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That puzzling parable and the poor

Columns

Kieran Fenn FMS
2010 

Kieran210508.jpg The gospel for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Luke 16:1-13) features the parable of the rascally steward with a series of attached sayings that Luke thought had some connection because of their association with mammon (wealth). Jesus expresses admiration for the shrewdness if not the morality of the rich man’s steward. The guy was caught fiddling the books but finds a place for himself among his master’s debtors by still more astute fiddling.

At the mathematical level the parable features 100 measures (about 800 litres) of oil, the yield of 146 olive trees. 100 measures of wheat, about 120 quarters, is the yield of 40 hectares. The oil has a value of 1,000 denarii and the wheat of 2,500 denarii. Each debtor’s remission amounts to 10 years’ wages for a labourer. The rascally steward has feathered his nest for 20 years. The parable is addressed to disciples, but Luke’s setting is probably not that of the original story which advises to the ‘unconverted’, the hesitant, the waverers, and the crowd, to take resolute action in a crisis.
Luke tells the parable as Jesus recommending to his followers that they show similar enterprise in their response to crisis.
‘The master (Gk kyrios) commended the steward’ refers to Jesus the Lord and ends the parable. It hardly seems that the master of the steward, now badly out of pocket, would be doing the commending!

Applications
The second moral of the story addresses more directly the use of possessions by disciples: ‘make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon (wealth), so that when it fails they may receive you into eternal habitations’ (16:9). In the pattern of the story this would mean that disciples are to use money in such a way that it will secure them a reward from God; as the steward found a place, in effect, by distributing goods among the creditors, so they will find a place in heaven by the distribution of alms. ‘Be as wise as the manager, but let your wise care be for eternity’.

The next sayings are notoriously obscure (16:10-13). In each case a lesser activity or reality is contrasted with a greater one. The clearest point seems to be that the followers of Jesus are expected to use their possessions in a creative way (cf 19:11-27). They are to give alms to the poor and this will secure them a place in heaven. The rich ruler in 18:22 was told to have treasure in heaven by selling all that he had and giving it to the poor, but there is no hint of that here. In verse 13, Luke’s own interpretation, we have the only condemnation of a person in this gospel of great forgiveness (even Judas is not allowed the final betrayal of kissing Jesus, but ‘drew near as if to kiss him’). Those who make the mammon their god are beyond hope.

In 12:33, after a long series of passages dealing with possessions, Jesus tells those who had already become his disciples, ‘sell your possessions and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with the treasure in heaven that does not fail…’ The treasure in heaven motif is put before those who are already disciples and had presumably left all to follow Jesus so, to be able to give alms, there had to have been no requirement to sell all they had.

The Mite-y widow
In an extended attack on the Pharisees and lawyers (11:37-52) Jesus tells them to ‘give alms for those things which are within and behold, everything is clean for you’ (11:41). Almsgiving is contrasted positively with the obsessive concern with the ritual purity of which Jesus accuses his opponents. Almsgiving appears again in the story of the widow’s offering in 21:1-4. The Lukan Jesus is observing the giving of money into the ‘chamber of secrets’ in the temple, a forerunner of the poor fund in Jewish-organised charity from which the poor might secretly draw what they needed. The woman who put in the small coins was actually practising almsgiving. She is said to have given more than all the rich, for they gave out of abundance, but she out of her subsistence (21:4). There is no condemnation of the rich but the generosity of the woman is heightened in contrast to theirs. It might also be noted that the woman is never said to be a follower of Jesus; rather Jesus followed in her steps, giving his all for a greater cause than a temple that would be destroyed within 40 years.

Acts and almsgiving
The practice of almsgiving is found also in Acts, but the contrast between rich and poor, so strong in the gospel, is entirely lacking. Tabitha, ‘full of good works and acts of charity’ (ie almsgiving), and Cornelius, who feared God and gave alms liberally to the people, are the successors of gospel characters like the women of Luke 8:1-3, who provided for the apostles out of their means. There is no question of selling everything to follow Jesus; instead of giving away all their possessions, they use them to support the ministry of Jesus and the Twelve.

Conclusion
The rich tax collector, Zacchaeus, gives half his considerable wealth to the poor and repays fourfold any he has cheated. We are not told of his giving up his profession, leaving all to follow Jesus or ceasing to be a rich man. He too is a son of Abraham and, like Martha and Mary, provides hospitality to the Messiah. While the rich young man was called to give up his wealth, his source of power, to follow Jesus and free himself of his own personal obstacle to Christianity, other figures express hospitality and, by contrast, show up the false hospitality of the Pharisees. Side by side with the call to total renunciation of possessions, we find the ideal of almsgiving and hospitality. All three have a part in our own stewardship responsibility for what God has given us.

References: Hendrickx, Third Gospel for the Third World 3B.
Johnson, Sharing Possessions OTBT.