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 account 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 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.’
In 1997 American rapper Notorious BIG or Biggie as he was known released the second single, Mo Money Mo Problems, off his album entitled Life After Death. The album would be Biggie’s second and final album as he died tragically in a drive-by shooting on March 9 1997, the album was released two weeks after his death. The song’s catchy refrain wonders:
“I don’t know what they want from me.
It’s like the more money we come across
The more problems we see.”
Whether it is the words of Ecclesiastes, the words of Jesus, Biggie or the Beatles it seems we are aware of the problems of wealth, that money can’t buy us happiness, love, or solve all our problems, in reality money often causes more problems. Just ask the group of 16 people from Windsor Ontario who won 1 million dollars and are being sued by a 17th person who claims that he participated in previous lotto pools. Lottery winners within the US are more likely to declare bankruptcy within 3 – 5years than the average American. As I say this you may be thinking, it easy to speak about the problems of more money when you aren’t living pay cheque to pay cheque or are struggling to put food on the table for yourself or family. Wealth and its acquisition like any moral issue is complicated. What seems obvious or an easy answer is not always the case.
The parable of the “dishonest Manager” as it is labelled in our scriptures raises these complicated issues. From the out set the title of the parable makes the assumption about who the bad person is here: The dishonest manager. Jesus tells a parable about a rich man who has a manager, some unknown third party has made allegations that the manager was squandering the rich man’s property. The manager is worried that he will lose his job. He has no prospects he is not able to do physical labour and he is ashamed to beg, there is no social security or employment insurance or any other safety net to catch him.
So, this manager comes up with an idea to secure his post firing future. He summons his master’s, the rich man’s, debtors and gives them a deal; if you pay a portion of what you owe now, the debt will be wiped cleaned, immediately. And so, he goes and does this, some are given up to 50 percent of what they owed. This is the manager’s version of “how to make friends and influence people,” these debtors will surely welcome him into their homes, give him somewhere to stay when he loses his job after he has given them such a deal on their debts. The manager creates his own safety net, working within the society and circumstances he lives. The rich man rather than condemning the manager praises him for his shrewdness.
Then what follows is Jesus own commentary and interpretation of the story. And he says something unexpected. In verse nine he says “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.” Wait – what? Jesus is telling us to make friends by means of dishonest wealth so that we will be rewarded? This is not the Jesus we are used to hearing condemn the rich and lift up the poor. And to make matters more complicated Jesus ends his interpretation by saying “you cannot serve God and wealth.” At least that is the Jesus we recognize: money bad, God good.
But what do we do with this story and that verse encouraging making friends by dishonest means? It may be helpful to know that scholars believe that verse nine is anomaly, in actuality the end of verse 8 “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light,” is Jesus’ comment on the parable not verse nine. The beginning of verse nine, the phrase of, “I tell you,” indicates Luke’s introduction to other, but not necessarily related, sayings of Jesus. Even if we accept this likely and ignore verse nine there is still something about this parable and Jesus’ response that is unsatisfactory. It has to do with the character of the dishonest manager and how we view him.
Rev. Dr. Mitzi J. Smith, American theologian, biblical scholar and the first African-American woman to earn a PhD in New Testament from Harvard, posits that the manager, is an enslaved person, he has a master – the rich man. Smith writes , “enslaved persons are expected to always act in the best interest of their masters, to turn a profit; otherwise they can be accused of squandering the master’s property.” Smith even critiques Jesus and other biblical texts of how they use slave parables but never critique the institution of slavery and its evils. In slave parables slavery and enslavers are never condemned only enslaved people who fail to be good slaves.
If this feels uncomfortable to hear, or unsatisfying that Jesus does not condemn or at least seems to feel comfortable using slave language, you are not alone and it should bother us. When you heard the parable the first time did you assume that the manager was dishonest or pragmatic, did you struggle with the morality of doing something good in reducing people’s debts but for selfish and less than good intentions? Did you think about the circumstances of the manager, that he was doing his best with the situation he found himself in? Did you condemn the manager or congratulate him?
What this parable raises for us today is the complexity of making good choices and resisting evil. We tend to think that our only option while living in complex and unjust systems is “accommodation or resistance”. But in reality, it is not accommodation or resistance but negotiation. Let me give you a simple example. This week I helped a colleague and a ministry of his church load bottles of water onto vehicles to give out to homeless encampment in our city. When I arrived at the site I met with the leader of the program. I shared with him how although I don’t like purchasing or encouraging the use of bottle water as it is not sustainable, creates waste etc., in this case I was okay with it because of the greater need in the camps. He then told me how they had tried to have a more sustainable solution; they had arranged a large donation of re-usable of water bottles and were asking the city to send to the camp one of the city’s H2O Water trailers that provide tap water free of charge. The city declined. Bottle water was the next best solution.
As followers of Jesus, it is clear that we are to be faithful to God not material wealth, we are to be good stewards of God’s gifts. What is not always clear is how we do this, devotion to God is never easy in our world of negotiation, where many things like wealth demand our attention. The lesson we might take away from this parable is the acknowledgement that we can be quick to judge and condemn the actions of others, particular those who are trying to survive in unjust systems. We might also recognize that we need God and Christ to reconcile us to one another.
The messiness of morality, of living in our world will not disappear, and there are many times when we are called to rebel and there are times when we must negotiate to meet the needs of those in front of us who are thirsty. What we cannot do is ignore the problems that the pursuit of wealth creates, just as we cannot the ignore the discomfort Jesus’ parable causes us. What we do is keep in front of us that wealth should not be pursed at the expense of justice and love of God. We are called to be faithful to God not things, to a God who is alive and seeks to reconcile us and mend the world and systems in which we live. May we be faithful, may we see the problems in our world, may we pursue justice and love of God. Amen.