September 18, 2022
We come to one of the most difficult parables in the Bible, a true twister, which we dig into with a grateful nod to Professor Kenneth Bailey for setting me straight on this parable. A parable unique to Luke. It really is fun. So here we go. Listen please: Luke 16: 1-13
1Then 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. 2So he summoned him and said to him, 'What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.' 3Then 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. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.' 5So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?' 6He answered, 'A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.' 7Then 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.'
8And 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. 9And 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.
Well, swell, so here is Jesus commending con artists and cheats as our model for discipleship. Hmmmm. Good Sunday school lesson. Though we might wish to admit a sneaking admiration for con artists and clever confidence men. Those who use their wits to come out on top. Either you skin or get skinned…so say those whose souls are owned by the world.
This parable raises lots of questions and possibilities:
On a first reading it sounds as if Jesus is commending dishonesty and cheating others, as was alleged by the Romans when they attacked Christianity, using this parable to show how the Christians encouraged immorality, perverting good Roman morals. By the way, notice how the verses that follow this parable speak about responsible use of money. Your integrity (or lack of it) will be revealed in how you deal in business.
10"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. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No 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."
Luke repeats Jesus’ commentary, echoed in Matthew (6.24), that if you are faithful in money you show yourself to be faithful in what you really have: your soul. Does the divine reality possess your soul rather than your stuff? There’s the connection. Luke adds these words to the parable just in case his Roman and Greek audience do believe Jesus is commending dishonesty and fraud. No, not at all: If someone asks you if you are a Christian, one way of testifying is to show them your checkbook!
So many possibilities, so many questions. Which always is how to begin, especially with parables. Ask questions. Avoid rushing to conclusions. Certitude is way too over-rated. Be open to what the text says, what the text doesn’t say, avoid adding what you think it says or what you want it to say.
So we ask questions.
Who brought the accusation?
What is the character of the Landlord?
What is the character of the Manager?
Do the tenants who owe the bills know that the Manager has been dismissed? That’s key.
Let’s sweep the decks, clear out the cobwebs, roll up our sleeves.
First, Jesus speaks this story specifically to the disciples. They’re going to be in the thick of it, for Christ tends to get you into trouble, so you better know two things: How to handle yourself and who you can count on in the long run, which also asks if others can count on you for the long run. Friends, are you ready for this?
Second: This is not a parable about banking and debts. It’s really not about money. The setting is a farm, where the owner is the Landlord and the Manager manages his property and oversees all this tenants. The tenants pay a portion of their harvest as their rental fees. Fair is fair.
Third, as in many of Jesus’ parables you have a good guy and a bad guy. In this case, the Manager is the bad guy. He really is a louse, a scoundrel, a rascal. The owner, the Landlord is a good guy. We should note that charging interest violates Biblical law. The Landlord is well respected, a man of faith, a man of integrity. This explains why the community confides to him that his Manager is cooking the books. His neighbors care enough about him to tell him this bad news about his corrupt Manager, and are willing to stand by their accusation.
How comfortable are we when we feel we need to tell someone about something difficult because it’s true?
What the Landlord is told isn’t gossip. It’s an accusation the Landlord believes is true because he trusts those bringing him the accusation and, well, because he likely has suspected the Manager anyway.
He calls his Manager in and gives him a chance to spill the beans, come clean: “What is this I hear about you?”
My father asked me that open question once and I sang like a canary, because I didn’t know exactly what he had on me, so I confessed to him everything I had done wrong.
This Manager is smarter than I was. He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t even plead the Fifth. He doesn’t defend himself or try to delay getting fired. No appeal here, no going to Human Resources.
Ordinarily, that’s what the Manager would do to fight an accusation: he’d protest that he’s the victim and the accusation is a bunch of lies. He’d bring in friends and witnesses professing his innocence, he’d make all sort of excuses, all to delay the inevitable, and more so to make himself look better afterwards, as if he’s the abused party in all this, unfairly treated. Folks usually are willing to take the side of the person who plays the victim card and blame the boss.
His silence is confession enough of guilt. Silence is consent. He knows he’s cooked for playing fast and loose from the accounts, for his own benefit. So the question now is: How can I get out of this with some options?
Maybe to his credit, the Manager considers (briefly) being willing to work as a farmer but he also knows he’s been behind a desk all his life, he’s been in charge for too long and likes it, an, besides, he’s too flabby to do physical labor. Honest work really wasn’t a serious notion.
To his credit, the Manager knows he could beg, but he’s too full of himself, too entitled, to grovel. What he wants is to do the kind of work he’s best at: cheating others. So he concocts a scheme so that when the news gets out, there might be one or two other Landlords willing to hire a guy like him, someone who might appreciate his, shall we say, creative talents. Birds of a feather.
Crucial to this parable is that at the moment he stands in front of the Landlord, he’s done for. The Manager is fired at that moment. Manager no longer. Anything now that the Manager does is not legally binding. But, but, only the Landlord and the Manager know this.
Could the Landlord be giving the dishonest Manager a chance to do right? Unlike some businesses, he doesn’t escort the Manager immediately out the building.
So what does the Manager do? As far as everyone else is concerned, he still speaks for the Landlord. He still speaks for the business. So one by one he summons the Landlord’s tenants into him to talk about their bills. He asks them what they owe, knowing full well the amount. It is right there in front of him in the books. The tenants don’t fudge or try to negotiate how much. They don’t try to wheedle a better deal. Which again says something about the Landlord. They like him. He’s a good and fair landlord.
Wouldn’t we all like to have that kind of reputation? Columnist David Brooks called this, “Eulogy Virtues.” What will others say about you at your funeral?
The tenants are very soon about to think him an even finer man and Landlord. Why? The Manager, letting the tenants believe he still speaks for the Landlord, tells them to reduce what they owe. It’s a gift from the Landlord. I’d like that at Fulton and my mortgage. You who owe a hundred jugs of oil, you now owe only fifty. Enjoy the Landlord’s generosity. You who owe a hundred containers of wheat, you now owe only 80. It’s a gift, enjoy the Landlord’s generosity.
And each of the tenants go out from the Manager grateful and applauding who? The Landlord, and maybe even applauding the Manager because he works for him, and maybe, just maybe, the Manager lets them infer that he was looking out for them and their interests. As if he was doing them a favor (so that they’d do one for him). “Okay, yes, I talked the old man into it.”
What a great guy! The community celebrates.
Which leaves the Landlord in a pickle. He can either announce to the town that, hold it folks, he cheated again, for I had already dismissed him. Remember, he was fired and nothing the Manager negotiated from that point on was legally binding. The Landlord could have made all the new deals null and void. Sorry, you still owe the hundred jugs. Sorry, you still owe me all the wheat.
Or he could rub his chin and chuckle at the Manager, this con-man of the Bible. Smile at his cleverness, yes. But more so smile at how his desperate Manager might just have begun to count on the Landlord’s nature to be generous and merciful, kind and gracious. Smiling because maybe now, after all this, the Manager finally appreciates the Landlord for the man he is.
The dishonest, unjust, corrupt Manager knows two things: he’s cooked, but he also understands now what kind of man his Landlord is. He may originally have thought his boss a fool, but now he knows different. He knows his Landlord is as kind as he is wise.
How? Because the Landlord owns him, literally. Because the Landlord could have, should have punished the Manager rather than simply dismiss him. He could have already gathered up the books, counted up how much the Manager cheated him, and sold him into slavery to make up for the fraud and debt.
The Landlord didn’t do this. The corrupt Manager is willing to trust and press upon that kindness. Even though a scoundrel and a rascal, this Manager finally appreciates the quality of the man he has served these years. He’s banking on the Landlord’s character, he’s going to press on that goodness. It is the only positive option he has. He who has proved himself most untrustworthy now learns a lesson in trust.
I always will approve into Presbytery membership a pastor who is kind and gentle, giving and caring, regardless as to whether or not his or her theology agrees with mine. If you’re going to follow a boss or employee it helps to have confidence in him or her. If you’re going to be a boss or employee, it helps to be worthy of their confidence.
Oh, yes, the Dishonest Manager knows he’s gone. He’s out the door – he broke trust. He’s out. That’s a given. But he goes out knowing his only hope rests in the goodness of his Landlord. The dishonest manager realizes it really is the Landlord who is shrewder.
We name this parable the Parable of the Dishonest Manager. Better is to name it the Parable of the Wise Landlord.
It’s a parable about hope. A parable from Jesus warning his disciples, who are about to go out into a world of trouble, that they‘ll need their wits. But they’ll really need to trust in their Landlord’s grace rather than their own resources or ambitions. To trust that the Landlord really wants what is best for us. We too are asked to trust in the character of the one in charge.
Who can you count on in the long run? Can they count on you?