Shrewd or Dishonest?
Scripture: Luke 16: 1-13 In many Bibles, this chapter is headed the Parable of the Dishonest Manager and in others the Parable of the Shrewd Manager. Or in some cases, steward, which is just another way of referring to the manager. If we read the parable carefully, we notice that the parable tells us that the rich man believed in his manager’s dishonesty because of what his accusers said. Was he dishonest? Or did somebody or group want the rich man to think he was? And were his subsequent actions dishonest or just shrewd, in that he was looking out for his own interests?
Banking in first century Israel
Let’s take a look at the parable’s social setting. In ancient Palestine, there was a complex social, economic relationship among landowners, stewards, peasants, and merchants. The Torah prohibited charging interest on loans to other Jews because it viewed it as oppressive and it exploited the vulnerable poor. But the wealthy found ways to charge interest under other guises. One way was to add the interest into the total amount of a debt, presented as part of the total, not in a separate line item. There are still orthodox Jews and Muslims who do not pay or charge interest. Like first century Jewish lenders, banks today get around this by charging or paying fees equivalent to the amount that the interest would have been.
The wealthy sought to get as much profit as possible from their holdings and tenants. The steward was the middleman between the landholder and the merchants and tenants in the exchange of goods and services such as buying and selling grain, oil, and crops and collecting rents, which were in the form of goods not money. In first-century Palestine, the riskier the commodity, the higher the interest. The interest on oil was 50 percent because it could easily be spilled or might spoil. The interest on wheat was 20 percent because it was a more stable commodity.
Complaints to the boss about the shrewd (or dishonest) manager
If the steward was able to get an additional take for himself in these transactions, the master didn’t mind; in fact, he expected it. (Compare how restaurants today expect a server’s wages to be augmented by tips.). As long as the master’s profits kept rolling in and the steward did not get too conspicuous with an extravagant lifestyle, the master was OK with the steward’s benefiting from each deal. The merchants and tenants were in a relatively powerless position, unable to directly confront the master. Their target, when they were disgruntled or felt put upon, was the steward, the master’s retainer. It seems that, in this story, they took their revenge on the steward by complaining to his boss.
Who are you talking to, Jesus?
Back to the story. Who is Jesus talking to? In the previous chapter, he had been talking to the Pharisees who were grumbling because Jesus hung out with sinners. He told them the 3 stories of the lost sheep, lost coin and lost (prodigal) son. Each of these stories infers the way in which God reaches out to those who are lost and draws them back into community. The parables are about mercy and love and forgiveness and grace and the extent and effort to which God would go to restore people in their relationships. Jesus apparently gives up on the Pharisees and turns back to his disciples.
However, the Pharisees hadn’t left, as Jesus well knew. They were listening. If we’d read one verse further today, we’d have known that “The Pharisees … heard all this, and they ridiculed him.” I’d never realized that until this week. One of the amazing things about reading the gospels is the many layers of interpretation; we often come upon new ways of understanding what Jesus says or does. This week was a case in point. What if Jesus, although he’d turned to address the disciples was really talking to the Pharisees?
Let’s reduce the debt
If this is the case then Jesus is in effect saying to the disciples: Oh dear! These Pharisees, who think they are my master, want to get rid of me because they think I am managing God’s affairs and message badly. Oh no, what will I do? I can’t dig or beg says the steward, says Jesus. Then what did this steward do? He called together everyone who was indebted to his master and knocked off the interest payment. He said to one who owed 100 jugs of olive oil, make it 50. And to the one who owed 100 containers of wheat, make it 80. And the rich man, when he found out, actually commended the manager for his cleverness. Now why would he do that? Let’s go back to the story and look closer.
Restoring hope and dignity
With just a few subtle strokes of the pen, the shrewd manager has substantially reduced the debts of the peasants to something closer to what they borrowed. (Compare the amount of interest with what was written off.) Maybe even to an amount they had a chance to repay. This frees the family to make choices about next steps. The steward doesn’t tell the farmers that his boss fired him any more than he tells them that the landowner didn’t authorize any of this generosity. The result is that the peasants believe the landowner is more generous than just about anyone else in his position would be. The landowner is now a hero in their eyes — and the steward is also, by extension.
But the time comes to be found out
When the landowner comes for his customary visit to pick up the wealth the steward has collected for him, he gets a surprise or two. First, the peasants welcome him, calling him their hero. That’s never happened before. When he reaches the estate office, he finds the steward still ensconced there, surprise #2! He learns what the steward has done, reducing / forgiving their debts in the landowner’s name. What should he do now?
Being the hero
He can go outside to the assembled crowd — the people to whom he’s a hero — and tell them that it was all a terrible mistake, that the steward’s generosity was an act of crookedness and won’t hold water legally. The cheering will turn to boos, not a good choice! Alternatively, he can go outside and take credit for the steward’s actions, in which case he’ll continue to bask in the acclaim of the farmers who recognize his generosity. Remember he’s living in an honour / shame society, where appearances are of prime importance. But he’ll have to take the steward back. Whatever the rich man does, the shrewd manager remains a hero. When he retires, the farmers will gladly take him in, even if the landowner won’t.
So, in this story, the steward, aka Jesus, has honoured his true Master (God) by forgiving the debts / sins of those who follow him. Oh, yes, remember that forgiving sins was one of the activities the Pharisees were against Jesus for; they called it blasphemy. Only God can forgive sins. What does this say to the Pharisees and scribes, who see themselves as Jesus master? He is saying: “You are like that manager. What I am doing brings honour to all of us, to you as well. So rather than grumbling you should be commending me for doing God’s will. I can make you look good.”
A win / win / win situation
Read this way, it’s a story about Jesus’ relationship with his true master, God, and the criticism of those who consider themselves his betters, the Pharisees. What the steward / Jesus does is a win / win / win situation. The Manager wins because he is honoured and seen to be worthy of praise. The Pharisees, as the temple leaders who think of themselves as in charge of all thing religious, could become popular heroes if they would put the people above their rules and laws. Regardless of how the pharisees act, Jesus, like the shrewd manager, has secured his place in the hearts of the people.
Restored to Dignity and Hope
The peasants or merchants are freed from the yoke of burdensome interest, restored to dignity and are in a position to start rebuilding their lives. Note though, that the debt is not totally cancelled. Following Jesus is not a matter of entering some la-la land where we do not have to accept the consequences of our actions. The people who borrowed the money must repay the original debt. Forgiveness doesn’t free us from the consequences of our actions. Ask a repentant and forgiven murderer still serving a life sentence. That would be cheap grace. It does free us from the burden of guilt and allow us to regain respect for ourselves. It restores relationships which have eternal implications; which is a far greater blessing. As our first hymn this morning says “Love only waits to forgive and forget, Home weary wanderer home”.
Who we are vs what we have
Luke follows this parable with a group of Jesus’ sayings about faithfulness, dishonesty, true riches and money which all culminate in Jesus declaring, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Basically, he is still talking to the Pharisees, telling them: You might want to have a go at me about who I hang around with but let’s have a look what you think is important. It isn’t God’s people; it’s your own power and authority.
And we, too, can easily be enslaved by the power and choice our money gives us. Who we are and how we live is more important than what we wear and what we have. How we use our money is more important than what own. Yes, we fail, and often fail miserably, at finding and maintaining the right balance. We end up working to increase our wealth, not working to grow God’s kingdom. We struggle to free ourselves from the hold of money over our lives. But Jesus continues to stand with us declaring “I forgive your 50 jugs of oil and I forgive your 20 bushels of wheat; I restore you to dignity and hope. I restore you to the eternal relationship with the Father which you have had since the start of time. I forgive your sin.”