Parables turn expectations upside down

To illustrate how parables function, invent ways to turn student expectations upside down

On the day we discussed the parable of the unscrupulous steward (Luke 16:1–9) in my parables class, I began by recounting a news report about wealthy people manipulating the judicial system. I told them I downloaded the following report from a news website.

Bank CEO receives verdict

Haliburton Thompson III appeared before a special Senate hearing on Wednesday to hear the results of a yearlong investigation into his role in the meltdown of the banking system. Thompson sat without expression, waiting to hear the committee chair read the report.

While photographers clicked their cameras and lawyers fidgeted with their reams of reports, the chair rapped his gavel and called for silence. With a grave face he read the following statement:

“Mr. Thompson, after a thorough investigation we have determined the following:

  1. You placed a massive amount of your investors’ retirement contributions into highly volatile funds that made you a very rich man.
  2. You had credible information that these funds were going to crash, but instead of informing your clients of the imminent danger, you delivered a statement on the robust financial health of your firm. Then you withdrew all of your personal investments in the hedge funds and placed them into stable securities.
  3. As a consequence, you walked away with $32 million, and your investors lost a total of $5.2 billion. Many of them had their retirement funds almost completely decimated, reducing them to poverty.
  4. Because you were in the third year of a five-year contract with your bank, the board of trustees of the bank paid you a severance package of $15 million to buy out the last two years of your contract.
  5. Because of your shrewd team of lawyers, we were not able to prove that you actually broke any laws; although it is obvious that you destroyed many of your investors while personally enriching yourself.
  6. Therefore, we on this special investigation committee would like to commend you for your shrewd business transactions. Through your own self-serving maneuvering, you have become a model for all money managers in the USA who seek to take advantage of investors to enrich themselves.
  7. This hearing is now closed. The committee will now adjourn so we may have lunch with Mr. Thompson.

My students were listening to what they thought was an actual news report, but at the end they realized something was amiss. By inventing a report on a contemporary issue, I got their attention and illustrated how the parable of the wicked manager violates any expectations of the listeners that justice will be served. A lively discussion followed. My story, like some of Jesus’s parables, outraged those who heard it. Many parables are like jokes. The punch line surprises or even shocks listeners and elicits a visceral response. But the story needs to address contemporary concerns for listeners to feel the punch in their gut. For more information on parables, see Interpreting Biblical Literature, pp. 319–341.