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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

The Parable of the Prodigal Steward: Thoughts on Trinity 9

It would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to get theologians to agree on the interpretation of our Lord's words. That is, unless you're asking them about the parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-9). Then they are virtually of mind and one spirit: It is, they say, the single most difficult parable to understand. And then they are back to their wide disagreement.

Kenneth Bailey, in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, has some really great stuff on this parable. If you don't have the book or you learn better by listening, Bailey was interviewed on Issues, Etc about it a while back. What Bailey does is fill in the gaps as to how a Middle Easter ear would have heard the parables, what assumptions are made in the parables that we miss because of the culture gap, etc. It really is ground breaking research on the sayings of Jesus.

Having said that, I want to depart slightly from Bailey's interpretation of this parable. In a nutshell, Bailey says that this parable is about letting everything ride on the character of God. We should place all your bets on God's grace. We should put all our eggs in one basket, and trust that he will It's convincing, and I think he's right to a certain extent. But I don't think Bailey takes it far enough.

Here's why. Bailey's interpretation doesn't make sense of the master's praise or of Jesus' summary statement in Luke 16:8. The master praises the steward for his shrewdness, his prudence, for acting wisely (φρονίμως). And Jesus says, "For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light" (Luke 16:8).

A good steward is shrewd. A good steward is prudent and wise. He manages well. But that was what he was being brought up on charges for not being. He was accused of being wasteful (διασκορπίζων) of his masters possessions, just as the Prodigal Son was wasteful of his inheritance, and the older son is wasteful of his father's generosity while he's at home.

So how is lowering what his master's debtors owe him shrewd? How is that wise and prudent? And why does our Lord praise it?

The shrewdness, the prudence, the wisdom, I contend, is in the motivation for his action: self-interest. This is even the motivation of the Prodigal Son. Neither of them are moved by a pure heart. They see the utter helplessness of their situation, and they want out. They want better. And so they say to themselves: "This is what I will do so that I am welcomed . . . ."  And this is what is left hanging in the balance with the Old Son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Will the Older Son do what is in fact in his best interest? Or will he be stubborn and refuse?

As Lawrence Wells wrote, "The Steward is a man who thinks of the future. This sets him apart form the majority who think only of the present, 'dealing with their own generation.' In his cunning and willingness, the steward is a mirror image, a picture in reverse, of what the Christ is called to be, a person who knows he will face judgment and have a future in eternity." Our Lord puts before us to consider what really is in our best interest.  He says make use of the shrewdness of the sons of this world and capitalize on it. For in so doing, the Prodigal Son was welcomed back into his Father's house, and the Prodigal Steward was praised by and welcomed back into his master's house. So, too, act and do what is in your best interest. Come to the place where Prodigals of all stripes are welcomed back into their Father's and master's home.