The Gospel readings for today suggest either Luke 16:1-13 or Luke 16:10-13. I can easily understand why a Priest or Deacon might elect to preach on 16:10-13 today, omitting the whole of the parable of the dishonest steward (or manager). Most commentators see the parable itself running from verses 1-9, with verses 10-13 added from Jesus’ teachings elsewhere to attempt to give the parable a clear meaning. It is, to my mind, the most difficult of Jesus’ parables on which to get solid footing.

The parable begins with a rich man learning of his “dishonest “ (Greek – adikia)  manager (Greek – oikonomos, from which we also get our word “economy”) “squandering his property.” “Squandering his property” is an interesting phrase, and appears in Luke 15:13 in the NRSV translation of “The Prodigal Son.” To squander is to waste and to misuse one’s resources. What has the oikonomos done? The manager in Jesus' day was often a slave, caring for the master’s estates while the master lived in the city. Though a slave, they had a degree of power and freedom in operating the estate, and Jesus does not note in the parable what the problem was in terms of the actual “squandering.”

When word gets back to the manager that his position and lifestyle are in jeopardy, he comes up with a plan.  Unlike the Temptations, the manager is too proud to beg  (“I am ashamed to beg”: 16:3). He decides to call in his master’s clients and reduce what they owe to his master. One owes the master 100 jugs of olive oil; now it is fifty (16:6). One owes 100 containers of wheat; now it is eighty (16:7). These debtors should probably be understood to be tenant farmers who operate on the master’s land and pay for the privilege with a portion of their yields. Many people have speculated on the manager’s activity here: has he been charging too much in the past and skimming off of the top? Is he now reducing the amount owed so that the master will look favorably upon him or is he trying to get in the good graces of the tenant farmers, so that they will befriend him when his position is taken from him? Or, there are other options, is he now simply doing the right thing?

It is at this point, however, that the parable gets interesting. Upon learning that the manager was “squandering his property,” the rich man decided to jettison his manager. Upon learning that he was reducing the debt of his debtors, the rich man commended his manager – he did not get his position back, but he was commended; he was still “dishonest,” but he was commended.  “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” (16:8). Why was the manager commended for his behavior now when he was simply trying, at least on one view, to take care of himself after he lost his job?  This is the crux of the parable and the verse that generally sends readers away scratching their heads.

Let’s focus on the images and language carefully. In the NRSV translation, the dishonest manager is said to act “shrewdly,” but a few chapters earlier when Peter is asking Jesus about a parable about the delayed arrival of a master (stated to be the “Son of Man”) the same word – phronesis - is translated as “prudent.”  Here are a few of those verses from Chapter 12:  “Peter said, "Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?" And the Lord said, "Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions” (12:41-44).  Notice that a “prudent/shrewd” manager is one who cares for the master’s “possessions” and does not abuse or take advantage of them. It is clear in Chapter 12 that the “possessions” are not estates, or olive oil, or wheat, but the people themselves. If this is the case in Chapter 16, too, then perhaps the dishonesty of the manager has less to do with the economic images and more to do with the spiritual realities underlying them. Is debt reduction by the manager the forgiveness of sins of those whom the manager has been put in charge? Is the dishonest manager commended because when he forgives debt he does not only what is right, but allows the tenant farmers, the “property” or “possession” of the master, to see the master in a merciful light? What if the dishonest manager is a Church leader who has abused his authority and has now repented of his abuse and has done the right thing for the tenants and for his master? He cannot have his position of trust and authority any longer, but he can be commended for his acts of repentance, which could, as we see below, lead to his salvation.

Jesus then turns the parable, however, back to economic, I would say material, terms from the spiritual realities. That is, often material and economic truths point beyond themselves to spiritual realities, but so, too, the concrete material and economic behaviors themselves have spiritual implications. So often in Jesus’ Lucan parables, wealth and the way you use it is a spiritual reality. Verse 9 has Jesus state, “ 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.”

This final verse is also the final conundrum. It suggests that the real repentance of the dishonest manager was not just spiritual (“forgiving spiritual debt”) but material (“forgiving economic debt”) and that the latter also has eternal implications. How do you make friends by means of dishonest wealth (“mammon”)? And who exactly will welcome you into “eternal homes”?  As one of my students sais long ago after studying this parable in a small group, “I don’t know anyone with an eternal home.” But maybe that is the point. We need to care for our wealth and use it wisely and judiciously for we never know who will be waiting, ready to welcome us into eternal homes.

This is a hard parable, for it speaks specifically, I think, to Church leadership and their need to use the resources God gave them with care and love, forgiving debt and guarding not squandering the property of the Master. That, finally, is the members of the visible Church. Yet, in terms of implications for day to day life, the means by which we all use our wealth, “dishonest mammon,” has implications for the eternal lives of all of us.

John W. Martens

Comments

Marie Rehbein | 9/23/2010 - 11:00pm
John,

I get that Jesus's saying, "for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light" would indicate that the steward could stand for one of us.  It warrants further investigation, I would say, into who the children of "this age" are, who their generation is, and who the children of the light are.  I have never thought about it, nor been taught about it.  Does Jesus say anything like this elsewhere?

Interestingly, The Rich Man and Lazarus, is one that I had wanted to mention.  My husband has an entirely different interpretation of than any I had ever heard.  In this parable, he sees almost everyone and everything standing for something very specific.  I think he said that the rich man's purple garments correspond to the bishops' purple garments.  The only people at his "father's" house are "brothers".  The table stands for the altar.  As a result, the riches would be Catholicism.  And, the ultimate point of the story would be that the Catholic Church keeps (or would be keeping-since at the time of the story it did not exist) the body of Christ to itself when it should not; even the crumbs from the table (altar) are not permitted to be given to the "poor".  (Does it mean the bishops are all going to hell so long as they have closed communion while everyone excluded from communion ends up in the bosom of Abraham?  I hope not.)

Since you might want to share our conversation with your class, you might be interested that my religious education was Lutheran, though these days I attend Catholic Church with my husband and children.
Marie Rehbein | 9/23/2010 - 3:46pm
John,


Of course it is very difficult to get into the head of Jesus since he so often did not give specific instructions, but told us stories instead to make us think for ourselves.  However, it seems to me that he was generally functioning above the level at which we find ourselves needing money and that he condescended to talking about money in our terms in order to segway into his favorite topic-our eternal life with Him.  Don't forget the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. 


I don't want to give you the impression that I think any of us can get away from needing money-which we only need because it's easier than bartering and
which constitutes wealth for us in our time.  However, we can make ourselves sick about it, can't we?  Once we have extra money, then what?  We don't want to waste it in case we might need it, so we try to find ways to protect it, at least, but also to make it "grow" so that it doesn't succumb to losing value.  When we don't have enough money to pay our bills, then other people come along to make us sick about it.


I am not sure how much power money actually buys someone.  Clearly, if someone is avaricious out of a desire to enhance his power, that is an indication that he feels relatively powerless.  I can honestly say, though, that I have felt most empowered when I managed to get by on little money instead of when I had more money than I needed, because even though it is more than I need, it is not enough to meet the neediness I see around me, which causes me to feel relatively powerless. 


I don't know how to say this so that it sounds right, but there are people I like who have money.  I don't get a sense that they feel powerful because they have it, but that they might actually feel embarrassed by it when they socialize with people they like who have less.  In most cases they have it because it was coincidental to doing whatever it was they did-doctoring, being good with numbers, being creative, etc.  It is the people who don't have the money who are difficult to tolerate when they exhibit envy and dwell on their relative poverty instead of thinking about more uplifting things.


Taking money unfairly is taking money not in accord with the rules.  The story in question here has a steward not acting in accord with his master's wishes (doing squandering-maybe paying more for things than the master would like), which may not have been morally unfair necessarily, particularly if the master was an avaricious cheapskate.  The master was unhappy with the steward, but then seemed not to be unhappy with the generosity shown by the steward, even though the steward's generosity came (perhaps, once again) at his expense.  To me it sounds like the master valued the idea of looking out for #1 and admired the steward when the steward exhibited himself to be like the master.  This is, I believe, the setting of the story, but not the point.  I think the master does not stand for God and the steward does not stand for us.  I don't think Jesus was holding either of these guys up as an example to follow even though he didn't condemn them.


Why didn't Jesus condemn these guys the way the Old Testament prophets and laws did?  I think it was because at the time Jesus is telling the story, He is God among us in the process of saving us, which includes making us aware of the results of that salvation, instead of God building up a civilization into which He could come to save us.  Jesus was pretty direct in saying, though, make friends for yourself with dishonest wealth, leaving out perhaps, "just as you do with honest wealth".  I think he meant: use it to make friends, because that will last into eternity, while money obviously won't, to which people would respond, "eternity?, really?-eternal, consequences, hmmm..."

The story in itself does not answer the question of how we should handle money in our society.  The answer to that question we deduce based on the sum of what is found in the Bible, and also what is found in our hearts. 
Marie Rehbein | 9/22/2010 - 12:39pm
Yes, John, that was what I was thinking.  I'm not reading the word "dishonest" the way I would if I were considering whether a crime was committed or even an ethical standard were being stretched.  I'm considering that Jesus might have been playing word games to some extent.  Then I'm also considering how Enron was so well regarded until it's shenanigans were uncovered because of the civic projects that it funded.  I'd say Jesus would approve of the civic projects but think of how the money was raised as something of a joke in the big picture of eternal life.
Marie Rehbein | 9/21/2010 - 7:47pm
Could it be that "dishonest wealth" is a redundancy so that it is distinguishable from true wealth?  In other words, wealth used to cultivate good feeling and relationships is money well spent.
John Raymer | 9/21/2010 - 10:42am
Excellent and thought provoking for a hard parable!

Your analysis leads me to note the following:
1.  All our wealth is a gift from God. It is not ours but our master's.
2.  Have we been squandering our master's wealth as individuals? as a nation?
3.  We are all going to lose our jobs as stewards - we are going to die.
4.  The only value in our assests is in giving them to those who need them. Hoarded and squandered assests are worthless.

I am struck today by how little invested money earns. We have been told to save for retirement, but our savings and investments barely keep up with inflation. But there are so many who are overwhelmed by huge interest payments on their debt. What is the best use of our money? To watch it slowly melt away? To spend it on a bunch of things we don't need? To give it to organizations and ''charities'' that spend it all on their own maintenance? Or to hand it to the guy on exit ramp with a sign saying ''homeless, out of work.''

Money is the hardest of subjects because it really shows where people's hearts lie.
Marie Rehbein | 9/22/2010 - 4:22pm
John,


Remember also the story of the workers who put in a full day and didn't get paid any more than those who started at the end of the day.  They were told not to complain because the terms of their "contract" were met.


Though we all see a larger theme in that story, it also presumes that these things pertaining to economics are entirely human concerns; God has set no standard for economic fairness.  God's concern, even in the case of Zacchaeus, seems to be how people treat one another, not how they handle money. 


The sin, one would presume, in stealing from or defrauding someone, is not the taking of the money unfairly, but the social injury that causes-mistrust, hunger, homelessness, anger, for example.  I'm sure you are already thinking this, but, financial crimes are generally about breaking the rules we have set and not about whether any suffering might have resulted from those crimes-sometimes there is restitution, but when there is no money left, everyone is out to some degree.
The rules in our country over the last few decades have changed to the extent that their goal has become more obvious.  The purported idea is to regulate or deregulate so as to rev up commerce, not to ensure that everyone is treated fairly.  In that sense, God and today's "Wall Street" are generally on the same page, though God, I think, would approve of rules that attempt not to benefit some at the expense of others.  Biblical indications are that "Wall Street", and all of us as individuals, will be held accountable for the effects of our actions even though technically we did not commit crimes or make the rules.  I think we have individual responsiblity to mitigate against the negative effects of the rules when the situation calls for it.