Reading Luke 16.1-9
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
One of the great contributions of the Jewish people to religious faith has been their humour. Put yourself side by side with God, and the comparison is so unequal that the only way to bear it is either to grovel before God (which is unhealthy) or to laugh at the sheer ludicrousness of it. This is often the wholesome approach of Jewish faith, and when I look at some of the stories and sayings attributed to Jesus the Jew, I think there is more of this divine comedy in them than the solemnity of a service like this can easily reveal.
Take the parable of the unjust steward, in which a corrupt manager is under suspicion, redoubles his corrupt efforts (to give himself a soft landing after he is sacked) and is then commended by his boss for being so canny in his corruption.
It could easily supply material for an episode of The Office, so why did the sober Archbishop Cranmer include this passage among only fifty-seven Sunday gospel readings in his Book of Common Prayer, when he had to leave so much other good stuff out, like the story of the prodigal son?
Perhaps he knew just what the story was about, but no-one else seems to. Writing in 1910, the New Testament scholar Alfred Plummer described the literature on this parable as ‘voluminous and unrepaying’. You see the problem: the story is outrageous, immoral. ‘How can this lead us closer to God?’ people ask, and wrestle with it to see how it might.
Here, for instance, are two quite different readings of this story. Who is to say which is closer to what was in Jesus’ mind when he told this story, or even that he wouldn’t be happy with both? Cannot classic stories be read in various ways?
If you have followed the attack of Cranmer’s successor as Archbishop of Canterbury on payday loan companies, you’ll understand why we can call the first one the Welby Wonga reading.
On this interpretation, the boss is a loan shark. He gets round the law against charging interest by doing the deal in kind instead of in cash. Oil and wheat, both very resaleable, are perfect for this purpose. (It was a common scam in Jesus’ day.) The steward, realising he’s on his way out, ingratiates himself with his boss’ clients by lopping off the illegal (and very high) interest. His boss wryly compliments him, knowing he can’t take him to law without blowing the whole racket.
The message to the Israel of Jesus’ day? These are times of crisis, so don’t be fastidious: make friends, where you can, how you can, while you can. And where might Jesus offer similar advice to us, today? You be the judges.
Second, what we can call the tongue-in-cheek reading.
Is the master being ironic in his compliment to the manager he has just caught frantically cooking the books – ‘Well, you are a wise man, aren’t you?’ – and is Jesus doing the same when he says, ‘Make friends of the mammon of unrighteousness’? Yes, play the system, fiddle your expenses, be ‘worldly wise’, and hope that will make you secure in the end. Perhaps it will. Perhaps you will be the first person in history to eat your ethical cake and still have it afterwards. Perhaps. Good luck with that.
One little string of sentences, but which story do you hear? A call to be bold in a crisis? Or a gently mocking mirror held up to our own dishonesties and evasions, and the question, ‘Is there really a future in this?’
One little string of sentences, which each of us will hear in our way. I guess if we each let God find us through the story, we shall know which story we need to hear.
For the ‘Welby Wonga’ reading see Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone, SPCK 2001.
For the Archbishop’s critique of payday loan companies, see eg http://www.channel4.com/news/wonga-pay-day-loans-archbishop-of-canterbury-church-england
For the irony reading, see Stanley Porter, ”Irony is the Key’ in The Bible in Three Dimensions, Editors David Clines, Stephen Fowl and Stanley Porter, JSOT Press, 1990. https://www.google.co.uk/search?tbo=p&tbm=bks&q=isbn:0567540375