Jesus' Hardest Parable

After six weeks of exploring perhaps the best-known parable Jesus told, we come now to his hardest parable—the Parable of the Unjust Steward, found in Luke 16:1-13. I was planning to skip this parable and go straight to the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.  But over lunch someone (OK, it was Richard) asked if I would be tackling the Parable of the Unjust Steward.  It’s a difficult parable.  The church has struggled with it for ages.  And for good reason. A man acts unrighteously, he defrauds his boss, and yet he appears to be praised by his boss and held up by Jesus as an example for his disciples to follow. 

This parable shares the same context as the well-known Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. In this parable, tax collectors and sinners are drawing near to Jesus, and he is receiving them. The Pharisees are put off by this, so they gripe and grumble.   In response to their muttering, Jesus tells three parables about the joy of lost things being found, the last of which ends with a twist, leaving a challenge hanging for the Pharisees. Will the older brother join the celebration, or not? With that question hanging uncomfortably in the air, Jesus turns to his disciples and tells the
Parable of the Unjust Steward.

Here’s the gist of the story.  A rich guy has a manager. One day he gets a bad report about this manager. He calls him to account. The manager knows the gig is up. He’s guilty and he knows it. But he’s shrewd enough to figure a way out of his mess. He’s figured out a way to make it past his termination, which could be any time now. He’ll give the master’s creditors huge discounts to win their favor.  Sure, he will be defrauding his master.  But he will be garnering goodwill for himself.  The parable ends with this strange comment that the master praised the dishonest servant because he had acted shrewdly. What’s more, Jesus uses him as an example for his disciples!

This is hard for us to accept.  Jesus using a dishonest person as an example for what we should do just doesn’t resonate with us.  It seems totally out of character for Jesus to use a dishonest person as an example of someone who did something worthy of praise.  Again, this is hard for us to accept.  But was it hard for Jesus’ audience to
accept?  By the way, who was Jesus’ audience?  His disciples.  That’s who he was speaking to.  But the Pharisees were there, too.  In this parable, Jesus is saying something that every disciple should believe and put into practice—invest your money in the Kingdom of God.  Use your money to win friends for yourself in the life to come. 

The disciples got that.  So, they invested everything they had.  But the Pharisees scoffed at the idea.  Because they couldn’t imagine a treasure greater than the money they could get their hands on now.