Then 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. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’
Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 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. 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.
“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 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.” (Luke 16:1-13 – NRSV)
This parable – some call it the parable of the “prudent steward”, others the “crafty steward”, still others the “dishonest manager” – presents some special challenges. One commentator says: “Few passages in the Gospel can have given rise to so many different interpretations as the parable of the prudent steward.” (I H Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: a commentary on the Greek text, Paternoster Press, 1978, 614.)
Joseph Fitzmyer writes: “The parable of the dishonest manager has always been puzzling. The lectionaries in Christian liturgy have often compounded the problem of interpreting it by including with the parable proper only some of the appended sayings, thus giving the impression that they too were part of the parable. Older commentators, from patristic times on, failing to fathom the meaning of the parable (or the appended sayings), often contented themselves with homilies about drawing up one’s account of management (v. 2), about who the prospective “friends” (v. 9) might be, or about who the “trustworthy/faithful manager” (v. 10) was (St. Paul, the local bishop, etc.). Voices, however, were raised even in antiquity against such multivalent use of elements in the story (see Cyril of Alexandria, Comm. in Luc. 16:1; PG 72.809). Modern commentators have not helped much either, because there has been a great deal of disagreement about where the parable proper ends, even though there is fairly general agreement today that in the unit of vv. 1–13 we have a parable and appended sayings.” (Joseph A Fitzmyer SJ, The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: introduction, translation, and notes, (Vol. 28A), Yale University Press, 2008, 1095.)
The parable is unique to Luke. The previous three parables of Chapter 15 are addressed to the religious authorities. This parable is addressed directly to the disciples.
The theme – the right use of possessions – recurs in Luke – see for example the story of the man who wants to hoard his possessions (12:13–21) and the rich man and Lazarus (16:19–31). Joseph Fitzmyer suggests that the preceding parable of the prodigal son also contains this theme: “In a way, this new theme was foreshadowed in chap. 15 in the example given by the younger son who squandered his possessions by dissolute living.” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, op cit, 1095.)
The man in the parable does not deny the charges of “mismanagement” brought against him. Hence the title, the “dishonest manager”. This title does not relate to what he did next.
What the “manager” did next is to be understood in the context of the times: “The latter was not merely a head-servant placed in charge of the household staff (as in 12:42), but a trained, trusted, and duly empowered agent of the master. He was able to act in the name of the master in transactions with third parties (e.g. the renting of plots of ground to tenant-farmers, the making of loans against a harvest, the liquidation of debts, the keeping of accounts of all such transactions). According to accepted practice, such an agent, however, often lent his master’s property out to others at a commission or an interest which was added to the principal in promissory notes or bonds. The notes or bonds frequently mentioned only the amount owed, i.e. the principal plus the interest. This custom was widespread in the ancient eastern Mediterranean world, being attested in Greco-Roman Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Assyria, and Babylonia.” (Fitzmyer, op cit, 1097.)
Fitzmyer thus interprets the manager’s action in fact denied his own commission: “The master praises the manager for his prudence, because he realizes that the manager has eliminated his own commission from the original usurious bonds. Such reduction of sums is not attested elsewhere, as far as I know. But it should be noted that the manager does not employ the technical expression for the cancellation of a debt, ekeleuse to cheirographon chiasthēnai, “he ordered the receipt crossed out” (i.e. marked with a Greek chi), P. Flor. I.61:65 (A.D. 65). Luke’s text says only that the debtor is to write a new cheirographon (without using that word) for fifty or eighty, eliminating the commission. Such an action of the manager could well bring the praise or approval of his master.” (Op cit, 1098.)
Fitzmyer concludes: “The ‘dishonest manager’ thus becomes a model for Christian disciples, not because of his dishonesty (his initial mismanagement and squandering), but because of his prudence. Faced with a crisis, he judged prudently how to cope with it. Christian disciples are also faced with a crisis by the kingdom/judgment preaching of Jesus, and the prudent use of material possessions might be recommended in the light of that crisis.” (Ibid.)
There are many stories coming from the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the third and fourth centuries. One of those stories concerns a learned man who came to Anthony, the greatest of the desert dwellers. He asked Anthony how he could endure living in the desert, deprived of the consolation of books. Anthony said: “My book, philosopher, is the nature of created things, and whenever I wish I can read in it the works of God.” (Evagrius of Pontus (346-399) cited by Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, Mowbray’s, 1979, 54.) Anthony is giving us an instance of a fundamental principle articulated by Jesus: “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” (Matthew 16:2-3) The “times” – all “times”, everywhere, in all circumstance – have their “signs”.
Pope John XXIII urged us to “read the signs of the times” when he called the Second Vatican Council. Pope John Paul II reminds us to continue to do that:
The Spirit manifests himself in a special way in the Church and in her members. Nevertheless, his presence and activity are universal, limited neither by space nor time. The Second Vatican Council recalls that the Spirit is at work in the heart of every person, through the “seeds of the Word,” to be found in human initiatives – including religious ones – and in mankind’s efforts to attain truth, goodness and God himself (Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church (Ad Gentes), 3, 11, 15; Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), 10-11, 22, 26, 38, 41, 92-93). (Redemptoris Missio, #28)
God is always speaking to us. The good disciple is always listening.
In today’s Gospel we hear of a steward whose employment is being terminated because he has been dishonest. The steward then makes a pragmatic move. If he is going to lose the goodwill of the employer, he wants to keep the good will of some others as insurance against total ostracism and probable destitution. So he foregoes his commissions on debts that others owe to his employer – stewards were entitled to take a commission on the debts they settled for the master. It is noteworthy that Jesus uses this very worldly example. On the face of it, it seems very odd. Yet, we might ask ourselves: Is it possible to learn something good from a bad experience? Can we learn anything from people who may not have our faith or values? Can God be there for us, even in our moments of failure? What is the Spirit saying to us through our experience? Do not answer, listen with the ear of the heart!