The Return of Eschatological Economics1
The Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1–13)
 Easy parables are all alike; every difficult parable is difficult in its own way. In the case of the unjust steward, much of the difficulty lies in trying to distinguish what precisely is praiseworthy in the unjust steward's actions. The traditional interpretation has been that the steward's wisdom is praised rather than his dishonesty. This helps, at least to a degree; and it will preach, but it leaves a few questions unanswered.
- Is the parable about the use of money, or is it to be allegorized to address quick action in light of the coming eschatological crisis?
- What does it mean to make friends by means of dishonest wealth (sometimes also translated as "mammon of unrighteousness") (v. 9)?
- Did the steward give up his own profits, or his master's?
 Commentaries are full of lengthy interpretations addressing these and other questions, and in the case of this parable, there are few settled answers. For the purpose of listening to this parable in relation to Lutheran social teaching, we will decide that:
- The parable is about the use of money in light of the coming eschatological crisis.2 This is, in a sense, what all preaching is about. What then shall we say in light of the eschatological crisis? That is the kerygma.3 More specifically, what shall we say about the wise use of possessions? This is eschatological economics.
- It means "put yourself in a good position through your use of money, which so easily leads you astray, so that when this age is over God will receive you into his eternal dwelling."4 Verse 9 emphasizes the eschatological dimension of the parable. Jesus is, in this sense, praising radical, immediate wise action on behalf of or in anticipation of the kingdom.
- The steward very well may have given up his own profits, but even if it is the profit of the master rather than his own, the interpretation that follows here "works."
 Finally, this is a "how much more" crisis parable. If the steward acted this way to ensure his own temporal future, how much more (given the eschatological situation of Jesus' hearers and readers) should disciples and all hearers and over-hearers act to ensure their eternal futures.
 What we have before us is a lectionary text about a steward who managed, but then squandered, very large resources (some estimate as much as three to seven and a half years income for the average worker). When his squandering was found out, he made use of large resources still at his disposal to ensure a comfortable future for himself.
 Does this sound creepily familiar? Take one recent news headline as an example: "Lehman's Golden Parachutes Were Being Secured While Execs Were Pleading For Federal Rescue."5 The execs, like the steward, knew that an accounting was coming, that they would be unemployed, and that they were not strong enough to dig and ashamed to beg (it is easy to imagine the soliloquy in verses 3–4 on the lips of the Lehman execs). So like the steward, they act shrewdly, making use of dishonest wealth for future security.
 Read this way, Jesus' parable is offensive, at least to those hearers who would prefer that the execs be hung up by their thumbs and publicly shamed on the streets of New York. Closer reading, however, attends to the way the steward is not at all like the execs. Notice that he does not set aside money he has siphoned off from his master's business in a savings account. In fact, he takes no money for himself at all. Instead, he writes off the debts of others so that when he is dismissed as manager, people may welcome him into their homes.
 If we were to construct a modern parallel, the Lehman execs would have needed, in that very moment when their business was going bankrupt, to write off the debts of debtors at the level their golden parachutes equaled, anticipating that those they had set free of debt would welcome them into their homes in the future. In other words, rather than hoard wealth for the purpose of remaining secure, they would have freed up wealth for the purpose of living in hope of freely reciprocated relationships and hospitality. If they had done such a thing (they didn't), preachers could have lifted up Lehman executives as models of faithfulness for us to emulate.
 Each of us does have wealth at our disposal, and we are ever tempted to use it for personal security. In view of the eschatological crisis, how are we to make friends for ourselves by means of mammon?6
 One simple way to imitate the unjust steward is to attend to the way in which our social statements on economics are themselves attentive to this eschatological dimension. For example, "We are sent forth into the world to bear witness to God's promised reign. The world is the whole household of God that economic life is intended to serve."7 It may be a surprising, even jolting, exercise, to bring the ELCA commitment to "Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All" into conversation with this parable, but it is not unwarranted, if God is indeed going to reign and this parable is a proclamation of that coming reign.8
 Although it again feels strange to write it, the unjust steward is practicing a form of neighbor love. Consider again the ELCA social statement, which states, "While a market economy assumes people will act to maximize their own interests, we acknowledge that what is in our interest must be placed in the context of what is good for the neighbor."9 Strangely, although the steward is not frugal, and violates trust, he does maximize self-interest while simultaneously looking out for the good of the neighbor. That's no small accomplishment. In fact, it's stupendously creative, and worth commending, as the master does.10 We are called to celebrate acts of wisdom even in (maybe especially in) morally ambiguous situations, because eschatological economics are simply like that. Welcome to the crisis that is living in anticipation of the reign of God.
 Finally, one preacherly observation is in order in light of this text and the recent financial overhaul Congress passed this summer.11 Although Christians may come down on different sides of what kinds of governmental regulations are appropriate to ensure that the maximizing of self-interest is not at the expense of the neighbor, all Christians should agree that they are sinful enough that Schadenfreude is always a temptation. It is easy to adopt gut-level views of a subject when those who are being regulated earn so much money that the rest of us are jealous. However, in this case, we again can learn from the rich man and Jesus, who find aspects of the manager's actions commendable. Which is to say that a proper humility regarding human sinfulness is more appropriate in interpreting this text than efforts to tease out partisan commentary on market capitalism.
Clint Schnekloth is Pastor of East Koshkonong Lutheran Church, Cambridge, Wisconsin. Clint maintains "Lutheran Confessions," the longest running Lutheran blog in North America.
1. A play on the title of Paul Krugman's excellent book, The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008 (W.W. Norton), 2009.
2. Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus Eerdmans, 2008, 416.
4. Ibid. 415.
6. For a contemporary cinematic interpretation of this parable that is all of the above, see Modern Parables: Living in the Kingdom of God, volume 1: The Shrewd Manager Compass Cinema, 2008; www.modernparable.com
8. It is also interesting to note that the early church interpretation of the parable was that it taught almsgiving. This is another way in which the parable, though difficult, shares horizons with ELCA social policy.
10. For a contemporary cinematic interpretation of this parable that illustrates precisely how creative this parable is, see Modern Parables: Living in the Kingdom of God, volume 1: The Shrewd Manager Compass Cinema, 2008; www.modernparable.com
11. For one helpful overview of this new legislation, see http://online.wsj.com/article/NA_WSJ_PUB:SB10001424052748703615104575328430427126018.html
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 10, Issue 9