Reading: Luke 16.1-8
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.’
In modern bibles we are often given a clue as to what we are about to read in the form of paragraph headings. As today’s reading can give rise to so much confusion I looked up a few to see what sort of manager I should be thinking about. Across several different translations I found the rich man’s manager described, not just as a manager, but also as a servant and as a steward. His actions were described as dishonest, unjust and shrewd. Is it any wonder that this passage gives rise to confusion? Is the manager, servant or steward to be commended or condemned? What does Jesus want us to take away from this parable?
Obviously, Jesus is not advocating anything dishonest or underhand. To understand what the rich man’s manager is doing we have to understand a basic principal of Jewish law. Jews are not allowed to lend money at interest. However, that had become twisted over time and those who did lend money often charged their interest in the form of other commodities, such as oil and wheat. It is a perfectly plausible reading of this passage from scripture that Jesus’ listeners would have seen the manager as behaving in a totally honourable way, taking off the interest that never should have been charged in the first place. If we accept the validity of this interpretation we can see that the rich man had no option but to praise his manager because he was helping him to keep Jewish law.
This reading can also be seen as moral teaching on a different level. The rich man was guilty of building up his wealth at the expense of others. The rich man’s manager, servant or steward used that which was being exploited to build stronger relationships with others, and especially those who were in a weaker position. Because we, so often, view this parable through our ‘worldly-wise’ and ‘world-weary’ eyes, we reduce it to a question of whether the manager has been dishonest, unjust or shrewd. In reality the manager has been open-hearted and adventurous in the way God was open-hearted and adventurous when he sent Jesus to share the whole of the human experience. Rather than picking over the minutiae of financial management, let us join in the honesty, justice and innocence of Jesus’ love for the whole of humanity.