This Sunday is a 'fun' Sunday for preachers. The gospel is Luke 16:1-13. The parable at the core of the reading, 16:1-8a (or 8b or ...) is (IMHO) extremely challenging. With a view to assisting preachers (including myself) I have penned a few thoughts, actually quite a few thoughts at my Resourcing Preaching and Worship Down Under site, here.
But here we might reflect on the challenges the reading brings to how we understand the gospels, their composition and their relationship to the actual Jesus of everyday experience of his followers, let alone to the elusive 'historical Jesus.'
The parable, let's remind ourselves, is difficult at least because it presents a central character, the steward, who acts in a worldly if not cynical way, in order to secure a future for himself in the face of a personal crisis. From that response to a personal economic crisis some kind of analogy is drawn to the hearers of Jesus and their (now, our) personal spiritual crisis in the face of the proclaimed kingdom. When much of theology has weighed in the balance approaches to that crisis in terms of 'faith' versus 'works', the steward stands out as someone who appears to exemplify neither faith nor works in sorting out his personal dilemma!
All of which lends a certain authenticity to this parable as a story told by 'the actual Jesus', a story Luke receives and, unlike other canonical gospel writers, determines to include rather than avoid in his gospel. Why include such a difficult story unless convicted that this was genuine Jesus' material and thus room in the gospel inn ought to be found for it?
That the story is difficult, even for Luke (if not for Jesus) is underlined by the ending(s) given to the parable in verses 8b-9:
"for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.
And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes."
Each comment connects with the parable, 'shrewd' in the first comment, 'dishonest wealth' and 'homes' in the second comment.
But neither comment connects easily with the norms concerning entry into the kingdom of God. The first comment raises the question whether 'children of light' refers to those in the kingdom, or to Israel outside of the kingdom, as well as the question why shrewdness in dealing with 'their own generation' is a commendable value concerning the kingdom rather than (say) shrewdness in dealing with God. The second comment raises the question why friends made through dishonest wealth could be a key to securing welcome into eternal homes: surely making friends with God would be more useful!
Again, the possibility is that Luke receives these comments as authentic Jesus' material (and thus refrains from editing it) but that raises in turn the question whether Jesus himself (or the developing tradition as the parable was handed on) struggled to make sense of the parable and thus offered two commentaries on its application to kingdom life. Presumably Luke does not edit the comments to (say) emphasise faith, or the winning of God's favour, because he is satisfied that their paradoxical character is evident to his readers. Of course shrewd use of dishonest wealth to gain entry to the eternal kingdom is not being commended. As if! What is commended here is bold decision-making in the face of the crisis of God's judgment.
But to write like this as a reader of Luke 16 is nevertheless to engage in a certain amount of 'rescuing' of Luke through attempting to clarify what is otherwise obscure and puzzling.
That Luke is straining to work through his material in some kind of coherent manner is illustrated through the remaining verses of the passage, vss. 10-13. These verses are linked to the parable by virtue of common interest in wealth. But the link is strained. The parable is not in its main message about faithfulness in the use of wealth, nor about the use of what belongs to another, nor about serving two masters. Thus Luke draws to this parable material placed in other contexts by Matthew. As an aside, we thus see at work Luke's compositional strategy which is often marked by linked ideas, even though the resulting combination has a clumsy feel to its overall composition.
I must close. Back to the parable and its initial commentary, verses 1-9. Here Jesus preaches a shrewd sermon which appears to shatter stereotypes about who is welcomed into the kingdom and how that welcome is brought about.