The Strange Calculus of The Dishonest Manager

I can’t think of a more frustrating parable to preach on than The Parable of the Dishonest Manager. It takes lot of work to try and overcome our offense at what Jesus seems to be saying, and to try and reveal a little bit of truth about the Kingdom of God in this one. I easily could have preached for forty minutes, trying to unpack everything that’s going on here. But this is what I’ve got.

(More notes on the thought process behind the sermon, and my own critiques, at the end)

I grew up at a medium-sized church in small town South Carolina, where I would go to Sunday School before Eucharist almost every Sunday during the school year. I’m pretty sure it was there that I first learned about parables. It was there that I learned that parables are simple and sensible stories used to make moral and spiritual lessons clearer, more relatable, and more understandable in the context of everyday life. The Prodigal Son teaches us about God’s forgiveness; The Good Samaritan teaches us how to care for one another; the Mustard Seed tells us a little bit about how the Kingdom of Heaven. Parables: easy stories, clear lessons, easily relatable.

So I can only conclude that some bozo made a major mistake when they titled today’s Gospel lesson “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager.” Our gospel at first, second, and even two-thousandth glance is not a simple and sensible story, and it doesn’t communicate a clear moral and spiritual lesson, and it certainly doesn’t seem to easily relate to everyday life. Jesus tells his disciples in today’s gospel “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” What? Seriously? Are we hearing Jesus right? Let’s hear the story again.

A man of great wealth has hired a manager to look after his holdings. After getting an accusation that his property is being squandered by the manager, the wealthy man summons the manager and instantly fires him. The manager has one last task before he goes out the door: to give the books back. The manager knows that his goose is cooked. He doesn’t really have any marketable skills, he’s too out of shape to do manual labor, and he doesn’t want to be a panhandler. He has access to his boss’s books for a limited amount of time, so he decides that his only choice is to try and curry some favor with the people that owe debts to the rich man. He cooks the books – and reduces the recorded amount that each of the debtors owes his soon-to-be former boss. He doesn’t take any money for himself; just the favor that he’s curried with the folks who owed his boss.

While the boss has been an absentee – absentee enough that he’s willing to fire the manager on hearsay evidence – he evidently knows enough about his finances to know what the manager has done when he reviews the books in a final audit. His response: “Hey, man, that was really smart! Way to look out for yourself as you’re on the way out the door!” And then Jesus communicates the lesson of the parable: “make friends for yourself like the manager did; but also, if you’re dishonest in little, you’re dishonest in many things. And don’t forget: you can’t serve two masters, God and wealth. Only one.” I feel confident saying that a second reading isn’t shedding any more light on this.

In order to make a little bit of sense of where Jesus is going in this parable, we first need to drop what has become one of our key methods for interpreting parables: assuming that everything stands for something else. With today’s lesson, we can’t assume that God is the wealthy owner, or that Jesus is the manager, and we’re the lucky debtors. Unlike many of Jesus’ other parables, this one isn’t allegorical; things don’t stand in place of something else.  We have to meet the characters in this story as they’re presented, in their various roles and places.  To engage this text, we also have to dig in a bit with the original context of our lesson in the society of Jesus’ day, and also with the original text of the scripture – in Greek. Don’t worry – I’ll keep the language bit brief, and to the point.

The parable focuses on is the manager, who works for a wealthy man, managing his property and money. He is, the text says, an οἰκονόμος (oikonomos), the manager of a household or an estate. The οἰκος (oikos) – or household – formed the basic unit of Greco-Roman society in Palestine during Jesus’ time. It consisted numerous people – a patriarch, his extended family, slaves, and freedmen attached the household. But the household was more than just people, though – it also was the basic economic unit of the society of the day – it would have included not just the house itself, but the agricultural holdings (nearby or at a distance) that supported its operations. The “household” of today’s parable, then, was an engine of economic production in and of itself. Our word economy comes from this system – the οἰκονομία (oikonomia) of the household was, in fact, its management.

It was this vast estate of holdings for which the manager of today’s parable is responsible. On behalf of the wealthy head of the household, he would have overseen the planting and cultivation of crops; the management and procurement of goods for the house; and managed its financial affairs. In all likelihood, the manager had little to no status in society; that resided solely in the wealthy householder – who would have been enjoyed the “good life.” The manager, for all his responsibility, would have been entirely dependent on the rich man for his life – for his food, shelter, and for any small salary he may have earned.

So in today’s parable, when the manager is fired, his entire livelihood disappears – not just his salary, but his home, his means of eating – in an instant, everything is gone. With no power or station in society, and no wealth of his own, the manager must find a way to live, and the only means for him to survive would be to join another household. So the manager alters the books, and curries favor by reducing the debts owed to his former master, so that, as he says in our gospel today, “when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their oikos – into their household.”

The manager takes none of the house owner’s wealth for himself, even though he has the means to do so. He does, however, trade some of the debt owed to his former boss for the relationships that will assure his ability to live. The manager – once powerless over his life, suddenly has something he can fall back on. He has a path forward, a way to live. His station won’t change; he won’t acquire any new wealth or power. He will have the chance to join another oikos, and to stay alive.

Luke’s gospel, from its beginning, is skeptical of wealth, and imagines that time – in the kingdom of heaven – when roles will become reversed, when to use the words of the Magnificat, God will “cast down the mighty from their thrones, and exalt the humble and the meek,” when God will “fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich empty away.” This gospel is one that loves to turn the tables on our expectations and our instincts. Not long after today’s Gospel, Jesus recounts the story of Lazarus and the rich man – and tell how Lazarus, once a beggar for crumbs at the gate of the rich man’s household, enters paradise as the rich man looks on wantingly. Jesus tells the parable of a rich man who stores up all his wealth in silos, even as his very soul is demanded of him on the same night. Over and over again, we are reminded that wealth does not determine status or standing in the Reign of God; that stations will be changed, and the lowly will be lifted up.

But Jesus is also aware that, while his presence and ministry is the inauguration of the kingdom of God come near to us, and present among us, that we live with the realities of the world as it is, and in fact, we are shaped by it. Luke has as a central concern the right use of money; the right orientation toward it. We will interact with wealth, money, and power everyday – Jesus knows this – but all too often, our lives are relentless pursuits to acquire more of it.  And our attitudes to wealth, power, and influence are often inculcated within our psyche without us even being aware of it – drilled deep into our souls to the point that it takes a deep jolt to remind us that our true value is grounded in love – love of God and love of neighbor, and not in the wealth of money.

Our parable today is just that – a deep jolt to our core, a lesson taught by unexpectedly turning the tables, and grating against our socially conditioned norms. Jesus – ever the expert storyteller – weaves the parable so that we immediately are made to sympathize with the owner who is deprived of a portion of the debts owed to him. Jesus tells the story so that it rouses our anger towards the shrewd manager for his dishonesty in dealing with that master’s wealth.  And when we reach the end of the story, and the wealthy man comes to read the books – boy, are we ready to see the manager get his just desserts. We can’t wait for him to be punished, and then hear Jesus’ extracted lesson from the story.  But the tables are turned. The wealthy man executes no punishment on the manager; instead, he commends him for his actions.  And then, what’s more, Jesus tells us to go out and be like the shrewd manager, and in doing so, tells us something about the kingdom of heaven.  His point seems so ludicrous that, in the verse after today’s gospel, Luke tells us that the Pharisees were mocking him for it!

So what is Jesus saying? Jesus is clearly not commending dishonesty in this parable. In fact, he’s very clear about it: “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 [of the kingdom of heaven]? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?”  So at least that moral lesson is clear: honesty is, in fact essential. So what are we to make of the rest of today’s gospel? What is it about the manager’s action is Jesus commending to us?

What Jesus is teaching us is a lesson about economics. Not in our usual sense of profit and loss statements, gross wealth, and fiscal policy – but about the difference between the economics – the oikonomia – of God’s household and of God’s kingdom, as opposed to the economy of dishonest wealth, and of mammon. Wealth is not currency in the kingdom of God; it achieves no ends, it is not brought with us; it will always leave us unfulfilled. And in the household of God, wealth doesn’t have currency. But relationships do. And mercy does. The manager shrewdly – and from the debtor’s perspective, mercifully – dealt away something that was of no value in the kingdom of God – temporal wealth – for something of great value – relationship. And the relationships he forms – yes, even, by less than honest means according to the standards of the world’s economy – those relationships will be the way he has life.

He’s changing economies from the economy of wealth, to the economy of God. It’s this jolting turnabout in the parable, where Jesus confounds our mores and expectations, that tells us something about the kingdom of God: that relationship holds currency, and gives us root and security in God’s economy.

Jesus’ words push this home. In a turn of phrase, when he speaks of being welcomed into the “eternal homes,” when he speaks of the kingdom of heaven – he doesn’t call it an oikos, a household founded on wealth, and power, and privilege. God’s economy is found elsewhere – in what Jesus says is a σκηνάς (skēnas).  A mere place of shelter – a tent. In the language of the Old Testatment, this is the place that God dwells as Israel wanders through the desert, without wealth or power or privilege. Where Israel wanders in their vulnerability.  And so Jesus shows us that the kingdom of heaven is not like the household of the wealthy man – for it is not found anchored to the levers of power in the world around us. Instead, the home of the kingdom is found in souls of a wandering, pilgrim people, bound by their covenant into deeper relationship with the Living God. And we are bound by our baptismal covenant with Jesus Christ, and thereby to one another.

Relationship with God demands that we choose which economy we will invest in, even as reality demands we live in the midst of two visions of wealth: God’s and our own. It asks us to step up, day by day, and trade our stable houses of wealth for that place where God dwells – here, among those of us who gather in God’s name – in our relationship to one another, and in our relationship to Jesus Christ, who gives us the greatest possible wealth of all – the gift of life itself.

 

 

Postscript

Ok, so what do I like, and don’t like? A bit of self-critique… If you’ve ever been curious of how clergy are thinking as we put our sermons together, this is a decent example of my process. I run through a litany of thoughts like this every week – they become even more pronounced in this confusing morass of a parable… and they’re present even as I’m framing a final draft. At some point, Eucharist starts, and it’s just time to go with what I had…

  • I can’t help but wonder if I’m on the edge of eisegesis here. I really liked the idea that this is another of Luke’s “turned tables” patterns, and latched on to it pretty early as the framing device for my interpretation. That said, given Luke’s general use of “underdog” narratives, especially when it comes to money, makes me think it can hold.
  • I wish I had talked more about stewardship and our relationship to money, in the “already-not yet” kingdom of God. That said, the idea of the manager trading economies really stood out to me; most especially, speaking of the currency of God’s economy.
  • I decided early on that the commonly used explanation that the manager decided to hold back his cut of the debts didn’t sense to me, so I didn’t proffer that as an explanation. Yes, managers would have had leeway to take their own cuts in this time. So did tax collectors; but Luke finds a way to work that into his narrative about Zaccheus (19:8),  having Zaccheus himself admit that he’s taking a cut above his fair share. Why do it there, and not here, where that explanation would help clarify the parable infinitely more? (Remember, in 16:14, the pharisees ridicule him just as much – Luke says it’s because they were “lovers of money.”). I think the manager is genuinely cooking the books here. (After all, it wouldn’t be that dishonest of him to give up his ill-gotten cut!)
  • I wish I could suss out the literary mechanism that the parable employs – the abrupt turning of the tables and role reversal, and expounded upon it some more. I wish I had found a better way to express “yes, the dishonesty of the manager is real and wrong, but it’s not the main point of the parable.” It’s what draws our attention – especially because of our conditioning around money – but it’s not the key point made in the parable. That said, it’s hard to preach literary devices and composition: the idea that the manager’s dishonesty or deceit is used as a device to make the reversal of roles that much more stunning isn’t exactly soul-nourishing, or applicable to everyday life. Is it important to understanding the text? Sure. But it’s difficult sermon material.
  • Above all else, I wish I had more time to suss out the scholarship, especially around the likely role of the manager. For instance, the manager probably worked in a Roman domus rather than a Greek oikos, and even though they’re relatively analogous concepts, there are differences. I’d like to be able to be more sure of my assessment of the tools that were under the manager’s purview. Most of all, I’d really like to establish that the manager wasn’t a citizen, as I suspect. If he were a citizen, the argument falls apart.
  • I was only able to do a limited lemma search on the use of σκηνάς (16:9) in the New Testament, and mainly focused on Luke/Acts usage. I did suss it out, and I do think the contrast to οἰκος in verse 4 is intentional. In verse nine, Jesus could have used eternal οἰκος to describe the heavenly kingdom; he doesn’t. He chooses the σκηνάς. I think this is reinforcing the point on wealth, not appropriating the “heavenly tent” language of other parts of the new testament (most esp. Hebrews, and the Johannine literature). I want to do more research on this, but, alas, running a parish means I have to leave this to NT scholars.

That’s what I got. I’m certainly open to hearing about the merits and flaws of my exegesis on a scholarly level; this isn’t presented as high scholarship.

I’d also love to hear what other preachers did with this difficult text…

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