Luke 16:1-13 - The Parable of the Dishonest Manager
Then 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. So 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.’ Then 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. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then 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.’ And 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. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth[b] so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
“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. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No 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.”
When I first read this passage, the word shrewd quickly tattooed itself to my thoughts and I expected a lesson about what the Church could learn from businesses. I gleefully began to prepare a rant about how the Church needs to be more innovative and energetic about reaching out to people; how we need be as focused on attaining our heavenly goals as businesses are on attaining their earthly ones… I was going to temper those comments with a holy-sounding bit where I acknowledged that the Church is not a business, and that we have to prioritise love even as we begin our plan for world domination through the maximisation of our resources. That was until I read it properly and realised my holy “add-on” is actually the heart of this parable, and that I have a lot to learn about love and friendship.
When the master describes the manager as shrewd, it’s not because he suddenly increased output in response to being rebuked. Like the unforgiving debtor in Matthew 18, surely the obvious panic response would be to call in some debts, with interest, and try gain favour with his master. Or why not rob him and make a run for it? At the point that he is called shrewd, the manager hasn’t increased his or his master’s capital. In fact, by cutting the debts he has lost his master even more money. Still, he’s pronounced to be shrewd.
There’s enough mention of “mammon” or untrustworthy, treacherous, material wealth in opposition to “true riches” in this passage to know that Jesus is riffing off a common theme here. The scale of concern is not a resource management one, running from inefficient to efficient, it’s a scale running from mammon to true riches; from material wealth to God.
The only value mammon has here is as a means to develop friendships. The manager gets it. He trades the last of his financial power in for friendship. I wish his motives were more admirable, but God welcomes the needy! In verse 9, Jesus says that being welcomed into someone’s home is to be welcomed to “an eternal tent”. He uses the word tabernacle, which is reminiscent of the holy tent in Exodus and of the Temple at Jerusalem. There is something of the holy lingering about a loving welcome. It’s an experience of true riches that money can sort of buy (according to Jesus anyway!), but that money alone cannot give.
Jesus says the children of light are not as shrewd as the children of the age. Being shrewd means knowing the difference between mammon and true riches. Followers of Jesus are meant to be alive to a different reality. Most of the time the way I feel about mammon is exactly as the materialist advertising agenda wants a woman in her twenties to feel. I want my flat to look pinterest-y, and I find it hard to believe fat people deserve to be loved, and I know a handbag is simply a carrying-stuff vessel but, damnit, I’d rather pay €150 for a pretty one than buy a pile of vaccines for poor kids in a country I couldn’t be bothered to find on a map. I have a nasty feeling that I’m a secret Mammonite posing as a Christian.
I used to be a teacher and sometimes I’d be reprimanding a kid and they’d pipe up with something really witty and hilarious and I would just have to laugh. That’s because those kids knew my heart and knew how to tap into something I cared more about than their homework. I think the master Jesus was painting here wasn’t delighted by the way the manager acted, but I bet he burst out laughing when he realised what the manager had done. It seems to me the only way this parable makes sense is if the master lived for love and friendship and not for money.
I hope that if I’m ever threatened with financial ruin I’ll be sensible enough to try buy some friendships with the last of my cash. I’m sort of scared to think I’d probably put more trust in buying shares.
Emma Rothwell currently divides her time between the Church of Ireland Dioceses of Meath & Kildare where she is the Diocesan Youth and Children’s Officer and Wilson’s Hospital School where she is the School Chaplain.