Gospel: Luke 16:1-13
Jesus tells the curious story of a dishonest manager who cheats his employer and then is commended by him for having acted so shrewdly. Jesus wonders why his own followers are less creative and diligent in their stewardship given that they are managers of a far more valuable household.
1Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
10“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
What a strange parable. What a contradictory and elusive text. We love parables that are straightforward and helpful. But what are we to make of this one? Who are we rooting for in this parable?? What are we supposed to learn from it? The best place to start, I find, is placing it in context. In its own Gospel of Luke, in the wider context in Jesus ministry, and in the context of the socio-economic values of the 1st century.
The parable of the rich man and his Manager follows Luke’s series of parables devoted to Jesus and his hanging out and eating with sinners and tax collectors, and inaugurates a series of passages concerned with money. Chapter 15 begins “all the tax collectors and sinners coming near to listen to him.” Remember that point. The Gospel Luke features several crisis parables in which someone of relatively high status encounters a difficult situation and in every instance, their help lies belowthem on the social ladder.
The anonymous Jew on the road to Jericho being helped by a samaritan of all people. (10:25-37). The prodigal finds himself desperate enough to join the hired hands; his superior older brother cannot join the party until he reconciles himself to his scoundrel sibling (15:11-32). In this age the rich man who ignores lowly Lazarus, but in the next world he would beg for Lazarus’ help (16:19-31).
These parables suggest a world in which status is fleeting, even dangerous. In these parables, God’s expansive mercy, righteous judgement, and preferential treatment of the poor and suffering shines through. Now This manager, who once controlled the accounts of his master’s debtors, must now hope for their hospitality. He figures he will be at the mercy of those who owe the debt which he tracked – and so seeks their help. Luke’s version of the “Lord’s Prayer” includes the helpful category confusion, “forgive us our sins as we forgive our debtors” (the monetary debts of — it’s clear in the Greek). One of the themes of Luke is that the arrival of the kingdom of God is no occasion for score-keeping of any kind, whether monetary or moral.
One commentary mentioned that even Luke seems clueless as to what to do with the parable he’s recorded, providing at least three interpretations at the parable’s conclusion: (1) that the children of light should learn from the prudence of their corrupt neighbors; (2) to make friends by means of dishonest wealth; and (3) that if one wishes to be entrusted with true riches, one must demonstrate honesty with ordinary wealth. “We can almost see here notes for three separate sermons on the parable as text.” 1Parables of the Kingdom (rev. ed.; London: Nisbet & Co., 1936), 29-30.
But let’s go back to the context. Who has Jesus been preaching to? Sinners. And Tax Collectors. Luke loves highlighting tax-collectors, and even that Jesus called a tax collector to be a disciple. We hear about two more tax collectors in chapter 18 and 19. Why mention tax-collectors separately?
Social and religious outcasts, the tax collectors were the most despised individuals in Israel – men deemed lower than the Herodians and even Roman soldiers, and ones regarded on the same level as harlots and prostitutes. The Jewish Talmud even taught that it was righteous to lie and deceive a tax collector, because that was what a professional extortioner deserved” (154).
Tax collectors would have been forbidden from entering the synagogues, being essentially cut off from the Jewish community and places of worship. They worked for the Roman Empire, and the taxes they collected funded the oppression of their own people, usually padding their own pockets in the process. The relationship between them and their own people had been broken by the oppression of Rome. Who would want that job? Somebody already desperate? Someone who needed to get rich quick? Somebody already on the outs with their neighbor? Matthew the tax collector left everything and followed Jesus. Zacchaeus the tax collector gave it all back. But what about those who are stuck working for a corrupt system of oppression? What’s gonna help them? What word from Jesus could bring them a little hope and help them? So Jesus sets up a parable, not about a tax collector, but a “manager” of someone else’s money
Hear this parable then, through the ears of a tax collector. Someone who might have over charges people for their own gain. Who might have made money on the back of the poor who would never get out of the debt they were in. The same with High interest, predatory loans, where the person collecting the money took whatever percentage they saw fit. Charging exorbitant prices because the poor had no other options. The prophet Amos gives voice to those you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
5saying, “When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,
6buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
The steward forgives these debts, because he realizes that those relationships may in the long run be worth more than the monetary value of those debts. The true riches are what we are able to accomplish in caring for one another, especially the least of our brothers and sisters. In that sense, the steward was commendable, for if the money he squandered didn’t belong to him, at least he accomplished something of true value with it. The dishonest wealth is not necessarily money gained by dishonest means, but money that we use that is not our own. And if we believe that it all belongs to God anyhow – The status we hold, the wealth we control – ultimately means nothing, unless we are using it to serve God, to forgive debts, to lift burdens from the poor.
We are all dishonest managers of a wealth not our own, and we tend to keep score of that wealth. We have been given the privilege of managing something someone else paid for. May we discover the true riches of God’s kingdom in our relationships with our neighbors and use our wealth accordingly. Amen.