This is one of a preacher’s worst nightmares, an ethically suspect parable of unclear meaning and – even in its context in Luke’s gospel – offering a number of interpretations given by Jesus himself. But then Christian interpreters of the scriptures have a history of trying to read far too much detailed meaning into simple texts, and it is usually to their downfall.
This is, after all, a parable, and not an allegory. Notoriously, medieval biblical interpretation privileged the allegorical, whereby each physical detail of the narrative had a spiritual meaning. The physical didn’t matter – the soul was everything. Perhaps the most allegorized of all parables, that of the Good Samaritan, even gives meaning to the two coins, the ultimate absurdity.
When Jesus told a story, he wanted to get a point across. That’s the first and simple truth. The second truth is that he wanted his hearers to think. To think for themselves, to ask what the story meant for their place in the Kingdom of God. And it was always about the Kingdom of God. In a sense, nothing else mattered. I don’t imagine, though, that Jesus had a watertight ‘right’ answer. The process of thinking through the purpose of the parable, which would shape the journey of discipleship for each individual who heard, had both common meaning and meaning unique to the individual. The same remains true today.
So what are we to make of this particular story?
Simply that there are two sets of people described: the children of this age, and the children of light. The children of this age – we might say worldly people – act systematically and wholeheartedly according to their principles, or lack of them. This is commendable in the world’s terms, hence the ironic compliment from the master. For the children of light – us – the challenge is to be equally committed to the cause, not of exploitation and selfish greed, but of promoting God’s kingdom. Live the whole of your life, including the apparently non-religious bits, for the glory of God. And that’s nearly it.
There’s a tail to the story, however, and a little bit more to learn. We are enjoined to make for ourselves friends of unrighteous mammon, so that when it runs out, ‘they’ will welcome you into eternal homes, heavenly habitations. This is a recognition that money, though neutral, tends to pollute and corrupt in our fallen world. Many saints have tried to avoid it altogether. Jesus is more sanguine: money may stain your hands, and you may struggle to apply it wisely. Persevere, he says, and use it to the best ends possible, the ends of the Kingdom. Then you will find that it has eternal, even saving significance.