who are "lovers of money," respond to the story (v. 14).

SEVEN APPROACHES

I find our text to be one of the most confusing texts in scriptures. I used a number of these approaches in a sermon once, and concluded that I don't know exactly what Jesus meant, but that we are saved by God's grace, not by fully understanding Jesus' meaning in this particular parable. After some exegetical word studies I will offer another approach.

1. The point of the parable is not the servant's dishonesty, but his wise decision-making in the time of crisis. As Tannehill (Luke) states: "...a distinction is drawn between his dishonesty, which is not being commended, and his shrewdness, which is" (p. 247). His whole future depended on quick thinking and immediate actions. So the servant is presented as an example of decisive thinking and acting to save himself. Jesus has come. The time of decision is now.

2. The servant is a man of the world, who works and thinks with diligence to protect his interest. What if all people would have the same commitment to the kingdom as they do towards their work or hobbies? At what point should the church use the best worldly business sense in conducting their ministries? Some years ago I read a book with the title: Feeding the Flock: Restaurants and Churches You'd Stand in Line For by Russell Chandler. Can congregations learn from successful restaurants? What makes a restaurant successful? What wise decisions help make it succeed? What uses of its resources how it spends money or invests capital or cares for its workers will win for itself more patrons? Both restaurants and churches have similar goals we want to attract people to come and receive what we have to offer. Restaurants offer food for the body. Churches offer food for the soul.

The author notes that the attractiveness of a restaurant is more than just good food and good service although those things are necessary. Some other aspects of great restaurants are: location and parking, word of mouth publicity, cleanliness, consistency, quality control, ambiance, attentiveness to people, a positive attitude from all the staff they aren't just there to get a paycheck, but are concerned about giving the best service and food possible. He also discusses reasons why successful restaurants (and congregations) go downhill.

Can churches learn from the wisdom of the world? Can churches become better houses of God and spreaders of the gospel by studying restaurants or even Wal-Mart? Are things like clean bathrooms important? or adequate parking spaces? or the perceived attitude of the ushers or pastor? or the look and ease of using the bulletin and participating in the service? Such little details are very important to restaurant and other businesses. Shouldn't the church be just as concerned about such little details, too? We can learn from the wisdom of the world. In fact, I think that we must learn from the wisdom of the world.

Would it be that church members used their ingenuity for reaching the world with the gospel as this manager used his to get out of digging or begging.

3. The parable may be an irony. The idea that the master would commend this servant for such unjust behavior is so absurd that no one would believe it. It's a story about a cheater who expects to be commended for his dishonest actions. Understood this way, perhaps Jesus is attacking the Sadducees or Pharisees. The Sadducees cheated a little on the Mosaic Law, so that they might fit in better with the Roman government. Do they expect to be praised by God for doing that? The Pharisees made a big show of giving a little money to the poor. Do they expect to be praised by God for making these token contributions? You can't be a nominal Christian. You can't carry the name "Christian," and commit little wrongs here and there and expect God's praise. You are not to act like this steward.

4. There are suggestions that the steward was acting within his legal rights in reducing the debts as he did. Wealthy landowners would sublet their land to men like this steward. The steward would let out the work to other workers. Sometimes the steward would loan the workers money and charge an exorbitant interest. So, in the parable, the steward is canceling his high interest on the note given to the workers. This becomes a parable against excessive profits. It is the same kind of judgment uttered by Amos in the thematic First Lesson (Amos 8:4-7). People are more important than excessive profits. (I think that this approach assumes too much more than the text tells us. The text is clear that the debts are owed to his "master" [v. 5] not to himself.)

5. The parable can be about the right and wrong use of money. If the steward or the master were charging a high rate of interest, money may have been the most important thing in their lives. Jesus says to make friends with your money -- use it rightly. Use it for human services. The steward gains friends by sharing his profits and helping out the poor debtors. He is our example. Our profits should be used in the service of love -- helping to ease the plight of the poor. Otherwise, they can compete with God for our allegiance.

6. Related to #5, another approach might center on the word for "squander" (diaskorpizo). The same word is used concerning the "prodigal son" (15:13). However, the literal meaning of the word is "to scatter" (see Lu 1:51). It is used of "scattering" seed (Mt 25:24, 26). By extension, the word was applied to money -- the "scattering" of money = "wasting" money or perhaps, "throwing it away." Some have even suggested "failing to make a profit" or "sloppy record keeping." What makes such "scattering" wasteful? I think it's because there is no hope of any return on the "investment" -- like scattering seeds where they won't grow. Perhaps, it is the rich man's greed -- always wanting to increase his wealth that is a fault and the manager's shrewd use of money to make friends revealed another use.

7. I've been reading Green's commentary on Luke this year and he presents another interpretation:

By reducing their loan agreements so generously, the manager has done these debtors a significant favor; because he is still this wealthy man's manager, moreover, his agreements with these debtors are binding. In this way, the manager has entered into his own patronal relationship with his master's debtors, apparently themselves also persons of means. He has become their benefactor and, in return, can expect them to reciprocate by extending to him the hospitality of their homes. The manager has thus taken advantage of his now-short-lived status, using the lag time during which he was to make an accounting of his management (v. 2) and his position to arrange for his future. [p. 592-3]

With this approach, we might ask, "What are we doing to secure our futures?" However, we are to give without expecting anything in return.

Yet, we might wonder if believers and/or congregation do good deeds for others, will they not have a sense of obligation to offer favors in return?

Some further word studies and another approach.

SHREWD (phronimos)

Commentators usually suggest that we shouldn't get caught up in the legality or morality of the servant's actions, but that the point of the parable is tied up in the term "shrewd". It's found in v. 8 twice -- the first is an adverb and the second an adjective -- both are based on the stem phren/phron- which refers to the "psychological faculty of thoughtful planning, often with the implication of being wise or provident" (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains)

The adverb also occurs in Lu 12:42 in reference to the "faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time." The opposite of being "faithful and prudent" in this story is the slave who thinks the master is delayed in coming and begins "to eat and drink and get drunk" (v. 45) -- or, in other words, to be selfish and greedy!

In a similar way, the negation of this word (aphron) is used in earlier in the chapter (12:20) where God calls the rich man a "fool," because he considered his life to be in the abundance of possessions. His thoughts are centered on getting for himself. It's also a term that implies "a person whose practices deny God; indeed, the principle deficiency of the wealthy farmer is his failure to account for God in his plans" [comments on 12:20 by Green, The Gospel of Luke, p. 487]

Phronimos seems to imply thinking or planning ahead -- especially planning ahead for the future. What the manager did was to guarantee his own future. By reducing these large debts, he will gain their favor. Tannehill (Luke) comments: "The manager assumes that the debtors will follow the social rule of balanced reciprocity; the benefit received requires a benefit in return" (p. 246). Johnson (Luke) says the same thing: "What is certain is that the amount the debtors have to pay is less, and they will therefore be forced to reciprocate his 'gift,' and therein lies the "cleverness.'" [p. 244]

Tannehill also notes: "There is humor in the story that should not be missed. The rogue builds his future by doing what he was accused of doing in the first place" (p. 247). He is wasting his master's profits!! He also puts his master in a position of accepting the reduced amounts or losing face with his debtors.

HOSPITALITY

The verb dechomai occurs four times in our text. Twice the NRSV translates it "welcome" (vv. 4, 9) and twice with "take" (vv. 7, 8; although the word usually implies a passive reception of what others have given, e.g., "take/receive" what I am giving you. The use of the same word in these verses leads Green to conclude: "Who will offer the manager hospitality? Those who, as it were, "receive" their amended loan agreements" [p. 591].

I would add that the emotion of receiving the amended bills might indicate the emotion one should have towards receiving other people.

Perhaps to allegorize this text, which doesn't really lead to much allegory: What if we consider Jesus handing us a note with the debt we owe to God and says, "Write 'cancelled' (or 'forgiven')? What obligations might we owe then to Jesus? To phrase it another way, Jesus has forgiven all your sins, what are you going to do now?

DISHONEST (ADIKIA/ADIKOS) WEALTH (MAMONAS) v. 13

The two "masters" or "lords" (kyrios) mentioned in this verse are God and wealth (mamonas). The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament indicates that the Greek mamonas comes from the Aramaic noun mamon, whose derivation is uncertain, "though most likely comes from 'MN = 'that in which one trusts' (J. Bustorf). The original Aramaic of the saying in Luke 16:10f. would thus contain a pun, for [the Aramaic roots of the Greek] pistos, pisteusei, and to alethinon also belong to the stem 'MN." So, in Aramaic, the words for "mammon" (vv. 9, 11, 13); "faithful" (vv. 10, 11, 12); "entrust" (v. 12); and "true" (v. 12) all come from the same root word.

Why didn't they use a Greek word, such as ousia = "property, money, wealth" for the Aramaic? Perhaps because mamon had already picked up a negative connotation. In the Targum, mamon "denotes the dishonest profit which a man makes in a matter or transaction by selfishly exploiting the situation of another." [TDNT]

The word mamonas occurs three times in our text. V. 13 as noted above and in vv. 9 & 11, both times it is described as being "dishonest" (adikia & adikos), thus increasing the negative sense of mamonas.

However, I'm not sure that "dishonest" is the best way of translating adikia/adikos, which occur five times in verses 8-11. These words usually refer to that which is "unjust" or "unrighteous."

The noun occurs twice in the same genitive structures:

The same construction is in Lk 18:6 -- the judge of adikia

However, this "unjust" judge is able to "grant justice" (ekdikeo, v. 5)

Could this suggest that the "unjust" steward could act justly (or "shrewdly") and "unjust" mammon could be used for "just" (or "righteous") causes?

The adjective adikos occurs three times:

It seems possible to "faithfully" (pistoi) use what is unjust (i.e., mammon), which would lead one to be entrusted (pisteuo) with the true ["riches" is implied, but not in the Greek.]

How should adikos be understood here if adikos mammon can be used "faithfully"? If adikos is contrasted with alethinon it could mean "temporary, worldly" wealth in contrast to the "eternal" or "real" riches. This would be similar to the contrast between the "children of this age" and the "children of the light" (v. 8). If it is contrasted with pistos it could mean an untrustworthy source to use for determining one's worth or value.

What makes mammon adikos? Perhaps because it enslaves the greedy. Or because it is transitory and not "the true" riches.

What made the steward adikos? The charge against the steward is that he wasted the owner's property (v. 1). Note that this steward is still called adikos when his boss praises him. This would seem to discount the approaches that suggest that the steward was acting within his legal rights to discount the debts to his master. What he did was unjust. It wasn't the just or right thing to do with his master's money.

MORE ON V. 13

The Greek word translated "despise" is kataphroneo -- a word related to the "shrewd" words mentioned above. Is it possible to love two "lords"? Is it possible to love God and mammon? Does one have to despise one or the other? Can't there be a middle ground -- loving them both like loving two children?

The word translated "serve" in the NRSV is not the usual word for serve (diakoneo), but douleuo, which more literally means, "be enslaved to" or "be controlled by." The same word is used in 15:29 of the older son stating to his father: "For all these years I have been working like a slave for you." One cannot be controlled by God and mammon (perhaps = "dishonest profits" or "greed"). In essence, I think, this verse relates to the first commandment: We can have only one God -- and it shouldn't be wealth.

The Ronsvalles' in Behind the Stained Glass Window, have important comments about the parallel verse:

This increase in affluence becomes significant to the degree that the Bible suggests that money has a spiritual component. For example, in Matthew 6:24 Jesus tells his followers, "You cannot serve both God and Money." French philosopher Jacques Ellul points out that in this text, Jesus personifies mammon "as a sort of god," a force that is competing with God for our souls. Ellul suggests that Jesus' choice of words "reveals something exceptional about money, for Jesus did not usually use deifications and personifications. What Jesus is revealing is that money is a power."

In Matthew 6:21 Jesus also describes another aspect of money, that it is an important indicator of our heart's condition: "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Money is a measure of devotion, the way we spend it indicating something about us -- sort of like a spiritual thermometer -- according to Jesus. In a consumer society, such as the United States, it may be the intentional measurement available. [p. 29]

Johnson (Luke, Sacra Pagina) makes a couple similar statements:

both God and Mammon: The capitalization is required here because the form of the statement as well as the reaction to it in 16:14 demand that "Mammon" be taken as an idolatrous power that can compete with God for human allegiance. [p. 246]

The final saying shows the profound seriousness with which Luke regards this symbolic use of possessions. "Mammon" in 16:13 is personified as an idol, the service of whom is the rejection of God. If giving away possessions in almsgiving secures a place with God, the worship of possessions and a clinging to them as ultimate means separation from God. [p. 248]

On one hand, as the parable indicates, wealth can be used wisely -- to help other people, to gain friendships, to secure one's future; but, on the other hand, it can become one's master a breaking of the first commandment. Hmmm, perhaps "MasterCard" is more prophetic with its name than they intended.

ANOTHER APPROACH

7. Could it be that the steward was such a people-pleasure that he didn't collect what was due the owner? He didn't stand up for what was right (or just) in terms of the legal obligations of those in debt to his master. There were at least three people who still owed the master. Why hadn't he collected the debts earlier? However, when faced with unemployment, he figured he'd better collect some of the debts and show other possible employers that he could do the job. The message for us is our need to stand up for the righteousness and justice that is due our "master". Sometimes it may mean doing some things that we don't always like to do -- like asking others to do the right things even if they don't want to do them -- such as what they may owe God. Perhaps the biggest temptation to adikos is the desire to please or be liked by others -- in a sense, letting others control our lives, rather than standing up for what is dikaios -- what God demands. If we aren't responsible with collecting a little bit of dikaios from the world for God, should we expect to be given the responsibility for collecting a lot of it?

A BRIEF COMMENT ON THE IN-BETWEEN-VERSES (16:14-18)

How do these sayings fit in with what's before and after? Selfishness seems to be the best answer. The selfish will seek to do whatever they want with their money or their sexual relations (marriage) without much thought to other people. They will also tend to ignore or make scriptures serve their own interests, rather than properly using the law.

FINAL QUOTE

Craddock (Luke, Interpretation Commentaries) concludes his comments with:

Verses 10-12 contain sayings all of which are framed on what logicians call an argument a fortiori, that is, an argument from the lesser to the greater. The life of a disciple is one of faithful attention to the frequent and familiar tasks of each day, however small and insignificant they may seem. The one faithful in today's nickels and dimes is the one to be trusted with the big account, but it is easy to be indifferent toward small obligations while quite sincerely believing oneself fully trustworthy in major matters. The realism of these sayings is simply that life consists of a series of seemingly small opportunities. Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with the queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake. More likely the week will present no more than chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county commissioner, teach a Sunday school class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice, and feed the neighbor's cat. [pp. 191-192]

A book I read some years ago on excellent congregations came to the conclusion that the excellent congregations did the little things amazingly well.


Faith Lutheran Church
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e-mail: brian.stoffregen@gmail.com