The Gospel readings for today suggest either Luke 16:1-13 or Luke 16:10-13. I can easily understand why a Priest or Deacon might elect to preach on 16:10-13 today, omitting the whole of the parable of the dishonest steward (or manager). Most commentators see the parable itself running from verses 1-9, with verses 10-13 added from Jesus’ teachings elsewhere to attempt to give the parable a clear meaning. It is, to my mind, the most difficult of Jesus’ parables on which to get solid footing.
The parable begins with a rich man learning of his “dishonest “ (Greek – adikia) manager (Greek – oikonomos, from which we also get our word “economy”) “squandering his property.” “Squandering his property” is an interesting phrase, and appears in Luke 15:13 in the NRSV translation of “The Prodigal Son.” To squander is to waste and to misuse one’s resources. What has the oikonomos done? The manager in Jesus' day was often a slave, caring for the master’s estates while the master lived in the city. Though a slave, they had a degree of power and freedom in operating the estate, and Jesus does not note in the parable what the problem was in terms of the actual “squandering.”
When word gets back to the manager that his position and lifestyle are in jeopardy, he comes up with a plan. Unlike the Temptations, the manager is too proud to beg (“I am ashamed to beg”: 16:3). He decides to call in his master’s clients and reduce what they owe to his master. One owes the master 100 jugs of olive oil; now it is fifty (16:6). One owes 100 containers of wheat; now it is eighty (16:7). These debtors should probably be understood to be tenant farmers who operate on the master’s land and pay for the privilege with a portion of their yields. Many people have speculated on the manager’s activity here: has he been charging too much in the past and skimming off of the top? Is he now reducing the amount owed so that the master will look favorably upon him or is he trying to get in the good graces of the tenant farmers, so that they will befriend him when his position is taken from him? Or, there are other options, is he now simply doing the right thing?
It is at this point, however, that the parable gets interesting. Upon learning that the manager was “squandering his property,” the rich man decided to jettison his manager. Upon learning that he was reducing the debt of his debtors, the rich man commended his manager – he did not get his position back, but he was commended; he was still “dishonest,” but he was commended. “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” (16:8). Why was the manager commended for his behavior now when he was simply trying, at least on one view, to take care of himself after he lost his job? This is the crux of the parable and the verse that generally sends readers away scratching their heads.
Let’s focus on the images and language carefully. In the NRSV translation, the dishonest manager is said to act “shrewdly,” but a few chapters earlier when Peter is asking Jesus about a parable about the delayed arrival of a master (stated to be the “Son of Man”) the same word – phronesis - is translated as “prudent.” Here are a few of those verses from Chapter 12: “Peter said, "Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?" And the Lord said, "Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions” (12:41-44). Notice that a “prudent/shrewd” manager is one who cares for the master’s “possessions” and does not abuse or take advantage of them. It is clear in Chapter 12 that the “possessions” are not estates, or olive oil, or wheat, but the people themselves. If this is the case in Chapter 16, too, then perhaps the dishonesty of the manager has less to do with the economic images and more to do with the spiritual realities underlying them. Is debt reduction by the manager the forgiveness of sins of those whom the manager has been put in charge? Is the dishonest manager commended because when he forgives debt he does not only what is right, but allows the tenant farmers, the “property” or “possession” of the master, to see the master in a merciful light? What if the dishonest manager is a Church leader who has abused his authority and has now repented of his abuse and has done the right thing for the tenants and for his master? He cannot have his position of trust and authority any longer, but he can be commended for his acts of repentance, which could, as we see below, lead to his salvation.
Jesus then turns the parable, however, back to economic, I would say material, terms from the spiritual realities. That is, often material and economic truths point beyond themselves to spiritual realities, but so, too, the concrete material and economic behaviors themselves have spiritual implications. So often in Jesus’ Lucan parables, wealth and the way you use it is a spiritual reality. Verse 9 has Jesus state, “ 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.”
This final verse is also the final conundrum. It suggests that the real repentance of the dishonest manager was not just spiritual (“forgiving spiritual debt”) but material (“forgiving economic debt”) and that the latter also has eternal implications. How do you make friends by means of dishonest wealth (“mammon”)? And who exactly will welcome you into “eternal homes”? As one of my students sais long ago after studying this parable in a small group, “I don’t know anyone with an eternal home.” But maybe that is the point. We need to care for our wealth and use it wisely and judiciously for we never know who will be waiting, ready to welcome us into eternal homes.
This is a hard parable, for it speaks specifically, I think, to Church leadership and their need to use the resources God gave them with care and love, forgiving debt and guarding not squandering the property of the Master. That, finally, is the members of the visible Church. Yet, in terms of implications for day to day life, the means by which we all use our wealth, “dishonest mammon,” has implications for the eternal lives of all of us.
John W. Martens