The Shrewd Servant
Welcome to one of the most difficult to understand parables that Jesus gives us. Is Jesus commending a servant for abusing his position and taking financial advantage of his master? I don’t think so. It appears that the master is already carrying out some underhanded business practices. Under the law, Jews were not to charge interest on loans, but often got around this by lending in kind, collecting extra commodities (oil and wheat) instead of interest. If that is the case here then it’s possible the servant was reducing the debts to the original amount owed (the principle), so that the master couldn’t complain to anybody about the reduced amounts.
Even then, if the parable is about money then it’s still confusing at best. Certainly we can assume that Jesus isn’t commending even somewhat shady financial principles or teaching about handling money. Instead, we should always assume that when Jesus tells us a parable that includes a master and a servant that the master is God and the servant is Israel. In this case, Israel has been a poor steward of all that God has entrusted to her and is about to be cast out. The advice is to those listening, that they can either tighten their grip on control and rules and the law, or they can recognize the need for change in the last minute and take a chance by showing kindness to anybody who will accept it. To aggressively pursue relationship over strict obedience to procedure is a virtue.
After that parable are teachings about not serving money and divorce. Much (and I mean much) can be said regarding these things, especially divorce, but in this context I simply want to say that God’s people were to be faithful. Faithful in their business and financial dealings. Faithful to God. Faithful in marriage.
Rich Man and Lazarus
We all know a Lazarus. He’s the guy with the cardboard sign. The lady with the backpack. It’s the orphan with the stomach bloated by hunger. In our world we come across Lazarus so often that we can become blind to him. We make excuses for our behavior and place the responsibility on their behavior. We say we aren’t rich, but Lazarus would trade lives with us any day.
The story that Jesus tells here is a common one, even in Jesus’ time. It wasn’t unusual to think that fortunes might be reversed in a future life. What was unusual in Jesus’ story is that the rich man wasn’t allowed to go back and warn others. Then, he wasn’t even allowed to send Lazarus back to warn his loved ones. In this story, the rich man is like the older brother in chapter 15, who would like to keep the poor and the sinners outside, unseen, ignored. But Jesus is inviting them in. Jesus takes the standard idea that the poor and broken will be blessed in the distant future and brings that time into the present and makes it the responsibility of all of those who would be his followers.
The rich man and the older brother (Lk 15) wanted to keep the poor and sinful out of sight, out of mind. The shrewd servant threw caution to the wind in order to use land and money however he could to build relationships. The Pharisees needed to let go of their preconceived ideas of money and self-righteousness and open their arms to people who had neither of those and that they should do it now, not at some distant point in the future.
The chapter ends with a powerful note of foreshadowing, “If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets then they won’t listen to somebody who rose from the dead.” Oh how true that would prove to be.