Luke 16:1-13 (NRSV)
The Parable of the Dishonest Manager
1 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. 2 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.’ 3 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. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 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.’ 8 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. 9 And 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. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 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 my wife read the Gospel reading from the lectionary for this week, she asked a brilliant question:
‘Why is it every time I read one of these passages, I feel like I hate it and then end up becoming a better person as a result of it?’
It was a comfort to know that I wasn’t the only one struggling with it. As I dove into my research, I discovered that we’re not the only ones for whom this parable has been perplexing. In his commentary on Luke, John T. Carroll writes:
‘A host of difficult interpretive issues bear on the reading of this text, and navigating them while keeping clear focus and seeking a coherent reading is a daunting challenge […] The variety of [interpretations] indicates the magnitude of the gaps the reader must fill in the narrative, largely owing to the need to compose cultural scripts that are left implicit, and therefore shows the ambiguity of characterisation in the parable, including the rich man, who commends his fired manager.’
Carroll is a brilliant scholar who uses wonderful and fancy language to say that reading this parable two thousand years after it was told is tough work and elements of it may always remain a mystery to us. So let us begin with what we do know:
- This not an allegory.
There is no obvious God character within the story. We are not to assume that Jesus represents either the landowner or the manager. As a result, unlike the parables in Luke 15, it’s not meant to serve as a metaphor for our relationship with God.
- The manager is not a hero.
Jesus consistently calls the main character of the parable the ‘dishonest manager’ and goes on to say that ‘whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.’
- Under no circumstances are you to make Luke 16:9 your life verse:
‘And 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.’
When weighed against the words of Jesus elsewhere about money and about giving without expecting anything back and against his final words in this passage about how none of us can serve both God and money, no reasonable person could come to the conclusion that this one sentence should define our posture when it comes to money. So what are we supposed to learn?
Instead, I think Eugene Peterson’s The Message para-translation can offer us some enlightenment:
‘Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why?
Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way — but for what is right — using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behaviour.’
How then can we be streetwise for what is right? How can we be shrewd in a way that heals the world instead of in a way that harms it?
These questions are deeply relevant to the world in which we live because the ethics and morality of our work are not always clear cut.
Some churches have great wealth and resources that they store as investments in banks or stocks that profit from trade in weapons, fossil fuels or unjust production systems. Can we work to serve and bless our communities while our financial resources are bound up in maintaining an unjust global status quo?
What about the businesses we work for? Based on the debts owed to him and his blasé response to his financial losses, the wealthy landowner in this passage has incredible wealth and, as a result, his opinion on what it is to ’squander’ wealth may be very different to ours as people trying to build the Kingdom of God. An insurance company may consider covering a pre-exisiting condition ’squandering’ — but we call it merciful, kind and good. A business focused on profit at all costs may consider it 'squandering' to provide maternity leave — but we call it an investment in the health of our families and communities. A brand may consider it ‘squandering’ to consider the human cost and produce their goods in an ethical and sustainable way — but we call it justice.
Perhaps the hardest thing about this passage is that the landowner and the manager both, when all is said and done, serve money as a way of serving themselves. One is rich and complacent. The other is corrupt and a coward. This parable is messy and there are no heroes within it. When deeply examined, life in 2019 can feel the same way. So let us focus on what Jesus teaches once the parable is over: No slave can serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and money.
We are not called to be people who coast on good behaviour or refuse to reflect on the world that we participate in.
We are called to creative survival and to creating a Kingdom in which the goodness, provision and justice of God is available to all.
Scott Evans is the Church of Ireland chaplain to University College Dublin, producer of The Graveyard Shift Podcast and co-founder of Paradoxology, a prayer space at Ireland’s Electric Picnic music festival. He grew up in Bangladesh and his life has been a series of crazy decisions, odd adventures and bad haircuts. He is also the author of 3 books, Closer Still, Beautiful Attitudes and Failing From The Front (& Other Lessons From The Lives of Losers.) He loves Vietnamese food, coffee, writing, Aston Villa and Jesus.