Two more parables in Luke (16:1–8a, 19–31) follow the three in chapter 15. In the light of the interpretive comments on the first parable in 16:8b–9, both parables make a connection between life on earth and life in heaven, and the focus in both is on wealth and how we use it, a prominent theme in Luke that has already been given sustained attention in chapter 12 (summed up in the call to store up treasure in heaven in 12:33–34) and, more indirectly, in chapter 14. The same theme will recur especially in 18:18–30.
Between the two parables is a collection of sayings, with a change of audience (from the disciples to the listening Pharisees) in 16:14. Most of these sayings (16:8b–15) continue to relate to the theme of the responsible use of possessions, but the three sayings in 6:16–18, taking up issues of dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees, are on different subjects.
Historical and Cultural Background
A steward (NIV: “manager”) was an employee given wide-ranging executive responsibility for running his employer’s estate and dealing with his tenant farmers. The debts of oil and wheat represent the agreed rents, in kind, for land leased out by the rich man. The manager unilaterally reduces the rent on the assumption that his employer, having delegated his authority, would not know what amounts had been agreed.
An alternative view is that the employer knew the agreed rents, but by the time he saw the altered contracts, he was unwilling to forfeit the reputation for generosity that had resulted from the reduced rents, wrongly assumed to have been authorized by him.
A different reading assumes a financial rather than an agricultural setting. The rich man (or the manager on his behalf) has loaned out large sums of money at interest, but the loans have been expressed in commodity terms in order to avoid the Jewish prohibition of “usury” (lending money at interest). The manager uses his unsupervised authority to remove the “interest” element from those debts, thus pleasing the debtors but leaving his employer unable to protest because that part of the bill could not be legally defended.
Numerous variations on these basic approaches have also been suggested. The following notes assume the first of these options.
Key Themes of Luke 16:1–18
■ Shrewdness in earthly business affairs should be matched by spiritual wisdom.
■ “Provide … for yourselves … a treasure in heaven that will never fail” (12:33).
■ The service of God must take priority over worldly interests.
■ The kingdom of God is now bringing the law to its fulfillment.
■ Divorce and remarriage is really adultery.
The parable and the sayings that follow it in 16:8–15 contribute several key insights with regard to the relation of worldly possessions to the kingdom of God:
- Despite its association with ungodly living (“the mammon of unrighteousness”), wealth can and should be used in God’s service.
- The way we use our earthly wealth affects our heavenly well-being; compare the call in 12:33–34 to store up “treasure in heaven” by not clinging to earthly possessions.
- To love possessions for their own sake puts us in conflict with God’s call on us: “You cannot be slaves of both God and mammon.”
- The kingdom of God requires a reversal of the normal human scale of values.
The three brief sayings in 16:16–18 raise, but do not develop, important theological issues:
- the radical change, beginning with John, as the Old Testament is fulfilled (and the position of John as the “hinge” between Old and New)
- the balance of continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, especially with regard to the continuing function of the law of Moses
- Jesus’s rejection of divorce, with all the issues this raises for Christian ethics today
Teaching the Text
In view of the brevity of the independent sayings in 16:16–18, it is probably not appropriate to use them as a basis for teaching. If you do, you will need to range more widely than this passage to fill out the far-reaching issues that they raise (see “Theological Insights” above). This is a good passage to turn to when discussing the role of John the Baptist (see, e.g., 7:18–35).
The parable of the manager is a puzzle to many. Is Jesus really approving dishonesty? Why does he introduce and apparently commend such a disreputable character? These questions raise the issue of what parables are intended to achieve: they are not necessarily models for imitation (though of course some are [see 10:37]). So what is it about the manager’s self-interested action that Jesus commends and calls us to emulate? While some may be tempted to skip this unusual parable when teaching through Luke’s Gospel, in fact its strangeness can be a “hook” for gaining the interest of your audience. Read, narrate, or dramatize the parable, then ask, “What was Jesus thinking?! Why would he commend such a dishonest character?” Notice that in his teaching after the parable, Jesus himself draws out various applications:
- Act shrewdly with the resources you have been given (16:8–9). This passage gives an opportunity to discuss our attitude toward and use of possessions. Too often Christians are so concerned with conservative and traditional ways of doing things that they do not use the creative and intellectual gifts God has given them. We should be as innovative and shrewd for the kingdom as our secular counterparts are in the marketplace. Encourage listeners to consider creative ways wealth may be used for heavenly benefit. While it is true that earthly riches can be an enormous impediment to our spiritual life (see 18:24–25), they can also be used greatly for God’s purposes. Discuss what is good, and what is bad, about “mammon” (possessions).
- Get an eternal perspective and plan ahead for the inevitable future (16:9). Life is short and only what has heavenly value will last. Notice that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus follows in 16:19–31. How might that rich man have found “treasure in heaven”?
- Be responsible in the little things and God will use you for greater things (16:10–12). The manager acted shrewdly, opening up greater opportunities. Jesus says the same is true in our Christian lives.
- Serve the only Master who really counts (16:13). In the end, the manager’s loyalty to his earthly master counted for little. Our ultimate loyalty must be to God, who holds in his hands our eternal destiny.
R. T. France, Luke, ed. Mark L. Strauss and John H. Walton