Summary: if you want to know how to handle money, take your lead from this sleaze-bag criminal accountant in Luke 16, for he was smart enough to know the most valuable thing that you...
One of the lads at Fight Club on Tuesday night approached me with a question: "You know that parable Jesus tells about the merchant who found the pearl of great price?”, he asked. “Yeah”, I said. “Well, I want to know who is the merchant in the story supposed to be?”
This is not the standard sort of question I get at fight training and it’s indicative of the fact that we’re getting a new breed of fighters coming through our doors lately - Christian boys, who listen to sermons, even be they bad sermons!
Now, I know it’s not my job to judge other people’s preaching, but this young fighter had heard someone preach to him on this parable in Matthew - a preacher who had tried to explain the parable by demonstrating how each character in the parable corresponded to a particular person in real life, and this approach to interpreting Jesus’ parables is, in my opinion, the wrong approach.
The technical name for this sort of interpretation of the parables is the ‘allegorical’ approach, where we interpret each parable as an allegory. An allegory is a story where each character in the story corresponds to a character in real life. Lots of famous stories (like ‘Pilgrim‘s Progress‘) and even nursery rhymes are allegories.
‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary’ is, I believe, an allegorical nursery rhyme about Mary, Queen of Scots and indeed, if you want to fully understand the rhyme, it will help if you have some idea of the historical figure that the allegory is referring to. Likewise, there may be someone here today who can tell me who ‘Peter, Peter, Pumpkin eater’ really was in real life, but I suspect we may need someone with greater expertise in European history to unlock that secret!
Even so, this is the role any number of preachers see themselves in when it comes to Jesus’ parables - that it is their job to unlock the allegorical keys to the parable, telling us which character refers to who, and so unlocking the hidden message of the story.
Now the reason I mention all this is because people who take the allegorical approach to Jesus’ parables have a hell of a time when it comes to this parable - the ‘Parable of the Shonky Steward’ - because it’s not obvious which Biblical characters the figures in the story could possibly be supposed to represent.
The hero of the story is an accountant who gets caught fiddling the books. The supporting characters are his business clients, whom he systematically dupes. And behind him strands the business owner - the ‘master’ - who somehow uncovers the fact that his manager has been cheating him, but who nonetheless ends up congratulating his crooked employee for being a shamelessly clever bastard in the way he secures a future for himself through further wheeling and dealing with his master‘s assets!
Let’s run through the story one more time, and this time in a little more detail, lest you think I might have sensationalised it in my summary!
The story begins with the discovery that the manager is a crook. The exact nature of his crime is not stated. We are told only that he was ’wasting his master’s assets’ , which. might suggest that he wasn’t so much dishonest as just incompetent, and yet his subsequent actions make it clear that this manager was anything but incompetent!
Nonetheless, the shonky manager is confronted with his crime and he makes no defence, which we can take as an admission of guilt. The master at this point could have presumably then handed him over to the police, but instead he shows himself instead to be a gentle and generous soul, and he just quietly gives the manager his notice.
The shonky manager at this point soliloquises to himself about his options, and taking up honest work or joining the unemployment queue are not two he is willing to consider. Instead, he sees in His master’s generosity a window of opportunity, and so he makes the most of the time he has left in his job. He calls in all his master’s debtors, cuts their debts in half, and so builds up an enormous residue of goodwill towards himself, all at the Masters’ expense of course!
The master, it seems, is left in a bind. When he realises what is going on, he has the option of now belatedly calling in the police and reinstating his creditors’ original debts, but the problem is that he (along with his shonky manager) is already being toasted by everyone in town at the local pub. His generosity is the talk of every home, and indeed they are all wondering how this good-natured director is going to keep his company afloat with such recklessly generous acts, and he is wondering the very same thing himself.