Luke 16:1-13 – The Dishonest Manager
SummaryJesus 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.
AnalysisThis 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.