The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
September 18, 2022
Jesus told quite a few peculiar and perplexing parables, but this one may top them all!
It features nothing but disreputable characters, and commends in one of them a suspect virtue, “shrewdness”, which a lowlife manager uses for an unethical purpose!
Not one of the characters in the parable strikes us as an admirable person.
The owner is so negligent about his business that he doesn’t know he’s being cheated until someone “rats” on the manager; and he is so little oriented to moral thinking that he expresses no value judgment about his manager’s cheating him a second time in submitting his final accounts, but only exclaims about the scoundrel’s cleverness.
The owner’s customers cooperate with the manager’s devious and crooked scheme.
And the manager never repents about his swindling, caring only about taking care of “number one”, no matter how much wrong he does the man he was hired to help.
Perhaps to shock people and thereby grab their attention, Jesus often includes shady characters in His parables. Think, for example, of the unjust judge who vindicates a widow only to get the constantly pestering woman off his back; or of the man who finds a hidden treasure in another man’s field and buys it from him while conveniently forgetting to tell him there’s a lot more value in his property than he might have thought.
Jesus tells parables populated with real, and not ideal, people – folks like us who, though mixed bags, can still exemplify some good qualities. This manager’s dishonesty doesn’t discredit everything else he does!
Let’s get clear about the story. A rich man leaves his business in the hands of a manager who is to watch over his financial interests and keep the income flowing. The manager does not appear to be intentionally defrauding anyone, but to just fail to attend to his duties. The text describes him as “squandering” (or “wasting”) the rich man’s assets. That negligence suggests an indifference about bringing the owner a fair return on his trust of him. The manager is lackadaisical in his work because he is irresponsible.
When his negligence finally comes to light, the owner fires him – but demands that, before he clears out his desk, he give an account of how much he’s cost his boss.
Facing imminent unemployment, the manager panics. Too proud to do manual labor or to beg, and too self-absorbed to have developed friends who’d let him sleep on their couch, he fears, with good reason, he’ll end up homeless and on the streets.
So he comes up with an ingenious, if unethical, plan. Before he turns the books over to the boss, he cooks the books. He goes to customers with overdue bills, and offers them a reduced sum to pay if they pay right away. He tells the one who owes for a hundred jugs of olive oil to alter the bill and make it fifty, and the one who owes for a hundred containers of wheat to make it eighty. By this dishonest discounting, he hopes he’ll bring some capital to the owner (and thus keep him from getting any angrier) and some benefit to himself (by putting those customers in his debt so that, should he need it, they’d put him up in their homes, especially if they remember he could blackmail them for their participation in the swindle.)
Amazingly, when the owner learns about the scheme, he’s not incensed but amused – in part perhaps because he enjoys so many of his customers jumping to the conclusion that he was part of the discounting and that he did it out of mercy and generosity. Not wanting to lose the advantage, the owner can only commend the scoundrel of a manager for his shrewdness in making “friends” and thereby looking after his future.
What’s even more amazing is that Jesus, right after telling the parable, says He wishes His followers were more like that dishonest manager! Of course, Jesus doesn’t want them to be swindlers, but He does want them to be shrewd – that is, smart about things. In the Bible the word almost always connotes the positive quality of being “savvy”, or wise in the ways of the world.
The Bible teaches that each of us will one day have to render an account of what we did with what God entrusted to our care. Jesus, I believe, would like it if we looked after our future (specifically our date with judgment) as astutely and vigorously as that dishonest manager; and would like it if we, like that man, used our brains and applied our best effort to insure that, by how we handle money and all the other assets God turns over to our responsibility, we will have friends with whom to share “eternal homes”.
In this parable the rich owner represents God; and the manager, each of us as stewards of God’s stuff. God is the ultimate owner of everything and God delegates the care of His things to us. Our personal capabilities and the earth’s resources, the time we have and the money we have, our unique personalities and our varied relationships, they all belong to God; and He gives us the duties of a subcontractor over them and expects us to employ them in ways that matter to Him. It is up to us to invest God’s stuff in a way that brings a return of eternal value.
So, to be faithful to our responsibilities and to make the most of our opportunities, we do well to devise a shrewd plan and hustle to implement it – only we are, unlike the manager, to do that for the sake of others as much as for ourselves. In fact, as we bless others, we bless ourselves. We make true friends: those with whom in the present we enter into the grace of God and with whom in the future we enter into the “eternal homes” of God’s people.
God wants us to utilize our intelligence and creativity, our emotional energy and resolute determination, our money and social networks, our time and talents, in the purposes of righteousness, love and justice.
For example, God has given each of us some money to manage. While there are many things money can’t buy, some of what it can is of eternal value. It can buy Bibles and send out missionaries; feed the poor and empower them to advance economically; fund get-togethers and build bridges between strangers; encourage those who think God has forgotten them; invest in the future and bring a return of forever friendships.
To be smart with our money is to be smart with God.
Let us then be as shrewd as this dishonest manager!