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The Parable and the Planet

Lesson: Luke 16:1-13

If you’re sitting there scratching your head after hearing this parable, take heart. Commentators are all over the map in their interpretations, but they agree about one thing: that it’s confusing, and maybe the most difficult of all of Jesus’ parables. Which is saying a lot, because all his parables have an element of strangeness. Jesus uses parables to teach about the Kingdom of God, which is a strange concept. Some parables are strange because we don’t understand the cultural context of words or actions, but even so, this parable takes the cake. I take a bit of consolation in remembering that the disciples rarely understood Jesus’ parables either.

It’s a story of a rich owner and his manager or steward. It’s often referred to as the Parable of the Unjust Steward. The owner discovers that his manager has been dishonest. Fearing he’s going to be fired, the manager decides to do some quick dealing. He goes to a few of the owner’s clients and settles their debts at much lower rates. Collecting about half as much as they owe, the manager figures that the clients will be grateful to him, and treat him well in the future. The owner finds out about this strategy, and this is where it gets strange.

The owner commends the manager for acting “shrewdly” as our pew Bible, the NRSV, puts it; “cleverly” in other translations. What? Commends him? One of the challenges of this parable is figuring out whose side we’re supposed to be on. And another challenge is that it’s followed by four sayings offered as interpretations that sound as though Luke had a handful of random and inscrutable sayings of Jesus and decided to tack them on here. “Just put them here; no one knows what this parable means anyway.”

In order to understand this parable and these attached sayings in the context of Luke’s world, we need a mini-course on the economics of Roman-occupied Galilee in the first century. Rich landlords were like loan-sharks. They charged exorbitant interest rates, and when the peasants couldn’t pay up, they’d lose the family farm. In fact, that was precisely the rich landlord’s plan – to increase and consolidate his holdings.[1] The whole enterprise violated Torah, the biblical law. Both the rich man[2] and his manager were exploiting desperate peasants.

Jesus’ hearers would know that the typical debt contracts hid these exorbitant interest rates from illiterate peasants. Today, we might compare this to high-interest student loans or predatory pay-day loans.[3] Scholars say the hidden interest rates appear to have been about 25 percent for money and 50 percent for goods.[4] The manager was probably extracting his own cut of the profits, as well, and on top of that, Rome would take a share. When he reduced the payments, the manager may simply have forgiven his own cut of the interest. Or he may have been doing what the law of Torah commands by forgiving all the hidden interest in the contracts. He might even have been switching sides; it could be he’s decided to stop working for the wealthy landowner and to start working with the oppressed poor – which would explain why Jesus seems to commend him.[5] If the rich landlord was a Jew rather than a Gentile (the parable doesn’t tell us), he’d know that Torah forbids interest. Maybe the rich man recognizes that he needs at least to appear to be following Torah, and so he commends his manager.

Okay, so that’s one possible explanation for what’s going on here. It still doesn’t tell us whose side we’re supposed to be on or why Jesus is telling his disciples this story. Here are a couple of thoughts: One thing for certain, the rich man is not the good guy here. In Luke and elsewhere, Jesus makes it very clear: No one can serve God and wealth – other translations use the word “Mammon,” a personification of wealth that makes it more obvious that wealth really can take the place of God in people’s lives.

In the Luke’s context, if you were rich, it meant you exploited others to get that way. On the one hand, we might reasonably say that being rich isn’t bad, after all. It’s exploitation that’s bad. We can look at our own economy, and see exploitation in the wide gap between what CEO’s and workers earn,[6] for example, or the fact that when billionaire Jeff Bezos cut health benefits for part-time workers at Whole Foods a couple of weeks ago, the richest man in the world saved the equivalent of what he makes from his vast fortune in just 6 hours.

On the other hand, isn’t it incredibly easy for all of us to ignore the way our economic system exploits people, especially if we’re benefitting from it? It’s easy to enjoy cheap goods, and ignore the actual cost of the manufacturing process on the workers. U.S.-made goods cost more because we have minimum wage laws and laws that protect workers’ health and safety. Places like Bangladesh or Guatemala[7] that don’t have these protections put the costs of industrial accidents or chronic work-related ailments on the worker, instead of passing it on to us, the consumers.

It’s easy to ignore the way that the earnings of plantation owners increased the bottom line of the entire economy of our country, especially the banks. Wealth grew because of slave labor. Inheritances grew; for white people, that is. It’s easy to ignore the way systemic racism worked through the GI Bill and redlining neighborhoods to build the white middle class after World War II, but leaving African Americans behind yet again. This is not ancient history: to this day, African Americans have less wealth to pass on to future generations.