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 account 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.’ (NRSV).
Our parable seems strange and difficult to align with the kingdom values of honesty and integrity.
Jesus’ story revolves around a rich man’s manager. He is caught ‘squandering’ his employer’s property and gets wind of plans for his dismissal. So far, so good.
But then he comes up with a sly and self-preserving plan. Prior to losing his income he will reduce the debts of those owing money to his master. He will accept a lower payment and forgo the remainder. He is – as a last act – forgiving debt that is not his.
And then he acted on it.
It amounts to, by his own admission, a ploy to make ‘friends’ who will remember these generous deals and be more inclined to welcome and provide for him when he is penniless. Of course, this would seem to be another reason for the master to dismiss the manager.
But the master is – of all things – impressed.
In fact he ‘commends’ the manager, highlighting – of all things – his shrewdness. It seems to be impossible, bazaar, and extreme behaviour from this man of means.
And perhaps it is. Of course, parables need to relate to our world, but this does not mean they must be predictable or reflect common practice. The master’s comments are designed by Jesus to communicate – even if in the process they shock or even make us laugh.
I am left wondering if this master sees something of himself in our manager. Does he too use his money to buy friends and consider it wise? Does he understand – and admire – the spirit he sees here? Is he somehow comfortable with the pragmatic use of money as a way of gaining friendship?
And, it would seem, even Jesus sees something commendable in the manager’s actions. He comments: ‘…the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light…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.’
Essentially this forces us to ask the question: What can we learn from the shrewd, self-serving actions of these businessmen?
Clearly it is an important question if we are to comprehend this parable. One possible answer might be that we, as followers of Jesus, do well to remind ourselves regularly that earthly and temporary wealth is best used in the service of others.
This, most ideally and nobly, would exclusively benefit them.
But in reality it also benefits us. Who has not noticed the release from the hold of wealth that comes from giving? And there really are relational benefits that come when we invest in people.
Yes, the manager’s motives are shallow – to say the least. But perhaps they are still able to instruct us.
Jesus goes on to contrast being faithful with being dishonest. He also contrasts ‘dishonest wealth’ – which seems to refer to money – with ‘true riches’. I am left wondering if this treasure is to do with relationships – both with God and with others. Here is a place to invest both money and self.
But whatever we choose to do with Jesus’ difficult teaching here, I think we do well to conclude with what is probably the clearest aspect of our passage: ‘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.’
Take it to heart. Hold it close. It is the kind of wisdom sorely needed in our culture and time.