Thought for the day
The banking crisis is only one example of a wider “honesty deficit” in public life. Even people working for charities are sometimes found, unfortunately, to be lacking in integrity. As a result, the story of dishonest management will not lack contemporary echoes. It also means that the shock of story—the manager continues to fix the books for his own benefit—is just as much a shock today as it would have been in first-century Palestine.
If that were not enough, the ironic teaching drawn in v. 9 borders on the sarcastic, not to say caustic. No missing the meaning, in any case! But what is the meaning? It can’t be simply copy that distressing example of the manager. To act, not to delay, seems to be at the centre.
I truly believe and I know, God of our hearts, that you love and desire all that I am. May your great love penetrate even the darkest parts of my life that I may know true conversion of heart and love you with my whole self.
The Parable of the Dishonest Manager
Luke 16:1 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.
The parable and the following sayings bristle with questions and a good deal of ink has been spilt explaining this text. What’s it about? The right use of material goods? How to face the parousia? Is the “Lord” really Jesus? Does it praise dishonesty? What is “dishonest wealth”, the mammon of injustice? Proclaimed properly, it should certainly puzzle those who hear it today.
Kind of writing
The parable is really a kind of parabolic narrative, followed by sayings. It is found only in Luke, but may to back to Jesus because the social context is rural whereas early Christianity was urban. It is probable that the parable proper went from v. 1 to v. 8a.
With v. 8b, a series of later commentaries begins. V. 8b reflects early Christian language; v. 9 can best be interpreted as a prophetic comment on sharing of goods. The appended sayings in vv.10-13 are linked by vocabulary, although a bit in tension with the parable (the steward has been dishonest in much!).
Vv. 10-13 are proverbial in style, reflection Israel’s wisdom tradition.
Old Testament background
If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens. Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you. You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God. (Leviticus 25:35–38)
New Testament foreground
(i) Within Luke, there is a tendency to use disreputable people to illustrate the Good News, to the discomfort of the officially religious: Zacchaeus, the unjust steward, the good thief, the shepherd (proverbially unable to keep the Law) and the (mean?) woman of the lost coin, the prodigal son. All these stories are unique to Luke. God can write straight with crooked lines!
(ii) God’s choosing of the Israelites/Jews and the extension of his election to Gentiles are reflected upon in Romans 9-11. The allegory of the natural and wild olive trees is very helpful: Rom 11:13-24.
The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. (2Corinthians 9:6)
But just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. (1 Thessalonians 2:4)
Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10)
Verse 1 The parable is directed to the disciples only. The context is quickly narrated. It is never claimed that the charge is unjust. Manager is found only in Luke in the Gospels (Luke 12:42; 16:1, 3, 8).
Verse 2 The judgment is swift and so the manager must himself act swiftly. He is about to lose income, home and honour.
Verse 3 Interior monologue is typical of the Lucan special material. The manager quickly and realistically assesses his options.
Verse 4 The goal is to still have somewhere to live and to retain his social status.
Verses 5-7 The amount is considerable: about 450 litres or about 500 or 600 workdays. Is the manager continuing to act unjustly? Probably not. Agents in those days had considerable latitude and, most likely, we are to imagine him reducing his “cut” and so gaining favour with the debtors.
Verse 8a The master is not commending further dishonesty but rather the shrewdness of his employee. At this level, the parable is typically Lucan: a disreputable figure is held up as a disconcerting example (cf. Zacchaeus, the prodigal son, the good thief, all special to Luke). The point is clear: act now so that your future will be assured.
Verse 8b The language switches to that of early Christianity (cf. 1 Thess 5:5-6). It is an implied judgment: at least the children of this world act.
Verse 9 The opening words are very solemn: And I say to you. Very likely we are hearing here not the historical Jesus but an early Christian prophet. It does build on the parable—the manager did make friends for himself—but the end is eschatological. In the Lucan worldview, the friends are fellow Christians, who share their goods. The Jerusalem Bible fails here: money is not just tainted—rather effete?—but is the “mammon of injustice.” The prophetic assessment is clear. It is not, however, that money is bad in itself but rather that in the Kingdom there is no place for personal possessions. The Jerusalem Bible gets it right with “tents of eternity.” There is an OT background (cf. Ex 25-27), but the meaning is metaphorical in the context: to be welcomed home at the parousia. The next few verses preclude any misunderstanding of the message as praise for dishonesty. The full context for extra teachings runs from v. 10 to v. 18. The parable in vv. 19-31 the closes this section with a frame.
Verse 10 “A very little” is the superlative in Greek, i.e., the least. Faithful in a secular sense means reliable. The step to religious fidelity is easily made by the reader.
Verses 11-12 It is likely that Luke has made a duplicate in the second personal singular, in the negative and in the form of a rhetorical question so as to make a link with the preceding parable. The language here has a somewhat philosophical feel to it, with the generalisations such as “one who is faithful” etc. This works as a Hellenistic counter-weight to the more semitic and even mythological mammon (present in the Greek). The rather open “who” can be taken to be God.
Verse 13 This logion or teaching is found elsewhere. Compare:
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matthew 6:24)
Jesus said, “A person cannot mount two horses or bend two bows. And a slave cannot serve two masters, otherwise that slave will honour the one and offend the other.” (GThom 47a)
Luke has added the word for a domestic servant (repeated in the NRSV to sustain inclusive language). It was possible for someone at the time to have two masters, with predictable consequences. In Aramaic and Hebrew to love can also mean to prefer. For the final sentence, see the citations from Paul above. The key expression is “to serve” and has to do with the integrity of the person as a whole.
Pointers for prayer
1. As often with the parables of Jesus, this one is intended to shock in order to make us think. Jesus is not praising the injustice of the servant, but his purposefulness in preparing for the future. In your experience what difference does it make when you are purposeful and energetic instead of lethargic?
2. It was his master’s call to account that galvanised the servant into action. What have been the experiences, or people, that have galvanised you into action when you had been somewhat halfhearted in your efforts?
3. Who have been the people whose energy, drive and astuteness have been an inspiration to you in how to handle difficult situations?
4. “No servant can be the slave of two masters”. When have you experienced the truth of this statement?
God our saviour, you call us into your service. Make us wise and resourceful: children of the light who continue your work in this world with untiring concern for integrity and justice.
We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.