The Parable Of The Corrupt Manager
At first glance this parable makes little sense. There is a man who is the manager of an estate, who is not even repentant when it becomes known he has been wasting his master’s resources. This man then decides that before his master gets a chance to fire him he will go to the master’s debtors and reduce their debt so that the debtors will take kindly to him after he loses his job. The master finds out about this further reduction in his income and commends the manager!
It is easy to get caught up in the numbers involved (50% off the bill for oil vs 20% off the bill for grain) and we wonder how Jesus can tell a story that seems to encourage dishonesty compounded with self-serving dealings.
It is also easy to simply say ‘oh, the explanation is such and such’ and move on, but it’s worth digging in to the story, the context and its application.
The context is that Luke includes this story immediately after the story of the Prodigal Son, then follows it with Jesus condemning the Pharisees in particular & love of money in general.
Taking the parable of the dishonest manager in proximity to the Prodigal Son leads us to think the estate owner is God. But we are continually told God is a God of justice who loves righteousness & cannot bear sin. Why would the God-character not just let off, but commend his dishonest manager?
Let’s consider who Jesus was telling this parable to: the Pharisees, who out of zeal for the Law of God, set up a whole new system of laws and regulations around it (which also seems to have profited them, see Luke 16:14). In the Prodigal Son we can imagine Jesus was comparing the Pharisees to the elder brother. In the dishonest manager we can imagine Jesus is comparing the manager with the Pharisees. But with a twist that we’ll get to later. This is a sickening blow to the Pharisees, who are full of zeal for God’s law, but are being told that their assumed role as ‘gatekeeper’ to the Law has made them wasteful of their master’s estate. In other words they are burdening God’s people with rules and laws and an economic system empty of grace and that no longer pointed to the fulfilment of the Law, rather to self-righteousness and dead hearts, instead of the new heart God promised in Jeremiah, and the spirit of life promised in Ezekiel.
The twist, then, is that while the Pharisees were meant to identify themselves as the dishonest manager, they should also model his actions to escape the worst of his boss’s wrath. In his dealings with people, Jesus never overlooked sin, but he unburdened repentant people. So Jesus was pointing out in this story that the Pharisees were to be overthrown for overburdening Israel and that they should respond to this news by reducing their legal burdens on the people.
Ok, so that’s a fairly narrow interpretation of the parable, that applies only to Pharisees. I believe there is another valid interpretation.
When Jesus told parables, he used vivid characters. Often the stories were only a few sentences long, but the listener would be able to conjure dramatic reconstructions later as they pondered the stories. Part of the point of using stories as a teaching aid was that listeners (& now readers) would be able to insert themselves into the story. In this way you could easily imagine yourself as the prodigal son, the longing father or the elder brother and think how you would react in such a situation. Likewise imagine *you* are the dishonest manager. You may protest that you have been honest, but when we think of the gifts God has given us, how well have we stewarded them, really?
We have all wasted the time, money, resources and relationships God has given us. Even when we maximise our efficiency we usually only do it for selfish reasons. So what can we do? We can reduce the economic & emotional burdens on those who owe us, and we can reduce the spiritual burdens of everyone by sharing the Good News.
We can say to ourselves, that we have been found out and that we have no alternative other than to face wrathful judgement. We can also then go to our friends, colleagues and family and give them good news, that although we are guilty, there is mercy.
We’re not told in the end what actually happened to the dishonest manager himself. All we know is that he was commended for his shrewdness. Did he lose his job? Was he forgiven? I think we can assume forgiveness. What then of the owner of the estate? What can we say about him?
In human terms, the estate owner was very foolish. He let his manager carry on dishonestly for a long time and did not enact summary dismissal. If the manager was indeed let off the hook, then he is even more foolish for allowing his manager to further waste his resources by reducing the amounts of the debts due to him. This is meant to be unrealistic, puzzling and thought provoking. It is meant to make us think that there can be no self-righteousness. We are supposed to stop and think who the story is aimed at and what the responses of the characters were. We are supposed to be amazed at the abundant grace of God.
We must finally note that this story is one of many and is meant to elucidate truth, but it is not the whole truth. God’s grace to me does not depend on me being merciful. Neither in this story are we shown the means of grace that comes only through faith in Christ paying our debts. This is just one illustration of how wrong we get it, but how gracious God is.
I am the dishonest manager.