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Luke 16:1-13 – The Dishonest Manager

Summary

Jesus tells a parable about a manager who defrauds his employer in an attempt to receive security from the people who benefit from his dishonest acts. After the parable, Jesus tells his followers to use money in ways that will ensure their own eternal security.

Analysis

This passage is difficult to interpret for many reasons. It is odd that the rich man commends the shrewdness of the manager who steals from him (although, as the rich man's authorized representative, the manager technically steals in a "legal" way). It also is not completely clear what Jesus means when he tells his disciples to "make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth" (v. 9). Finally, it is not obvious how Jesus' interpretation (vv. 9-13) relates to the parable itself (vv. 1-8).

It is important to understand what this parable attempts to illustrate. Jesus is not offering a comprehensive lesson about financial affairs. Nor is he justifying a Robin Hood strategy of boldly robbing the wealthy. Instead, the parable compares and contrasts the ways in which "the children of this age" use wealth and the ways in which "the children of light" should use it. The contrast forged in the parable serves a larger purpose of showing how powerful a thing wealth is--how wealth connects to power and how wealth makes claims on people. Wealth is something that competes with God for people's trust and devotion (v. 13).

The manager of the parable understands that he, by forgiving others' debts, can use money to his advantage. Benefiting others financially, by any means, can create relationships designed to ensure his security for the foreseeable future. The people he benefits will welcome this soon-to-be-unemployed man into their homes out of gratitude and as a gift in return. They owe him. Even the manager's employer recognizes the shrewdness of this act. Jesus, in v. 9, calls his followers to use money in ways that are similar, yet also shaped by fundamentally different interests. By redistributing wealth, but doing so through almsgiving, one develops authentic relationships with others (this is what it means to "make friends": not to make people obliged to pay back with favors, but to give without expecting any personal benefit in return). The charity of almsgiving (a different kind of way to redistribute wealth) will lead to a different kind of security--an eternal one. The point is that the parable's manager knows how to use money for mutual benefit, to create relationships of reciprocal obligation. Jesus' followers can use money--something that is ripe for "dishonest" or unrighteous uses--and, by giving it away, create relationships of authentic solidarity and charity. This is a sign that they resist wealth's allure as a competing god. Instead, they are members of God's kingdom, and they have the confidence of an eternal security that no amount of money or economic dealing can purchase.

Jesus, then, warns against wealth's power. But he does not advocate a retreat from economic life. He calls people to use money in ways that defy money's own seductive claim that it can provide lasting security.

Luke 16:1-13

The Parable of the Dishonest Manager

16Then 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. 2So 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.” 3Then 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. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” 6He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” 7Then 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.” 8And 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. 9And 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.*

10 ‘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. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth,* who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No 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.’*

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v 2.2.7
10 February 2011

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