I am not alone in considering Jesus’ parable of the dishonest (or unrighteous) manager (or steward, oikonomos) the most difficult, complex and confusing of all Jesus’ parables. The reason for this is simple: in the first verse of the parable, after determining that the manager is “squandering his property,” the rich man relieves him of his position; but after the manager subsequently and unilaterally reduces the payments owed to the rich man by his debtors, the rich man praises his fired steward “for acting prudently.”
How are we to balance his loss of position with the commendation? And what exactly did he do to deserve commendation? Does the manager get a reference letter even after being fired for slashing the liability of his master’s debtors?
The tensions in this parable work because we struggle to understand how everyone fits in this scenario. Does the rich man represent God? Who are the debtors? Do they represent everyone in relationship to God? Or are these specifically followers of Jesus? But who is the manager? If the rich man represents God, does the manager stand for the leadership of the church?
More important than wondering what or who every character in the parable represents, however, is the question of how to understand the whole notion of debt. In this parable the debt is measured by jugs of olive oil and bushels of wheat; but often when Jesus talks about debt, he is referring to spiritual debt. On the other hand, throughout Luke’s Gospel, how people use their possessions and resources has implications and repercussions for their spiritual health.
It is true that the final verses offer explanations of the parable, but while these verses offer valuable insight into the contrast between money and true spiritual wealth and the need to be honest in all dealings, large and small, they do not answer the central problem of the parable: why is the dishonest manager commended?
It is important first of all to understand the role of the ancient steward, who managed whole estates for absentee landlords, including the tenant farmers, but was often a slave born on the estate, as explained by the Roman agricultural writer Columella (first-century A.D.). The oikonomos had a degree of freedom in how he ran the estate, but he was ultimately answerable to the owner. Earlier in Luke (12:40–42), Peter asked Jesus to explain a parable about the return of the Son of Man and whether the parable was “for us,” the apostles, “or for everyone.” Jesus replied, “Who then is the faithful and prudent manager [oikonomos] whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time?” It seems likely, then, that the manager in this parable stands for leaders who represent Jesus in his absence.
The “squandering of property” (the same verb is used in Lk 15:13 to describe the younger son’s wastefulness) for which the manager is dismissed has not to do so much with actual olive oil or wheat, but with the mistreatment of the tenants of the estate by the manager, who have had their debt enlarged to meet his needs, not those of the rich man. This is why the reduction of the tenants’ debts, the lessening of their burden, leads ultimately to commendation for the manager, even as he loses his position.
Of true value to the rich man, God, is not wheat or olive oil, but the care of his tenants laboring in his fields. When the manager reduces the debt of the farmers, he finally understands the nature of true wealth and the nature of his master, the rich man. Yes, the oikonomos wanted to improve his own position, but in so doing he genuinely released debt. The debtors have debt forgiven, and the relationship between the owner of the estate and his tenant farmers is improved. Forgiveness has eternal value.
The lesson of the lessening, after all, is not for the characters in the parable, but for us. If it is valuable for us as leaders or members of the church to forgive the debts of others as a last minute gambit to save our skin, how much more valuable is it not to pile up debt against others to begin with but to forgive radically from the start? How much do you owe me? How much do you owe my master? I can’t even remember.