Wednesday, September 18, 2019
Parable Not Riddle
I love parables, and I especially love difficult parables, but Sunday's parable is really difficult. No matter how you slice it, you end up with someone--whether Jesus or the authority figure in the parable--saying, "Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes." That's not a throw-away line; it's the punchline. It's the conclusion. It's Jesus' own interpretation of his story. Maybe.
This week, as I prepare to preach on Luke 16:1-13, I am trying to resist the urge to approach this story of Jesus as a riddle to be solved and, instead, to trust that it's more like a piece of performance art. Parables are told to make a point. They are stories that use real-world imagery to portray an otherworldly truth and bring that truth back into this world. They convey a strangeness, an unexpected quality of God's reign, which usually requires a narrative twist or a perplexing conclusion to get that point across.
One approach to parables is to dissect them--to explain the guts out of them until there's nothing left but a dismembered pile of words. (Can you tell I don't like this approach?) Using this technique, we analyze a parable and look for allegorical structure or some hidden cultural truth that allows us to say with confidence, "Oh, that's what you mean there, Jesus!" But I trust that most of the people in his crowd went away still scratching their heads. Jesus once told his disciples that he spoke in parable to hide the simple truth from people and that only those who followed him like children would understand.
The approach I prefer is to learn as much as we can about the words and the setting, compare the passage with surrounding text and other related passages, and then ask what kind of impression is Jesus leaving us with. Rather than making sure all the pieces line up and all the loose ends are tied up, I like to leave things messy and allow Jesus the preacher to move us in ways that are deeper than or higher than the words he spoke.
This week, here are some words that are of interest to me. They're helping me understand the setting and context a little better. They won't "solve" the difficult parable, but they will help me know a little bit more of what Jesus had in mind.
Squandering - "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property." What does squandering mean? The Greek word is διασκορπίζων. It literally means scattering. The steward's job was to manage the owner's resources, but he was scattering, throwing about, disseminating recklessly, wasting them. Lingering question: what's the relationship between the wasteful scattering of these resources and the shrewdness for which the owner later commends the dishonest manager?
Dishonest - "And his master commended the dishonest manager" and "make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth." What sort of dishonesty is this? The Greek word is ἀδικίας. Whether the noun or the adjective, the word literally means unjust or injustice. It is unrighteousness. This isn't merely a dishonesty that means deception. It means something that is contra-justice. Lingering question: does this word mean that Jesus implies do something dishonest or does it merely imply the absence of justice?
Shrewdly - "And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly." The Greek word is φρονίμως. It means wisely, prudently, shrewdly, and its root implies a sense that comes from one's own visceral opinion. This means that the owner commended the unrighteous manager for respecting his own opinion and insight. Lingering question: does that mean that the manager had not been paying attention to that insight earlier?
Wealth - "make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth" and "If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth." The Greek word, which is familiar to us, is μαμωνᾶ, from which we get mammon. That's a trigger word. Jesus, therefore, is telling his disciples to make friends for themselves by means of unrighteous mammon, and he is telling them that, if they cannot be faithful with the unrighteous mammon, they cannot be trusted with true [riches]. Notice that the word "riches" is implied but not actually contained in the text. It is, therefore, truth that Jesus is commending to them. Lingering question: does the use of the inflammatory "mammon" help us understand what Jesus is really commending--unrighteous wealth as a means to a righteous end?