You can read them in Luke 16:1-15 and Luke 18:1-8. They are sometimes called “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager” and “The Parable of the Persistent Widow.” And they are strange teachings from Jesus.
In the first passage, Jesus tells a story about a manager who is being fired by his employer because he was accused of wasting the employer’s possessions. In his final few moments of work, he makes friends among a few clients by reducing the debts they owe his business – some by 20%, some by 50%. This dishonesty is celebrated not just by the employer in the story, but by Jesus himself!
In the second passage, Jesus tells a story of a widow who went to her local judge to beg for justice against her adversary. The judge denied her request, but she kept asking over and over and over again. Finally the judge gave in, not because he changed his mind, but because he wanted to get rid of this nuisance of a woman!
What odd stories. We have a hard time making sense of them. That’s mostly because we like to think of Jesus’s parables as clear analogies, where one character obviously represents God, and another character represents us. For example, think of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) – we like that parable, because God fits cleanly into the role of the father, and we fit cleanly into the role of, well, either of the two sons. That story makes sense to us.
But where are we supposed to identify in these stories of the shrewd manager and the persistent widow? Is God really like the employer who celebrates the manager’s deceitfulness? Is God really like the judge who is dishonest and temperamental? Are we supposed to cheat our employers for our own benefit, or to annoy God with our persistent prayers? It’s like we are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Something just doesn’t fit.
From beginning to end, the gospel of Luke shows an interest in people who are on the margins: the poor, the sick, the outcasts, the foreigners. Luke consistently presents themes of power, control, wealth, and justice, all filtered through the lens of caring for people who are in need. Jesus spends a lot of time with tax collectors, Samaritans, lepers, and other “sinners” in Luke’s gospel. This emphasis on outsiders can lead us to a helpful hermeneutic (a “way of interpreting,” as we discussed during a recent Wednesday night book study). I would call this a “hermeneutic of the marginalized” – meaning that we can read Luke’s gospel with an eye toward how Luke emphasizes people on the margins and, in particular, how followers of Jesus should interact with people on the margins.
Notice that both of these strange parables are spoken directly to Jesus’s disciples (Luke 16:1, 18:1). Notice also that both of these stories are immediately followed by references to people who viewed themselves as better than other people: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus” (Luke 16:14); “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this [next] parable” (Luke 18:9).
Throughout Luke’s gospel, there is a constant distinction between people who follow Jesus and people who reinforce social hierarchies and harm others in order to maintain their own power. Without fail, Jesus always sides with those who are less fortunate.
What is important in these two strange parables is how social norms of power and importance are turned upside down. A manager, who is being fired in disgrace and will soon become totally destitute, still has the ability and agency to provide for himself, by relying on the generosity of others. A widow, whom the world would otherwise ignore, still has the ability and agency to speak up for herself so that her needs can be met. Justice can be reached in these situations – not justice as we typically think of it, but justice as God thinks of it: the lowly and downtrodden being lifted up, even if that means the high and mighty are bothered and brought down a bit.
According to Luke, this is what Jesus is all about. Check out the song of Mary, Jesus’s mother, in Luke 1:46-55. Check out the blessings and woes Jesus declares in Luke 6:20-26. Check out Jesus’s warning against greed in Luke 12:13-21. Check out the story of the repentant criminal who was crucified alongside Jesus in Luke 23:39-43.
So what about the Parable of the Dishonest Manager and the Parable of the Persistent Widow? Perhaps Jesus is saying that the world’s systems of power and wealth are less important than the well-being of those who are disadvantaged or at risk. Perhaps Jesus is telling his disciples that we should identify more closely with people on the margins, rather than seek positions of influence and domination which we often desire.
The way we read scripture, especially the teachings of Jesus, is incredibly important!