Another hard teaching of Jesus hits us in the face this week — the parable of the dishonest manager!
1 [Jesus] also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. 2 And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ 3 And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7 Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ 8 The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.
10 “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? 13 No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Luke 16:1–13 ESV)
This is hard and difficult story. It seems, at one point, that Jesus is telling us to make friend “by means of unrighteous wealth.”
In fact, Jesus is telling us to make friends with “unrighteous wealth” (μαμωνᾶ τῆς ἀδικίας, literally “mammon of unjustness”). Because when that wealth fails (as it does for the rich fool in Luke 12–21), all that will remain are the relationships you have made from the grace you have shown.
Because … Grace. But first, a little bit about this phrase the ESV translates as “unrighteous wealth.” It makes it seem as if there is righteous wealth. I’m not sure there is is. At the end of this passage, Jesus tells all those who will listen that they cannot serve God and money (οὐ δύνασθε θεῷ δουλεύειν καὶ μαμωνᾷ). And this is a big deal, because Luke immediately describes the Pharisees as “lovers of money” (ESV, in the Greek literally “fond of silver”). So, there probably isn’t any such thing as “righteous” wealth in Luke’s conception.
There is, however, wealth righteously used. Not for self-aggrandizement — to build big barns and allow the owner to rest contentedly. But wealth shared, with the poor.
Grace given. Because in some ways this parable almost sounds like a description of Jesus’ ministry — he is the dishonest manager. And the grace given here are the debts forgiven. Perhaps they could be paid, and perhaps not. But the people who owed 100, and suddenly found their bills slashed to 50 and 80, found themselves receiving unearned grace. Their lives haver been changed by something far out of their control.
That said, rich man/king and manager/steward parables often strike me as trying to communicate something about the story of God and Israel. That the owner (God) is about to put the place (Israel) under new management. The old managers, who have not been faithful, will be removed — violently. Victory goes to those who flee, to those who get out of the way, or to those who are simply called to the feast.
This may be another such parable. The old management, through faithlessness, is doomed. It is being replaced. So, the old managers (the Pharisees), if any wish to survive, needs to be clever, needs to understand there is no going back, no saving itself.
I think this is why Jesus’s words and deeds work on sinners. They are already outside, and they have little to protect and little to defend. To be outsiders is not so much to be included in the established order (which is going to be blown up anyway), but it is to know that God is reaching to the outsiders first to build a new order once the old one is blown up and the dust begins to settle.
Grace to those who owe. And a call to serve God, rather than love silver.