Monday, July 30, 2012

The Parable of the Prodigal Steward: Thoughts on Trinity 9

It would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to get theologians to agree on the interpretation of our Lord's words. That is, unless you're asking them about the parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-9). Then they are virtually of mind and one spirit: It is, they say, the single most difficult parable to understand. And then they are back to their wide disagreement.

Kenneth Bailey, in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, has some really great stuff on this parable. If you don't have the book or you learn better by listening, Bailey was interviewed on Issues, Etc about it a while back. What Bailey does is fill in the gaps as to how a Middle Easter ear would have heard the parables, what assumptions are made in the parables that we miss because of the culture gap, etc. It really is ground breaking research on the sayings of Jesus.

Having said that, I want to depart slightly from Bailey's interpretation of this parable. In a nutshell, Bailey says that this parable is about letting everything ride on the character of God. We should place all your bets on God's grace. We should put all our eggs in one basket, and trust that he will It's convincing, and I think he's right to a certain extent. But I don't think Bailey takes it far enough.

Here's why. Bailey's interpretation doesn't make sense of the master's praise or of Jesus' summary statement in Luke 16:8. The master praises the steward for his shrewdness, his prudence, for acting wisely (φρονίμως). And Jesus says, "For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light" (Luke 16:8).

A good steward is shrewd. A good steward is prudent and wise. He manages well. But that was what he was being brought up on charges for not being. He was accused of being wasteful (διασκορπίζων) of his masters possessions, just as the Prodigal Son was wasteful of his inheritance, and the older son is wasteful of his father's generosity while he's at home.

So how is lowering what his master's debtors owe him shrewd? How is that wise and prudent? And why does our Lord praise it?

The shrewdness, the prudence, the wisdom, I contend, is in the motivation for his action: self-interest. This is even the motivation of the Prodigal Son. Neither of them are moved by a pure heart. They see the utter helplessness of their situation, and they want out. They want better. And so they say to themselves: "This is what I will do so that I am welcomed . . . ."  And this is what is left hanging in the balance with the Old Son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Will the Older Son do what is in fact in his best interest? Or will he be stubborn and refuse?

As Lawrence Wells wrote, "The Steward is a man who thinks of the future. This sets him apart form the majority who think only of the present, 'dealing with their own generation.' In his cunning and willingness, the steward is a mirror image, a picture in reverse, of what the Christ is called to be, a person who knows he will face judgment and have a future in eternity." Our Lord puts before us to consider what really is in our best interest.  He says make use of the shrewdness of the sons of this world and capitalize on it. For in so doing, the Prodigal Son was welcomed back into his Father's house, and the Prodigal Steward was praised by and welcomed back into his master's house. So, too, act and do what is in your best interest. Come to the place where Prodigals of all stripes are welcomed back into their Father's and master's home.


  1. The beauty of our economic system is that it links self-interest to what is best for your neighbor. The Steward's wastefulness has brought shame and dishonor to his master. How can a master be of good repute when he is being taken advantage of by his own steward. Thus, the steward must restore honor to his master, he must do what's best for his master, if he wants to do what is best for himself.

  2. Jason--I concur with your interpretation. I think this is exactly right. The reason the "sons of this world are more shrewd" is that when it comes to their worldly pursuits, they are extremely motivated. But the sons of light seem almost uncaring in their approach to their eternal welfare. How many of us recognize the desperate situation our souls are in on account of Sin? How many of us take every possible precaution against suffering eternal damnation?

    I thought of this the other day as I was driving home from Best Buy, practically on cloud 9 after buying a new stereo system for my basement, and then thinking how I get more of a charge from this than I do going to the altar for the Lord's Body and Blood, which I did not have to purchase. Crazy.

  3. These thoughts sound very much in line with Stöckhardt says about this text. It's available to peruse over on Historic Lectionary.

  4. Of course, all of you are wrong. :)

    The first mistake in understanding this parable is ending the parable at verse 9. Yes, I realize the historic reading ends at verse 9. So be smart about it, and finish the parable all the way to verse 13, because Jesus Himself gives the interpretation. I have never understood why so many commentators ignore Jesus' own interpretation of the parable.

    The unrighteous mammon is the "least thing". The true riches is the greater. We strive for the true riches, but in the process covet the least thing instead. How foolish. True, the unrighteous mammon is always tainted by sin, and the sin of covetousness causes many a sinner to act against his own long-term best interests. Witness the scourge of credit card debt. Yet for all that, the children of this world are wise than we ar, and often act with great shrewdness in using money for their long-term benefit, winning friends and influencing people. Witness the large number of rich atheists.

    The love of money is also a snare to Christians, who, coveting after it, make it their god, err from the faith, and thus lose the true riches. In this, they are not even as wise as the children of this world. In seeking to serve their money, they abandon the service of God, that is, that in which God serves them. In seeking earthly wealth, they no longer count the greater wealth dear: the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. So in the end they have neither, though both were given them freely by God, the former as a stewardship (another man's goods), the later as an inheritance (in is your own).

    So what should we then learn? Covet the best gifts, and use the unrighteous mammon for its intended purpose: to serve our neighbor, and thus make friends for the kingdom of heaven. That is its proper stewardship.

    Your true treasure is not in unrighteous mammon, but in the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Even should you fail in all things of this world, and even should you forget the heavenly riches, your true friends, the members of the Holy Christian Church, will administer to you the everlasting gift of the grace of God, through the Word and Sacraments, a gift and riches which cannot fail. And these, to whom you ministered in earthly things, will minister to you the heavenly gifts, and receive you into an eternal habitation.

    Unlike the unrighteous mammon of which you are only a steward, the true riches are given to you as a gift, the righteousness of Christ is your own righteousness. Eternal life, is your own inheritance as children of God.

  5. Thank you, gentlemen, for spending some time meditating and writing on this. It seems to me that the words of Jesus that are the most confusing and counterintuitive are the ones where I'm most likely to learn something important.


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