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Oh, No! Is It Really Time for “The Parable of the Dishonest Servant?”


by Phyllis Tickle

Gospel Reading: Luke 16:1-13

For Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013: Year C—Lectionary 25

This one is variously titled as The Parable of the Dishonest Servant, or of the Unjust Steward, or of the Crafty Manager etc., etc. But always, universally, it is referred to as “the most difficult parable of them all.”

Why such a variance of titles and why, at the same time, such a consistency of homiletic dread?

Those Questions Beg Another Set of Questions:

First, what would happen if we took this one out of its biblical context and just labeled it, “Heard on the Street”?

And what if we took away the “Parable” part of the title and substituted “a tale” or “a story”?

And if then we removed our pejorative [and they are ours,btw] adjectives and made our anti-hero simply a manager of unrighteousness?

Why, then, our tale might take on some different insights. It might even give us a chuckle or two.

Can We Be Honest Here Just This Once?

Who among us has not been snockered by some elaborate packaging, only to get home from the store and have to laugh at ourselves about how easily we were deceived…laughed, truth told, with a modicum of admiration, even, for the packaging genius that did the snockering.

Who of us has not read of the downfall of some politician or prominent leader and then, shaking our heads, said, “S/He was just too good for that kind of dirty game!” Or, s/he was just too innocent to survive in those waters.” It may be grudging, but it is still admiration for the system. It is also still a clear recognition on our part that to play in the world without knowing the world’s rules is a detriment not only to the good one is trying to accomplish, but also to the world itself.

And beyond that…

…whoever said that the rich man of our tale is a stand-in for God? Why can’t our powerbroker be just what he is: a rich man? …a character in a story that, basically, is a wisdom tale.

Where along through the centuries did we come up with the notion, now firmly fixed in millions of Christian heads, that, since God and the rich man were the same in our minds, we have to go through linguistic contortions to justify or excuse God for some kind of moral failing that may or may not be patent in the wealthy man’s reactions ? And why can’t the clever steward be just what his lord says he is: clever, crafty, shrewd? None of those adjective is, in and of itself, a moral assessment or a holy judgment. Rather. any one of them is only a descriptor of an effective modus operandi.

And why is it that, given all our homiletic dread of this street tale, we never talk about some other tales, also heard on the street, but from the same tale-teller?

This matters, because the fellow was pretty consistent in his telling. Remember the one just before this [Luke 12:42) about the manager whom his master put in charge of the slaves because he was a shrewd and watchful manager? Same thing, right? Or how about the delightful instruction to us to be “wise as serpents?” That’s a show-stopper, if ever there were one.

SO where’s the problem here?

Certainly it is not in the last four verses [16:10-13] of good, old-fashioned, solid-as-a-rock, homey platitudes. They’re the stuff that millions of uninspired sermons can be…and have been… made of. No, the hardest question is that second half of verse 9. . We are to use dishonest wealth to make friends so that, in good time, those friends will welcome us into “the eternal tents,” whatever and wherever they are.

The Hardest Question?

The hardest question simply is: What is He telling us?…for now ours is no longer a street tale and its raconteur no longer some clever spinner of yarns. Now this is real, and now this is God.

Photo by Teresa Hooper Phyllis Tickle is an author and lecturer in the field of religion. Her most recent books are The Great Emergence-How Christianity Is Changing and Why (Baker Books), The Words of Jesus – A Gospel of the Sayings of Our Lord (Jossey-Bass), Emergence Christianity – What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters (Baker Books) and the forthcoming The Age of the Spirit – How the Ghost of An Ancient Controversy Is Changing the Church(Baker Books) with Jon Sweeney. Phyllis recently joined a fascinating cast of characters to bring sparkhouse’s Animate:Bible into being, and for that we are truly thankful. Photo by Theresa Hooper.



  1. Peter Ceren says:

    I have a dstinct childhood memory of reading that tale and getting the creeps. Certainly I thought, this is not part of MY faith. It felt too much like the stories in the Old Testament of lies and trickery used to get the blessing – the birthright due another. It sounded just too much like what God honored was mendacity for hope of gain and status. And here in the New Testament Jesus appears to be saying the same. So this is one of those parts I filed in the “I’ll deal with this later” box. But that box was getting pretty full. Thanks for bringing this back to mind again in your wonderful annoying way.

  2. Sue Thaine says:

    I wonder what hearing this parable in light of Luke 7: 41-43, Matthew 18: 23-35 or Matthew 6:12 might unveil. I agree that the Rich Man is not representing God in this story but am not sure what to make of vs. 9. I don’t want to say that the end justifies the means and a surface reading of that verse might take one there. And I do think there is value in the contrast of Matt. 18 and the demand for full payment of all folks might owe someone and the servant who uses the time and position they still have to lessen the debt and thus the money going into the pocket of the already rich Lord. However, the later choice is self-centered in focus (revenge on the Master who will get much less than anticipated and security for the servant) and the benefit to the debtors is the tool used to pry forth such goals. Certainly this is a difficult word…

  3. I suppose the reading of God as the rich man in this story may be off, but at the same time, if you do insert Him as that character you get some potentially beautiful images of God’s heart.

    Perhaps the servant behaved the way he did because he knew how good and generous the master was? I think God is always looking for servants with a tenacity like this. We see this in Abel, Noah, Abraham, Jacob (especially!), Joseph, Jochebed, Moses, Rahab, Ruth, and the list goes on…

  4. Drew Downs says:

    I sense that the challenge of this parable is that it contains an extra layer–not the one-to-one ratio of an allegory, or the abundance of voices and potentialities of a normal parable, but a layer of really descriptive narrative that eventually gets us to the last verse. As in, here is what it looks like to deal with wealth. There are these two guys that are obsessed with it…

    What if verse 9 is not Jesus, but the master? For it is the very next verse which seems to say that a little deception is the same as a lot–and the building of relationship on deception is symptomatic of slavery to wealth, rather than GOD. It seems as if we are to read this as a what-not-to-do, or perhaps better a what-you-might-be-tempted-to-do story.

  5. SK says:

    Think of this as a Robin Hood story. If you can set aside your belief in capitalism (or feudalism), there’s nothing perplexing about it. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear!

How do you read?