Links between passages are important; they help hold otherwise apparently disconnected episodes in thematic groupings. The opening parable in today’s Gospel, (Luke 16:1-13), is linked both to the main parable in last Sunday’s Gospel reading, (Luke 15:1-32), and to next Sunday’s, (16:19-31). The first link is lost if the shorter form of the Gospel was read last Sunday; where our Jerusalem Bible translation says that last Sunday’s prodigal son “squandered” his property and that today’s steward was denounced for “being wasteful” with his master’s possessions, the Greek uses a single verb that may translate also as “disperse” or “scatter”, always indicating something disruptive, never liberal giving. The link to next Sunday’s parable is also lost if today’s shorter form, (16:10-13), is read, for both parables begin “There was a rich man…”.
Today’s shorter form of the Gospel also omits one of the cues for next Sunday’s parable, “use money, tainted as it is, to win you friends, and thus make sure that when it fails you, they will welcome you into the tents of eternity”, (16:9). This translation is problematic for apparently suggesting money is in itself a negative thing. A literal rendering reads “the mammon, (or treasure), of unrighteousness”, but perhaps “ill-gotten gains” would be more familiar to us. The equivalent expression is found in Proverbs 10:2, and its opposite, (treasures of righteousness), in Isaiah 33:6.
Very few people would accept that all wealth or possessions are falsely gained, or agree that “Property is theft”, but perhaps the Gospel is pointing to a critique of the social and economic system that results in a widening disparity as some grow wealthier and many more become poorer. This does not mean that the wealthy are bad people, but that the system itself promotes disparity. The same concerns surface on Sunday 28B, (Mark 10:17-30), and were fore-echoed by the Lord’s announcing of his mission at the beginning of his public ministry, (Luke 4:18-19 – omitted from our Lectionary), which contains a reference to the Jubilee, the year for resetting land ownership and remitting debts.
The wasteful steward in today’s parable recognises that his position was at risk, and amends affairs to set up a friendly reception elsewhere, a move that won the approval of his master for its astuteness. Modern readers find this perplexing and could ask why the others who had their debts reduced would trust him with their own property should they employ him. Some suggestions are that it was normal for servants to add their own commission; it was how they were paid, and so this steward would be seen as reducing his own cut, thus as being thrifty, not as grafting.
Many parables in Luke’s Gospel have complex overlapping themes, and while some are more prominent, those of these three Sundays, (that is, last Sunday, today, and next Sunday), all feature the use of possessions, but each with a different orientation; last Sunday’s prodigal son consumed his goods self-indulgently, today’s steward used his master’s wastefully, and next Sunday’s rich man uses his selfishly – at which time the figure of Abraham is used, the wealthy man who used his possessions generously. Altogether they refer to a quality needed for disciples of Jesus, even if they do not always teach about it directly: the disciples of Jesus are not to be attached to possessions and need to be willing to use them for the good of others and according to the vision of the kingdom of heaven.
Rev Dr Barry Craig – Homily Help Liturgia