I thought deeply about the Parable of the Dishonest Manager (Luke 16:1-13) over the last few weeks.
The more I thought, the more I realized that this parable may be the most absolutely challenging parables for our own time and place, culture and economy. In this article, I explore the context of this parable as compared to the others in this section of Luke, and discover why this parable is one that preachers and theologians avoid delving into deeply as if their salaries and endowed chairs depend on it.
I use this space today to take an in depth look at how Jesus describes different relationships to our Treasure — often rendered as time, talents, and resources. After all, where your treasure is, your heart will be also (Luke 12:34) – and this is especially important during the season of stewardship campaigns!
Set up for Confusion
“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’”.
From the very first sentence, this story gets off to a challenging start because people have a tendency to hold conservation of wealth and resources as a virtue.
If a person is described as squandering time or resources, we automatically hear this in a negative light — and for good reason in many cases. We get a finite amount of everything, whether it’s time, money, land, talent, or whatever currency we happen to be discussing at the moment. The fact that the manager is identified as squandering property, dishonest in his accounting, and working for his own self-interest rather than working for the interest of the rich man brings to mind a number of criminal activities and morally questionable practices.
Even so, it’s clear that Jesus is lifting up these dishonest actions as virtuous. How does this work? What does Jesus mean in saying, “If, then, you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?”, when it feels pretty clear that being dishonest isn’t something we typically consider virtuous?
But not so with you…
Jesus doesn’t seem to hold worldly wealth in any sort of esteem. Nowhere does Jesus identify money or other signifiers of worldly value as something to be respected. Instead, Jesus states again and again that God values the way we treat the poor, the vulnerable, sinners, and tax collectors. Jesus spoke to bring comfort to people beset by a reading of the law more concerned with order than shaping the ethics of community. What brings distinction and esteem, and what makes one powerful in God’s reign, is love of mercy and community.
The people Jesus makes uncomfortable aren’t the poor or sinners. Jesus aims for causing dis-ease among the various leaders of the Temple, Herod, Pilate, and others who represent misuse of power to oppress the vulnerable. When the disciples began arguing about which of them is the greatest, Jesus said this:
“The kings of the Gentiles lord [their power] over them, and those in authority over them are called ‘benefactors’. But not so with you! The greatest among you must instead become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. (Luke 22:25-27, revised for clarity)
Jesus identifies those regarded as weak to be the greatest concern of God’s reign; those regarded as strong are the ones who will see their worlds turned upside down. The idea of wastefulness being virtuous begins taking shape here. If the strong and powerful are the least in God’s reign, what if the tools of their power, like influence and money, are similarly regarded as rubbish rather than treasure?
If this is the case, then it’s easier to imagine dishonest wealth as being something Jesus might regard to be good, especially when we see the response of the Pharisees.
Luke 15 begins with the Pharisees and scribes “grumbling” about Jesus because “this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1).
In response, Jesus relates a series of parables that get more and more challenging as they go on. Jesus begins explaining why it’s important to welcome those who have been excluded, cut off, or who have remained outside of the temple due to choice, position, or vocation. He tells the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, speaking of untold joy of being reunited with lost treasure. These sinners are the ones who were lost, but Jesus is rejoicing in the fact that by giving them love, they have the opportunity to rediscover their worth because Jesus treats them as worthy. (Luke 15:1-10)
Following these parables, and without any further comment from the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus launches into the parable often called The Prodigal Son. Here, we encounter a son who squanders his inheritance with dissolute living. The word for squander in Luke 15 is the same word we encounter with the dishonest manager who squanders the rich mans’ possessions in Luke 16. This may lead us to think Jesus compares two very similar events, since in both cases someone squanders what’s entrusted to them.
When we compare the characters in these parables, we realize they couldn’t be more different.
The son squandered what his father gave him to be his own by living extravagantly. The father who threw the party when he returned didn’t promise the son anything in the future, but promised the other son that what he now has belongs to him. That doesn’t change the father’s joy or the son’s relief.
The manager squandered what belonged to the rich man, and judging by what he did when he was caught and called to account, it was by showing mercy to those who owed debts to the rich man — probably forgiving much or all of what they owed, thereby reducing the profits or actually costing the rich man money. Who were these people who owed the rich man money? The two people mentioned owe olive oil and wheat. They’re probably tenant farmers who give a significant portion of what they produce to the landowner as rent.
The difference between the son and the manager is clear. The son wasted it on himself. The manager practiced wasteful mercy. The difference is vast.
The father and the rich man are similarly different. The father divided his livelihood between them, and the younger son took off. This is interesting because while we translate this as “property” that he divided between his sons in most translations, the sense of the word is more like his means of making a living, or livelihood. The word for the rich man’s property that was squandered has more of a sense of his identity or even more to the point, his existence. It really makes one question who owned what.
In the case of the father, it’s easy to miss that he gave it all away because the older son sees what was divided between them as still belonging to his father. The father offers a correction, “all that I have is yours”, with the implication being it’s yours already. In the case of the rich man, he’s trying to hold on. He isn’t willing to part with what’s owed to him or with his wealth, his wealth is his identity that he can’t give up. We see this theme again in Luke 18:18-25, when the rich young ruler is unable to give up his wealth — his identity — to follow Jesus.
They Heard all This
The Pharisees’ and scribes’ reaction to these parables is perfectly understandable. Even though this is true, they’re often cast as the “villains” in a lot of places, and I believe they actually tried to do the right thing, I think it’s important to humanize them for greater understanding.
Jesus told the parables in Luke 15 — Lost Sheep; Lost Coin; Lost Son — to the Pharisees after they complained about him welcoming and eating with sinners. In Luke 16, Jesus turns away from the Pharisees and begins speaking to his disciples, almost as if pretending the Pharisees aren’t even there anymore! “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and ridiculed [Jesus]” (Luke 16:14).
The Pharisees very much were there, and they very much did hear.
Identifying them as lovers of money lumps them in with the rich man, fairly or not. Assuming it’s fair, we see the accusation clearly: their relationship to wealth was inextricably connected to their sense of identity. The rich man, the Pharisees, and later the rich young ruler didn’t own their wealth — their wealth owned them.
The Virtue of Wastefulness
We see an uncomfortable truth: wasting earthly resources is virtuous in the kingdom of God.
In the same way a sower went out to sow and threw the seeds everywhere in Luke 8, the dishonest manager is lifted up as an example to the children of light — those who hope to be disciples of Jesus — to aid in our understanding what wealth really is. Whenever we’re able, we’re called to use money generously to the point of being wasteful to benefit the vulnerable, the poor, and those rejected by the world’s misguided understanding that wealth is of value than people. This means that our true wealth as God’s children is found in the act of carefully cultivating relationships with people the world would exploit and good people always complain about.
This presents us as disciples, as congregations, and as the Church, with a compelling problem. Guarding closely what we have is a seductive kind of sin. In thinking of our bank accounts as scorecards, or thinking chief role as employees is safeguarding the wealth of others even when it hurts those who are vulnerable, we fall prey to its allure.
Our chief role is quite different for Jesus followers: Jesus’ morality instructs us to be wasteful with wealth, using whatever opportunities we might have to make life easier for the poor.
What might this look like?
There was a property manager who, when faced with people who couldn’t pay their rent for whatever reason, gave discounts by taking what was offered. They helped tenants file for leniency rather than evicting them.
There was a mortgage broker who, when faced with late payments for whatever reason, “lost” paperwork for late payments; and when faced with someone about to default, wrote off the entire debt rather than foreclosing.
There was a grocery clerk who, when faced with someone shoplifting food, lived by the credo that if I see someone stealing food, no I didn’t.
There was a police officer who, when pulling people over, wrote only warnings rather than tickets; and called family members rather than sending people to jail whenever feasible to do so.
What if, instead of calling this the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, we instead call it the Parable of the Lost Land Owner? Framed this way, it feels so absolutely scandalous to suggest these actions as virtuous. No matter how it feels, Jesus tells us plainly that the best thing we can do with money is to make friends by dishonest wealth, knowing that when we do this, we’re being faithful stewards of what God treasures most: people.