Most scholars agree that the parables are the most authentic and original words of Jesus found in our sacred scriptures. Parables not only brilliantly elucidate WHAT Jesus taught, but also HOW He taught. The parable in and of itself is a method of teaching. We can even say it is THE method of the teaching of Jesus.
A parable is a unique style of instructive literature; it is a story with a “mystery.” Jesus used this method of parable not because he wanted to hide or conceal something from us but rather because the mystery of God and God’s Kingdom is simply too vast, too deep, too beyond our imagination to be captured by mere words. The only religious language that can help us is metaphorical in nature (Rohr). Though God can be found in all things, God cannot be contained or understood exhaustively. Just as the moon cannot be brought down to earth for us to examine close up and to “know” or “learn about” in that way, so too God. A parable is like pointing to the moon, but is not the moon itself. (Cavalletti)
In this way, a parable insists on a certain level of epistemological humility from us. Parables quite naturally immunize against a literal or fundamentalist interpretation of scripture; they do not enclose or restrict or give the impression that everything has already been researched and resolved and that nothing remains for the individual to do. Even children know Jesus isn’t talking about a woman baking bread, a lost coin, a buried treasure, or an unbroken vine. We all instinctively recognize that Jesus is inviting us to a much grander meditation.
Our Catholic tradition proclaims an unknowable and transcendent God, Who wishes to communicate and reveal Himself to us; God is a mystery always beyond our reach who nonetheless can be found in all things…this apparent contradiction is resolved in the parable (or the sign); which St. Augustine said is when “You see one thing, but you understand another from it.”
Our liturgy has always spoken and catechized through this method of parable. Our sacraments invite us to focus on what we see, feel, touch and hear; the light, water, oil, the gestures, the bread, wine – but then we are urged to reach through these things towards the invisible God who wishes to be known.
Does God wish for us to know Him? Yes. Does God communicate with us? Yes. Is God’s revelation to us on-going? Yes. But this knowledge is a gift to be held gingerly. Think of all the wars that have been fought and all the political strife caused when people proclaim with a banging fist on the table to KNOW exactly what Jesus meant by this or that, pointing to words often cherry-picked from the bible, taken out of context, and interpreted literally. We don’t want to repeat these errors. We don’t want to promote narrowness but rather expansiveness; we always want to let God be God.
A parable is an event – not simply a transfer of information. Our role as catechists is simply to set the stage, prepare a time and space, and accompany the one we serve, modeling attention to the signs found in our scriptures and sacraments – where we encounter Christ, who is the ONLY teacher of us all. We simply adopt a listening stance and give witness with our lives to the power of this encounter with our living God of love.
So, with this method of teaching in mind, let’s look at the parable before us today.
The (steward or) manager knows that losing his job in such a public and humiliating way will surely lead to utter ruin. So, he sizes up his situation….has a moment of clarity and wastes no time executing his sly plan for survival.
While he still has power to make deals with his master’s money, he calls each of the debtors in for a one-on-one meeting…keeping each meeting private might be a clue that something shady is going on.
He has each of them acknowledge how much they owe the Master and then has them altar the numbers. It is the manager’s idea, but the debtors change the amount owed in their own handwriting.
NOW they not only owe the manager something, they are partners in crime.
The manager has taught them how to cook the books, but they have gone there willingly. After he’s fired, they will welcome him into their homes because if not, he will ‘out them’ to the Master.”
Now Jesus comes in for the surprise ending, right? He says “And his master commended that dishonest manager for acting shrewdly.” Prudently…wisely…
One of the kids in my atrium class last year, after hearing this parable scrunched up his face and said “What now, Jesus?”
And as the catechist, I was right there with him.
IS IT possible that Jesus meant this compliment in a kind of begrudging way?
Like the way a Scotland yard investigator might puff thoughtfully on his pipe at the scene of the crime and say “hmmm, well, you gotta give it to him…the crook really knew what he was doing.”
But, anyway you spin it, despite the manager’s questionable motives and ethics, it does appear that Jesus is applauding his sneaky actions.
And perhaps we can relate. The manager is probably worried about feeding his kids and paying the mortgage…think about the incredible lengths we would all go to ensure that our children are fed and housed. (I know I would do some pretty shady things…)
Maybe with this parable Jesus, is asking us if we are that committed and serious about our family’s SPIRITUAL well-being?
It certainly sounds like he is saying that the children of light could take a couple plays from the children of the world’s playbook, no?….pointing out how we tend to be very determined and shrewd in the ways of the world but are not as single-minded and wise when it comes to protecting our spirit.
But then some scholars propose that the manger wasn’t dishonest at all and that he was just returning the huge amounts of interest that the Master was unjustly charging, winning friends in a Robin Hood sort of way.
In the end, there is no “right or wrong” way to understand a parable. This is part of Jesus’ brilliance… there can be no division, no argument, no “us and them,” we can’t control or harness a parable to show that God is on our side or to haughtily instruct others on how to act like a “real Christian.” because there is no one final and absolute way for a parable to be understood.
“Reading parables as advice for how to behave is like using riddles to get directions to the airport.” (Weber) And “explaining a parable is like pinning down a butterfly, the wings are there but it is unable to do what it is designed to do.” (Cavalletti)
So, with that, let’s close in good Jesus fashion…
A poor wandering mystic reached the outskirts of the village and settled under a tree for the night. Suddenly a villager came running up to him and said, “The stone! The stone! Give me the precious stone!”
“What stone?” asked the mystic.
“Last night God told me in a dream that if I went to the outskirts of the village at dusk a mystic would give me a stone that would make me rich forever.”
The mystic rummaged in his sack and, pulling out a stone, he said, “He probably meant this one. I found it in the forest yesterday. Here, it’s yours if you want it.”
The man gazed at the stone in wonder. It was the largest diamond in the world – the size of a person’s head. He ran home elated.
But all night he tossed and turned in bed. At sunrise he went back to the tree, woke the mystic and returned the diamond saying, “Please, give me the inner wealth that made it possible for you to give this diamond away.”
Adapted from Anthony de Mello, SJ, The Song of the Bird
*** Key insights for this piece come from John Shea, Barbara Reid, & Dr. Softa Cavelletti.