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. The last paragraph of the text may be read as the Gospel, omitting the rest.)
N T Wright sounds a warning: “The first thing to get clear about the ‘parable of the wicked mammon’ is that it is precisely a parable. It is not advice about financial management: Jesus is not telling people to cheat their bosses. It makes sense within Jesus’ Jewish context on the one hand and Luke’s on the other” (N T Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings, Year C, London: SPCK, 2000, 106).
It is as well to note that Chapter 16 of Luke’s Gospel begins with this parable, continues mostly to focus on the right use of money and ends with the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The context for teachings on the Kingdom of God is the kingdoms of this world. This is where the Kingdom of God comes to birth – not in some separate “clean” world, but in and through the very human world where commerce is of the essence. So be careful! One commentator concludes that a reasonable interpretation is found by “treating the parable as an (imaginary) account of ‘how people behave’ rather than fit it to a lesson it may be supposed to convey” (W J Harrington OP, “St Luke” in A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, edited by Reginal C Fuller et al, London: Thomas Nelson, 1969, 783b, 1012).
“Further, the story must be seen against its background of contemporary Palestinian law and custom. Like the unjust judge (18:1-5), the steward is called dishonest because of his past conduct; it does not necessarily follow that his action in the parable is dishonest. In Jewish law, the agent or steward fully represented his master, who was obliged to honour his agent’s business transactions. If the agent swindled him, dismissal was his only recourse. But before this took effect, the agent had to render an account of the state of the property and until this had been done he remained the master’s legal representative. Also of great significance is the law governing usury. This forbade the taking of interest on loans to Jews (Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:36; Deuteronomy 23:19f.) but ways had been found of evading the law. It was argued that it only applied to the destitute and was meant to protect them from exploitation. If one could prove the borrower was not without some of the commodity he wished to borrow and was under no compulsion to acquire it, a loan could be allowed. In this way, commercial transactions were concluded, by a legal fiction, without infringing the letter of the law. Wheat and oil were especially liable to this kind of treatment, since most people could be assumed to have at least the minimum of both commodities – to light a lamp or bake a cake. But apart from the fact that oil could be adulterated, the interest on oil was greater than that on wheat., a point reflected in the parable, cf vv 6 and 7. Thus the steward, casting around for some way of earning the good opinion of people outside after his dismissal, realizes that his master has been evading the law and decides to rectify this situation with a view to gaining support for himself. He hands back to the debtors their promissory notes which undertook the payment of principal plus interest and tells them to write new ones specifying repayment of the principal only. His master opportunely decides to take to himself the credit for a just action which he did not initiate. The meaning then is one who knows his moral duty, but who has rejected it for worldly advantage may be forced by circumstances to change his conduct and seek the good opinion of those whom he has hitherto neglected. ‘Worldly people know how to utilize worldly goods to do righteous acts and to obtain the reward of righteousness while those who fancy themselves as the ‘Children of light’ are either narrow-mindedly refusing to soil their hands with tainted earnings or are devising means whereby service to God can be mixed with service to worldly purposes. They are carefully watering down the prescripts of God so as to enable piety and comfort, fear of God and prestige among men to go hand in hand’” (Wilfrid Harrington OP, op cit, 783b – 783c, 1012).
rich man: “The master is an absentee landlord and not a beloved figure in Palestinian or Greco-Roman society” (Robert J Karris OFM, “The Gospel According to Luke” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond Brown SS et al, London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1989, 148, 708).
manager: The Greek word is oikonomos and may be translated as “steward”. He was often himself a slave (cf. 12:42) who managed the household or estate for the “master”.
charges: The Greek word is diaballō and it normally means “calumniate” or to bring false charges with hostile intent. The “master” believes the calumny and is prepared to dismiss the steward.
the master: The word kyrios – translated here as “master” – appears five times in our text. The first three times clearly refer to the “rich man” who owns the estate. There are diverging opinions as to the reference in v.8 – “his master commended the dishonest manager …”. Luke Timothy Johnson writes: “(T)he ‘rich man’ of verse 1 is also the ‘master’ of verses 3, 5, 8” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 243). Wilfrid Harrington writes: “The precise meaning of kyrios, ‘Lord’, ‘master’, determines the limit of the parable proper and affects the interpretation. The more usual practice has been to take kyrios in the parable as the steward’s master and then the v. 8 is part of the parable. In that case, v. 9 brings out the moral. But in Luke kyrios almost always means Jesus himself, and it seems preferable to take it in that sense here, cf Luke 18:6-8f: ‘The Lord said’ (6), ‘I tell you’ (8). The parable therefore, on this view, ends at 7 and describes a rascal who, faced with ruin, finds a drastic remedy. His method, though unscrupulous, is clearly effective. In 8a we have Jesus commending the dishonest steward for his resolute action and in 8b explaining that the commendation is restricted to the cleverness of worldly men (‘sons of this world’) in their dealings with one another. …. Like the steward, the hearers of the parable are faced with a crisis which they must resolutely meet. It is significant that in 14 Luke numbers Pharisees among the audience and it is especially to such that the parable is addressed. In the person of Jesus the kingdom of God has come among them; it is the decisive moment and, in effect, they are being urged to take the bold step of accepting him before it is too late” (Ibid).
Today’s Gospel – Luke 16:1-13 – is not about financial advice or organizational management or how to behave when you are caught with your hand in the till. It is a parable. It is a parable based on what might occur in a rich man’s household. The great French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, reminds us of how parables work:
“The first thing that may strike us is that the Parables are radically profane stories. There are no gods, no demons, no angels, no miracles, no time before time, as in the creation stories, not even founding events as in the Exodus account. Nothing like that, but precisely people like us. Palestinian landlords traveling and renting their fields, stewards and workers, sowers and fishers, fathers and sons; in a word, ordinary people doing ordinary things selling and buying, letting down a net into the sea, and so on. Here resides the initial paradox: on the one hand, these stories are as a critic said – narratives of normalcy but on the other hand, it is the Kingdom of God that is said to be like this. The paradox is that the extraordinary is like the ordinary. …. And it is this contrast between the kind of thing about which it is spoken – the Kingdom of Heaven – and the kind of thing to which it is compared which may put in motion our search. It is not the religious person in us, it is not the sacred person in us, but precisely the profane person, the secular person who is summoned” (Paul Ricoeur, “Listening to the Parables of Jesus”, in C. E. Reagan & D. Stewart, eds., Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work, Beacon Press, 1978, 239).
Parables appeal first of all to the imagination. They invite us to use our imaginations to enter another world – not our world – where a story is unfolding. It is the dynamic of that story, its plot and internal processes, its turning points and confrontations, that we are asked to engage. The important thing is what is happening in this story. The teller of the parable is saying: “Come! Enter this different world, become part of what is happening, and maybe you will emerge with a better – a more real – sense of your own world!” Parables – like all good stories – help us to see ourselves and our worlds with a new set of eyes.
It is an odd paradox of life that sometimes fiction offers a better rendition of the way things really are than rational explanations. Deep lessons can be learned when, through stories, we become part of situations we find uncomfortable, ambiguities we would rather override, contradictions we would normally avoid, moral dilemmas we would rather not face.
So what might we experience in the world created by this parable in today’s Gospel? Urgency? Decisiveness? What it is like to be caught in a moral dilemma with life-altering consequences? The difference between the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom Jesus is proclaiming?
What do you think is a good name for this parable?