Jesus did a lot of teaching using stories. Stories have several built in problems: the first is that it is a story and not a carefully crafted piece of moral teaching. The second is that depending on your personal situation, you may read or hear the story from the perspective of any one of the characters that it tells about…heroes and villains may very well be very subjective in that scenario.
Finally, (although there are probably many more) the story may well have more than one interpretation…what you hear may not be what the teller intended, unless, of course, the teller left it deliberately vague. Add to this that Jesus also had the incredibly annoying habit of rarely explaining his stories and perhaps parables are not the definitive,wonderfully clear teaching and motivational force preachers often make them out to be.
When we read one of Jesus’ stories we often get a clue from the context of the story…what event caused Jesus to tell the story? It’s probably worth also remembering that the Gospel writers edited the story to give it the particular slant they wanted with the audience to whom they wrote…the stories are not necessarily in a chronological order.
Jesus also made some cryptic comments which suggest he believed that if you needed to understand the message, and were open to the Holy Spirit, you’d probably get it.
 Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
 When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables.  He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables  so that,
“ ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”
Mark 4:9 (NIV)
Robert Farrar Capon, in his book “Kingdom, Grace, Judgement” calls the parable of The Unjust Steward the “hardest parable”.
[16:1] Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions.  So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’
 “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg—  I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’
 “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
 “ ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied.
“The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’
 “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’
“ ‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied.
“He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’
 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.
Luke 16:1 (NIV)
I’ve heard many attempts at explaining this parable, many of which forget the reservations which I wrote about at the beginning of this blog post.
A read through any good commentary or book about the parables will enlighten you as to how others read the story…if I’m right, you probably won’t have heard many sermons preached on this passage.
For me it has many echoes of the parable of the lost sons, which precede it in Luke’s account. Themes of wasting of possessions, being at rock bottom and alone, a moment of clarity, and grace from an authority figure (a father and a rich man) appear in both stories. That’s how I start to try to make sense of what’s going on.
I don’t think I can say any more…it seems to go against the spirit of not explaining! (assuming I’ve understand it!)
What do you think…how does it make sense to you?