I don’t know about you, but this is the most confusing parable that I have read. I could have chosen a different scripture to preach on, but when I read a comment from a minister who recommended avoiding this scripture, I was taken back to my childhood when my mother would tell me not to do something, and of course, that would make me want to do it more.
There are some differences of opinion among commentators about the meaning of this parable, but what they do all agree on is that it is a difficult one.
This parable is known as both “The Parable of the Dishonest Steward” and “The Parable of the shrewd Manager
First I decided to try to put the parable in my own words . A wealthy landowner calls in his business manager and tells him that he has heard rumors that the manager is doing a careless job with the bookkeeping, maybe even cheating. This scares the business manager who starts thinking that maybe he will be fired. And then he gets even more scared when he starts thinking that if he gets fired he would have to do, oh my goodness, manual labor or even become a beggar. So he comes up with a plan to involve the landowner’s debtors. He tells them to adjust their paperwork to show that they will only pay a portion of what they actually owe the landowner. If he does this, these people will be indebted to him, personally, and they will take care of him if he does get fired. And what does the landowner do when he discovers this scheme? He praises the manager for being so shrewd. Not only does the landowner praise the manager, but so does Jesus. I will paraphrase what it says in “The Message”, which is a contemporary language Bible. Here is what that Bible says about the landowner and Jesus praising the manager. The master praised the crooked manager because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. Jesus says to the group of people he is telling this parable to that he wants them to be smart in the same way – but for what is right – using every adversity to stimulate them to creative survival, to concentrate their attention on the bare essentials, so they will live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.
Well, come to find out, in Biblical times, it was not uncommon for powerful men who held a monopoly on resources to manipulate their books so it looked like their debtors owed more than they actually did. Did someone say Enron?
Now for the wealthy businessman to get away with this, he would need a business manager who was just as unscrupulous as himself. So the less than honest steward of the less than honest businessman was also getting some extra padding for himself as well. He decides to out-scheme the schemer.
When the landowner discovers the scheme he actually begrudgingly respected the steward. Afterall, he has plenty of money and his customers are happy because they got some debt relief, as well as bonding with the manager, who turned out to be shrewder than he had thought when he had hired him. He turned out to be a perfect manager, a person who is both a dishonest steward and a shrewd manager at the same time.
It would appear that the dishonest steward is making money his God. He’s wasting his boss’ resources, he’s taking a little for himself, he’s padding the books… all of these things, but remember that many landowners in those days manipulated their books to look like the debtors owed more than they really did, so isn’t the manager, in a way being a whistle blower? Kind of a timely story isn’t it? He’s blowing the lid off of the boss’ scheme. Of course he only became a truth teller to save his own skin but that just makes the story more interesting. Maybe that’s all the Parable of the Dishonestly shrewd manager really is….an interesting story with a surprise ending and a great moral. Maybe, maybe not.
So first of all, what can we learn from this dishonest manager. Put aside for a moment your offense and anger at his actions. For one thing he knows what he wants – money, comfort, security, and he focuses on these things. His goal is clear and he will spend all his energy in attaining that goal. What has that got to do with us and the church today? Does the church get too side tracked by non-essentials rather than focusing on essentials like spreading the Gospel in word and deed? There are churches out there that do. The church should focus on essentials like studying the Bible, Sunday worship, daily prayers and deeds of loving kindness. OK, so we need to focus on following the teachings of Jesus.
Another thing we can learn from this manager is the capacity to be creative and resourceful. Granted he was unethical and selfish, but he was creative and resourceful. Remember how he approached the debtors. He didn’t yell at them to pay up or suffer the consequences. He asks them how much they owe. People are much more apt to respond in a positive way if they are asked something rather than told something. He treated them with respect and provided a win-win situation. Again, what has that got to do with the church today? As the church works on expanding and holding the attention of congregations, they need to look at creative and resourceful ways of doing this, always keeping in mind that all people should be treated with dignity and respect.
We certainly can learn from the manager about the importance of looking forward and having a plan for the future. If a dishonest manager works that hard in planning for his future, certainly faithful Christians can do even better. We have been given by God, through Christ, life’s most valuable treasure, an eternal home. The church has the potential to be blessed in many ways by a faithful congregation being proactive and planning and visioning for the future.
It appears that money is a main theme here. Maybe, maybe not. Money really means nothing to God and Jesus. To them it’s not how much money you have but what you do with that money that is important. “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Of course we need money in the church and we need people to manage the church money. And the people who do this need to be committed to using the money to keep the church running so that we have meaningful worship services, so that we have opportunities to learn about the Bible and what God’s expectations are for us, so that we have the opportunity to gather in community to pray for the sick and victims of acts of violence and natural disasters. And so that we have the opportunity to give our time, talents, and resources to help others. We trust that our money managers are trustworthy and have the best interests of our congregation and those we help at heart.
This parable actually parallels the parable of the prodigal son. In both stories a subordinate(the child in the prodigal son story and the steward in this story) who squanders the goods of a superior (the father in the prodigal son story and the landowner in this story) is received back and celebrated in the prodigal son story and commended in this story. The differences are that the steward, unlike the son, is not penitent and the landowner, unlike the father does not forgive the squandering but rather commends the steward’s shrewdness.
So this is what I come away with from this parable.
There is no real right or wrong interpretation here. It’s not cut and dry like some parables, so feel free to have your own interpretation. Certainly forgiveness is big here. Forgiving everybody. I think we all get that. Jesus tells us if we forgive someone’s sins, so does God. If we hold out on them, though, so does God. This is like a dare, isn’t it? Jesus praises the Manager for acting generously on the Master’s behalf. He holds this out and dares us. Go ahead, get lavish and give it away.
One commentator I read, I don’t remember his first name but his last name is Brackett asks this question. “What if the real objective of our churches is to train and nurture every follower of Jesus as rogue agents of God’s radical and outrageous generosity? I mean like going out on the streets and giving away forgiveness and membership and healing and salvation? Brackett goes on to say John the Gospel writer recalls Jesus as saying, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” What if all the other concerns plaguing organized religion became secondary to this?…Brackett goes on to say, I think that the Jesus of this parable came to convince us that God longs for us to be reconciled – set free to forgive and love and be made whole and love in return, unabashedly!”
Maybe this story is an extension of the stories about Jesus freely forgiving the sins of all those who came to him. When you think about it, weren’t all of those involved in this scheme winners? The landowner got paid ( probably the amounts that were really owed before he cooked the books), the manager kept his job, and the debtors ended up paying less than they were billed for.
I also think that this parable is about money and using it for the good of others and if we don’t use it for that initially, we get a second chance to try again. The landowner and manager were wheeler dealers, but in the end they used money in a way that benefited the landowner, the manager and the debtors. The steward is gifting with the ulterior motive to get something back from those he gave to. Jesus encourages people to scatter their wealth in order to receive eternal life. Jesus says, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.” Or another way to put it might be, if you have gained money dishonestly, at least use that money to help others. The dishonest manager is not praised because he acted dishonestly, he is praised because he figures out how to do some good with the money. Jesus is forgiving the exploiting of people that the landowner and manager were doing, because they turned their actions around.
The crisis that Jesus addresses in this parable is that we have lost our vision for God. We have grown complacent about responsibilities God has given us. This parable is a call to reclaim who we are and to renew our vision today for the kingdom of God beyond us and among us.
I think the biggest take away from this parable is verse 13. “No 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.”
- Penny Nixon writes; “Serving God means that loving people is always the bottom line. So Jesus’ closing words, whether or not these words were part of the original parable, are certainly an apt summation of what Jesus is so ardently and adamantly trying to get across: you cannot serve God and wealth.