Parables and Riddles
Robert Farrar Capon made the excellent point that the parables of Jesus need to be understood as riddles—riddles that, when solved or unlocked, illustrate elements of the radical and sometimes outrageous nature of God’s grace. The challenge is to bring to the parable the right stuff—a pre-understanding about grace—which alone will unlock the parable’s riddle and help us to understand the grace of Christ even more clearly than before. This is easier to do with some parables than with others.
For instance, it does not take much to see the magnitude of grace illustrated by the canceled debt in the parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt 18:21-35). Of those more difficult however, the parable of the Unjust Steward is perhaps the most perplexing (Luke 16:1-9). How do you find grace in a master’s commendation of a steward who swindles him for personal gain? At face value, the steward is certainly a most despicable person. The big conundrum of this riddle is to discover what this lout and his dirty dealings have to do with Jesus and the grace of God. While at first blush it may seem weird that Jesus would imply that shady business dealings have something to do with our spiritual health, we must remember that the whole point of His parables is to illustrate how radical, outrageous, and offensive to some is the grace by which we are saved through Christ Jesus.
The parable begins with a report to a master that his steward has mismanaged his money. Being summarily fired, the steward uses his brains. He calls in his master’s debtors and reduces their debts one by one. The unjust steward managed the owner’s assets in a way that patently was neither just nor fair. And as noted, he had been doing this all along. His entire business dealings with the master’s assets were unscrupulous. But, despite his unsavory actions, the steward is commended by his master. Go think…
Is there any way to see in this guy a likeness of Jesus? Perhaps. Was Jesus not also seen as a man of questionable character? Note how unsavory Jesus was seen throughout His public ministry. He healed on the Sabbath, He fraternized and ate with sinners, He thought it was just fine that His disciples ate with dirty hands, and He tossed out the monetary exchange entrepreneurs who were providing a needed service in the temple. In the end, He was pronounced a criminal sentenced to die with other criminals. If the measure of doing everything by the book is the mark of respectability, both the steward in our parable and Jesus have much in common. Both sought to advance their cause by doing things that went against accepted decency and common respectable standards.
The moral of the story comes with Jesus’ evaluation that the children of this world are shrewder in their generation than the children of light (Luke 16:8). How does this observation get us anywhere in understanding of grace of Christ? How about this connection? The children of this world are convinced that if they end up getting what is coming to them, they lose.
What about you? If the final outcome of your life is ultimately tied to receiving your just deserts for what you have done and left undone—would you be confident of a favorable outcome? While it is true that life goes better in this world if you follow the rules; do you think you can you count on your performance to get you where you want to end up? The unjust steward didn’t think so and his master agreed with him.
The cross presents us a radically different standard. In God’s justice executed in the cross of Christ, nobody gets what they deserve.
I would like to suggest that this point in the parable is the same for us. If you play by the rules of fairness, will they serve you in the end to get you where you want to be? Will living according to the standards of worldly virtue, or even God’s divine precepts, get you to heavenly habitations? Will our Father in Heaven find your accounts in sufficient order to give you the Kingdom because He thinks your stewardship has been up to snuff? Not! This parable encourages you to start thinking like the Unjust Steward. At the same time, it invites you to see in him a Christ-figure who will, with great unfairness, put your accounts in such an order that you can get what you do not deserve—a happy, secure forever.
This parable is indeed outrageous. It connects unsavory business dealings with the work that Jesus accomplishes for our salvation. The world of finance and proper methods of accounting, however, are not what this parable is about. Fairness in the accounting of debits and credits is not the standard for favorable outcomes in the Kingdom of God. The cross presents us a radically different standard. In God’s justice executed in the cross of Christ, nobody gets what they deserve.
Like with the actions of the Unjust Steward, getting what you do not deserve reigns in the cross. Jesus is innocent, but He is punished. And when we join Him on the cross through baptism, we get what we do not deserve as well. We are guilty as hell, but we are spared our just deserts and receive commendation by our Heavenly Master. But unlike the parable, our debts are not simply reduced, they are canceled completely. And this means that we recognize something that the Unjust Steward recognized: A good outcome for our future cannot be secured by fair and scrupulous living. Gaining eternal dwellings requires being dealt with by the outrageous unfairness of the grace of Christ.
Seen in this way, Jesus is also the Unjust Steward who has been a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles (1 Cor 1:23). He is the weird wisdom of God by which grace, not fairness, will secure a place for you in the Mansions of the Lord. So, when it comes to settling your dealings with your Heavenly Father—go see the Unjust Steward. He won’t just cut you a deal, He will cancel your account entirely! Oh, the unfairness of it all!