The parable Jesus tells today is so controversial that people can’t even agree on what to call it. Different Bible translations give it all kinds of titles: the dishonest manager, the shrewd manager, the commendable scoundrel, the prudent steward, the unjust steward…. People have been wrestling with this parable for centuries. And that’s good.
The Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine points out that while Jesus’ main form of teaching was parables, the Gospel writers included almost no interpretations of his parables in their text. They left the stories open-ended, as Jesus did, since the whole point of a parable is to get you to engage with it. It should puzzle and bother you precisely because its meaning is not clear.
In later centuries, Church folk got good at domesticating Jesus’ parables and assigning them “an” interpretation, but this parable is so strange that it’s a hard one to domesticate. If you opened Evernote and began listing questions it raises for you, I am sure you could get to 40 or 50 in just the few minutes of this sermon. And of course, like every sermon, the questions I’ll ask today will touch only a tiny sliver of the power and challenge in the text. But that’s true of any sermon on any passage of Scripture; the Word of God is all infinitely rich.
Sometimes Jesus asks a question, in the Gospels, and if you’re actually listening, the only thing you can think is “What on earth are you talking about?” To me, today is one of those days. “Which one of you,” he says, “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”
Wait, what? Who leaves 99 sheep on their own in the wilderness to go after one lone sheep that wandered away somewhere? I’ll tell you who: Nobody. Every single one of us would do the math and make the smart decision to cut our losses. Nobody’s going to leave 99 sheep on their own in the wilderness. You’ve got to think about protecting your investment. Sure, you might get the one sheep back, but in the meantime 17 others have wandered off and fallen into a ravine. That is a net loss of 16 sheep. Not best practices!