It is a mistake to isolate Luke 15 from the rest of the pericope of Luke 15:1-17:10. This post is a brief look at the entirety of the passage, taking a birds’ eye view to see the advantage of reading the story in a single reading. By reading all of this passage in context, the meaning of the difficult parable of the Unjust Manager is elucidated.
Luke 15 opens with the setting of a new scene: the Pharisees and the publicans are complaining that Jesus is spending his time with sinners and tax collectors. Even worse: “this man receives sinners and eats with them.” Table fellowship was a core issue of boundary marking in the Jewish community: purity and food laws were in full effect at the table. Jesus seems to be throwing all of that out here! It seems as if the Pharisees have an understandable reason to pick a bone with Jesus today.
He responds by telling four parables in order to justify his ministry with the sinners. First, he tells the story about a shepherd who sought out his sheep alongside a story about a woman who sought out a lost coin. He starts a third, the parable of the prodigal son who ran away and returned. Finally, turning to his disciples, he tells a story about an unjust manager, who is about to be fired and needs to make accommodations for his life after his job ends.
The first two stories are straight forward: something is lost, and someone goes to find them. The second two have more actors involved, and one of them is in sin. I suggest that these may be parallel parables: the sheep/shepherd pairs with the prodigal son while the lost coin pairs with the money squandered by a manager.
The shepherd imagery is a common biblical image used to describe leaders. In the New Testament alone, Peter calls on the shepherds of the church to lead the flock well, and Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, an image repeated at the end of Hebrews about Jesus. The Old Testament uses shepherd to describe David (Ezekiel 34:23) and says another shepherd, related to David, will lead Israel (Ezekiel 37:24). Of course, the shepherd goes to find the missing sheep. That sheep represents a part of his wealth and livelihood.
The parable of the lost coin is easily as understood. The woman loses one tenth of her wealth, which some say is maybe her wedding dowry. She has lost a part of her livelihood and a sign of her marriage. Of course she does everything she can to find it! Both of these stories move in an obvious narrative: something is lost that is very important, so someone takes it upon themselves to find them!
This is why the parable of the prodigal son becomes so shocking: nobody seeks out the brother. Jesus takes simple, straightforward story, with endings everyone could have predicted and asked: why isn’t this happening, then? Why aren’t you seeking the coin and the sheep?
He begins a story with a villainous character. The younger brother demands his share of the inheritance, yet wastes it. He shames his father and his house. In the eyes of the hearers, he should be shunned. He becomes like a Gentile, living among the pigs and eating their food. It’s a shocking scene, made worse that no one has sought him out. The brother decides, on his own imperative, to come home and beg to be made a servant in his father’s house. The father, rather than making the son a servant, runs to meet the son and accepts him back with a festival. The father then turns to the older brother and asks when he will join the party. The older brother, enraged, says that he has always obeyed yet never received a party. We are never told whether or not the brother accepts the invitation to the younger’s party.
The prodigal son parable serves a double function in Luke 15: Jesus both justifies his ministry and calls out the Pharisees for not doing what they are supposed to be doing. The father, in my estimation, is representative of Abraham rather than God. In Luke, the fatherhood of God is discussed in the context of discipleship (Lk 2:49; 6:35-36; 10:21-22; 11:2; 12:32; 22:29; 22:42; 23:34, 46; 24:49) while the fatherhood of Abraham is the central debate in conversations with Pharisees (Lk 1:55, 73; 3:8; 13:16, 28; 16:23-30; 19:9). The Pharisees would have probably have identified the father with Abraham, as we might if we were reading Luke closely. That means, in the story, Abraham is fully willing to let even flagrant sinners back, so the older brother must as well. In this sense, Jesus is acting with continuity with Abraham and welcomes all true Jews back into the kingdom. If Abraham, then, would receive the younger brother back, why are the Pharisees not? If they are not welcoming Abraham’s sons, can they be called Abraham’s sons?
The challenge is reissued in the next parable. A man with an incredible amount of wealth hears that his manager has been squandering that wealth. (Part of the reason I still group this parable with the last is the hook word “squandering” shared between this and the previous parable.) The wealthy man makes it known that the manager is to be fired. The manager is panicked: what will he did without a job? He then settles the debts of many of his clients, bringing money into the manager. This way, he makes friends with both the manager and the poor people whom he is claiming debts from.
Jesus challenges the Pharisees with this parable: this ingenious solution is something that even a Gentile can come up with. When a Gentile knows they are in trouble, they make plans to get the situation resolved. Why don’t the Pharisees? Well, simply, they may not know they are in trouble! But Jesus uses this parable to make a pointed attack: God, their wealthy master, is mad that they are squandering his riches. Will the Pharisees come up to the plate and make friends with the poor in order to enter in the kingdom? Or will they continue to oppress and be left out when the kingdom arrives?
A lot has been made of what the debts included in the parable. What part of the debt was the manager removing? His own cut? Or was he robbing the wealthy master? It may be that the parable does not answer the question, so we must look at the historical context of the passage to find the answer. Rather than letting the poor into God’s kingdom, the Pharisees’ application of the Oral Law is setting up purity laws that can only be cleansed by paying more money (cf. Lev 5:14-6:7). The Pharisees exclude themselves from these burdens (cf. Lk 16:3). Rather than welcoming the poor of Israel into God’s kingdom, the Pharisees are overburdening them and driving them into harsh poverty. This angers God, who now demands an account of their actions. Will the Pharisees lift the burdens they imposed on the poor which they don’t take upon themselves? Or will they continue to impose this fake debt on them? If the Gentiles know how to save themselves, why don’t God’s people? Sadly, it seems like the Pharisees love their money too much to lift the burdens. This is what prompts Jesus to say that they can’t serve God and Mammon: they were imposing a literal monetary debt upon Israel. If they want to serve God, they have to stop illicitly growing their own wealth.
This is the danger of dealing with Jesus antagonistically: he will both vindicate himself and call you out, and challenge your assumptions and force you to change your way of life. When the Pharisees scoff at Jesus’ parables, he digs his heels in and goes harder on their livelihood. He says that the kingdom is coming, and if they were wise, they would force themselves into the kingdom like the manager about to lose his job. Their Oral Law will pass, as will the burden it lays on the poor, and only Torah will remain. Will they find themselves on the right side of the kingdom? He says that for all of their talk of purity (which they profit from), they are practicing adultery. Will this change, since they hold Israel to such high standards? Or will they continue on their merry way?
Jesus then finishes with a stunning warning: the story of the rich man and Lazarus. This parable is used to illustrate what will happen if the unjust managers from the last parable do not change their ways. Isaiah’s grand vision of a Great Reversal is coming: which side will you start on, and which side will you end on? The rich man, draped in purple linen, is dressed as a royal priest (cf. Exodus 39:1ff). He’s on top of earthly society. The poor man is leperous, outside of the camp, with the dogs., on the bottom rung of society. This draws heavily on Leviticus to set the stage for the reversal that is about to come. Eventually, as all men do, both men die. Lazarus is in Abraham’s bosom while the rich man is across a chasm, watching Lazarus enjoy his life with the Jewish believers. (I doubt this story exists to make any real point about the afterlife.) The message is clear: the rich man, enjoying the best status of Israelite society with all of the benefits, will end up on the wrong side of the Reversal if he does not welcome the poor man.
The Pharisees may say that they had no chance to believe in Jesus, when the judgment comes. Jesus says, “you had the Law and Prophets, was that not enough? You even saw me raise Lazarus from the dead, did you not? Yet you did not believe.” There will be no hope past death for the family members who do not heed the words of God already given.
Jesus then warns: the Pharisees will not repent, and they will tempt you to sin even more. Ignore them; do not listen to them, and forgive them when they sin against you. Continue to forgive people who sin against you in any way, as many times as they sin against you. Do not stop forgiving, and find yourself on top when the Reversal has finished. Do not follow God as something to boast about; instead, you are merely a bondservant. In this obedience, you will find yourself on top. Look to Christ’s humility, as a servant in the final festival, rather than to the example of the Pharisees.
This story is a stunning example of Jesus’ vindication and his ability to call the world into judgment. When he is attacked, he gently attacks back, in order that the leaders of the sheep would repent. He asks: if something is lost, would we not seek it out? Why then, if so many are lost, do you, the leaders, not seek them out? Will you make peace with your brothers in time for judgment? Or will you love the world too much to do so?
May we ask ourselves the same question before we find ourselves on the wrong side of the judgment.