by Auriol Farquhar
(Based on Luke 16:1-13)
Every commentator I have looked at in order to get some guidance in interpreting this text starts by saying how difficult it is; one reflection that I read calls it ‘baffling’ and says that people have struggled to make sense of it for centuries. That gave me great confidence!
The story itself sounds quite modern. A dishonest manager is about to lose his job because he has misspent his employer’s assets. Because he knows that he is not suited to labouring and doesn’t want to be a beggar, he goes around to all the people who owe his employer money and reduces their debts. He does this so that they will be friendly to him after he loses his job. To our surprise, the employer commends the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. Why? Why does the rich man commend his manager for dishonesty? Why does Jesus offer his followers such an unsavoury character as a role model? In what sense are the “children of light” supposed to take a cue from the “shrewdness” of a self-interested scoundrel?
Let’s look at some of the ideas on offer.
Perhaps the passage is ironic? Is Jesus saying this tongue in cheek?
Or, maybe when he reduced the payments, the steward may have been simply forgoing his own cut of the interest. In the world of Roman-occupied Galilee in the first century rich landlords and rulers were often loan-sharks, using exorbitant interest rates to amass more wealth and to disinherit peasants of their family land. The rich man and his steward, or debt collector, were both exploiting desperate peasants. Maybe the steward was doing what the law of God commands, namely, forgiving all the hidden interest in the contracts.
Could it be that though the dishonest manager is a sinner who is looking out for his own interests, he models behaviour the disciples could copy? Instead of simply being a victim of circumstance, he transforms a bad situation into one that benefits him and others.
Or is it about being strong and practical? When the manager realizes that he’s in trouble, he springs into action. He doesn’t wait around, he doesn’t despair — he hotfoots it out the door, a plan at the ready. Perhaps it’s this sense of urgency, of single-mindedness, of creative possibility and cleverness that wins the manager such high praise from his employer. He focuses on redeeming what he can out of the situation that he finds himself in.
Or – what if the manager’s mismanagement is actually the fruit of his compassion? What if we assumed that the manager spent years risking his job and his employer’s displeasure to ease the financial struggles of the debtors he managed? True, his methods as described in the parable are dishonest; Jesus makes that abundantly clear. But what if even in his imperfection, the manager embodies grace and forgiveness? This would fit in with his last and drastic move in the story – he lessens the debts of those who can’t pay off what they own, even at the risk of further angering the boss he has already offended.
So there are a number of lessons that we might learn from this parable, but for me, and the one that I understand best, the focus should be on what Jesus says at the end of this passage – you can serve either God or wealth, but not both.
Jesus is describing a world we know only too well. A world full of self-interest; of people striving to attain wealth, and not being too fussy about whom they step on, or use, or abuse in order to achieve it. Today ambition to ‘do well’, that is, to make money, is admired; honesty is often seen as weakness and much cynicism exists about the concept of being just and fair to all people. People worship wealth; society everywhere encourages us to achieve it.
I don’t believe Jesus is saying that wealth itself is a sin, especially when someone has worked hard to achieve it and come by it in an honest manner. Rather the sin is the desire to be wealthy for its own sake, at any cost; to believe that to be rich makes us more worthy, superior to other people, and entitled to use the resources of the world to increase our own affluence and prosperity at the expense of others and the dwindling resources of our world. It’s not only about how we may have achieved that wealth: it’s also about how we use it. Wealth should not become our idol. In Luke, Jesus repeatedly warns that we cannot be disciples while accumulating wealth at the expense of the poor. Martin Luther called wealth (or ‘Mammon’) “the most common idol on earth”.
It is how we use the resources at our disposal in this life that matters, even though our “true riches” can only be found in that place “where no thief can draw near and no moth destroy.”
“No slave can serve two masters … you cannot serve God and wealth.” This reiterates a central theme in Luke: the kingdom of God entails giving up all other commitments, including the commitment to economic security
As Christians we live in a world that is deeply interconnected — and deeply compromised. Even the tiniest financial decisions we make — where to shop, how to invest our money, what to eat or wear in an age of corporate greed, child labour, climate change, and globalization — have far-reaching consequences. We need to remember this and let it affect our actions when we make those financial decisions – do we buy Fair Trade coffee, do we purchase clothes made in sweat shops, or get drawn into changing our wardrobes each year to keep up with fashion? Do we stockpile goods in times of shortages, do we buy second and third houses and charge exorbitant rents for them? What contribution are we making towards helping the issues of climate change and sustainability? How are we helping to ensure a fairer distribution of wealth and resources throughout the world, or even our own community?
Jesus says, “The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” In this context the disciples and us, you and I, are ‘the children of light’. Is the message for us that we can do a better job of engaging with the crises and failures facing us and facing our Church, facing our world, here and now? Are we just waiting around instead of taking action? Could we be shrewder, more clever, more creative, and more single-minded in our vocations as children of light? If the manager in Jesus’s story can hustle so hard for his own survival, how much more might we contend on behalf of a world God loves?
I guess most of us feel that, as individuals, we can do little to change things. We are not members of the Government, we don’t own big businesses, most of us don’t have a great deal of ‘wealth’. But I believe we can make small contributions to trying to ensure that resources are shared more evenly and at least not squandered, and not use more than we need.
We do a lot already in this community – providing the Op Shop, encouraging recycling, trying to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves, contributing to charities through our Church contributions, supporting our local voluntary organisations, giving money and goods towards disaster funds, supporting research into disease and the many other causes that are visible in our country.
But two things strike me. Firstly, do we do enough in our own lives to not squander the resources of our planet? And secondly, when we are giving money, goods or support to others, are we visible as Christians? Do we show others that we are trying to live unselfishly and to serve and support others because that is the Christian way? We do it because we love God and love our fellow humans as Jesus taught us to do, but do we emphasise that to others?
I need to consider these issues in my own life. I may not be able to pay my debt back 100% but I can try to repay as much as I can. I love clothes, but do I need so many? I keep trying to tell my husband that he needs new clothes – his response generally is, “but I don’t need them.” We find it difficult to give each other presents, as we recognise that we don’t have to squander money on things that we don’t need.
Do I need a new dresser for my dining room? No – I’ll paint the one I have.
Do I need new armchairs? No, I’ll get the old ones recovered.
Do I need more plates, more cutlery, more mugs? I’ll recycle ones from the Op Shop.
Do I need to go overseas on holiday? Actually, the answer for me is yes! To see old friends and family, to recharge my batteries; but at home I’ll only drive one car and not go out to restaurants for dinner every week
I do need to consider my energy use – mend that window where the heat gets out, use the draft excluder at the front door, consider my husband’s suggestion of putting up a ‘naff’ curtain at the foot of the stairs to keep the heat in the living area. Not have so many of those lovely baths, as they use up so much hot water. Make sure that the dish washer is loaded up to the gills before I put it on. . . . . .etc, etc. I’m even trying to persuade Bryan to investigate solar panels!
I can never repay all of my debt to God for the beauty of this Earth and for his love. But I can continually thank him for what he has given to me and others, do whatever I can to preserve it and use at least some of my resources in the service of my fellow humans. And proclaim the reasons why I am doing so. It’s all about love.
I’m far from perfect, but I am trying, like so many of you, and, maybe, like that manager, with God’s help, I can become more shrewd!