How have Christians understood this parable in the past?
The medieval interpretation of this passage depicted the rich man as God, and the squandering steward as the typical fallen sinner, who anticipating the end of his earthly life, lightens the impact of his sins by good deeds and in so doing gains many friends who will vouch for him before the final judgement, and secure for him by their testimony a place of happiness in Heaven. William Tyndale (1494 – 1536) hated this allegorical interpretation and instead, drawing on Martin Luther’s exposition, preferred to see the parable as a contrasting parallel. In other words Jesus was saying; if this unrighteous man was being so shrewd with worldly wealth, how much more should the righteous be as diligent in the care of their souls, as he did for his body. The famous Victorian Bishop of Liverpool J C Ryle (1816 – 1900), sought to harmonise these positions, saying that the parable showed that while salvation and justification were the product of God’s grace, where true faith existed there would always be fruits, which included upright business practices. He wrote “we may be very sure that where there is no honesty, there is no grace.”
Many modern readings quite rightly reject these other-worldly interpretations. In a recent sermon for example, the popular fundamentalist preacher Mark Driscoll took the parable as a prompt for a teaching the way a Christian should wisely steward his money. To his credit Driscoll at least admits that “this is perhaps the most complicated, difficult parable Jesus tells in all of the Bible” and “you can disagree with my interpretation and next week I might disagree with my interpretation also”. To this extent I fully agree with Pastor Mark. Similarly the usually excellent contemporary Bible teacher and pastor Greg Boyd in his sermon on the parable mixes up a fairly pragmatic, this-worldly reading of the parable itself with what can only be described as a medievalist other-worldly reading of Jesus’ own interpretation of the foregoing parable. So with that in mind I shall tread slowly and carefully.
In the next Post I’m going to place the parable into its canonical context…