an interpretation of the shrewd manager in luke 16
The Parable of the Shrewd Manager (Luke 16:1-13) is, in the words of Leon Morris, “… one of the most difficult of all the parables to interpret.”*
Most people with whom I have discussed this parable have little to no idea as to what it might mean. Indeed the idea that a dishonest person is commended is troubling at the very least.
The most common solution I have heard is that Jesus is saying we should be wise with our resources and opportunities just like the shrewd manager, to the point of using them dishonestly if necessary in order to get a good outcome.
Is this a fair interpretation?
I don’t think so.
One thing we can say is that Luke 16 as a whole is almost entirely concerned with money, and this should frame our discussion.
The story tells of a manager/steward who is accused of wasting the possessions of his master, a rich man. This should ring alarm bells for us immediately since Luke has already had harsh things to say about the rich leading up to chapter 16, including:
- … he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. (1:53)
- … woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. (6:24)
- … the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich towards God. (12:21)
Clearly being rich is not a good thing according to Luke, and this is probably because in first century Palestine to be rich invariably meant exploiting others through mechanisms such as land foreclosure or charging interest, actions not looked well upon in the Old Testament.
We should assume then that the rich man is not the protagonist of the story.
The rich man’s manager is forced into action in order to avoid social humiliation and economic ruin – he decides to reduce the debts of those who owe his master. This act of forgiveness of debts is most definitely a morally good act just as in the Old Testament, though the motive of the manager is questionable.
When the rich man realises what has happened he commends the shrewd manager. Note that the rich man is given a choice in this dilemma; either reverse the forgiveness of debts in order to take back the wealth lost resulting in loss of social honour, or allow the debt reductions to remain thus resulting in a loss of wealth but a gain in honour. In an honour-shame society like that of Palestine in Jesus’ day honour was worth much more than money, and so honour is preferred by the rich man.
That the rich man commends the manager is striking; should we accept this commendation? Most have assumed that because Jesus has this happen in his parable he must be inferring that the shrewd manager is commendable, and so the logic follows that his shrewdness is something to aspire to.
It is in fact Jesus, however, who calls the manager/steward “dishonest” in 16:8. This cannot be passed over easily. Brian McLaren has attempted to argue that:
From Jesus’ perspective … the steward is wise rather than unjust – wise enough to defect (as the rich young ruler should have done) from the service of the wealthier elite to give a break to the poor who are being crushed … (Everything Must Change, 97)
While I find this view compelling, it simply does not make sense of the text for me – quite simply the manager is called dishonest (adikia – literally ‘unjust’) by Jesus.
What is the point of the story, then?
The point of the story is not to emulate any character. The rich man is evil. The manager is equally evil, despite his reduction of debts, which is only enacted to save his own skin (an act that earns the admiration of the evil master!)
Jesus comments following the story support this interpretation – “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” (16:8). In other words the people of this world are shrewd in dealing with each other, more than those who are in the kingdom (the sons of light). And rightly so, people take advantage of the systems of this world to benefit themselves, and this is quite frankly dishonest and unbecoming of people in the kingdom.
What should we make of Jesus’ advice to “… make friends for yourselves by means of mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”? Is Jesus not telling us to follow the example of the dishonest manager?
Not quite. Making “friends” referred to patron-client relationships in the Greco-Roman world in which economic and social benefits were traded. This was seen simply as a social reality which could not be avoided (in the same way that purchasing goods with money cannot be avoided in our time).
Seen in the context of Luke’s earlier writing however we must argue that the connection between Jesus’ teaching here and the manager in the parable is completely destroyed since the manager made “friends” in order to be repaid in social dividends whereas throughout Luke’s Gospel Jesus teaches that making “friends” was to be done without hope of reciprocation:
- Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. (6:30)
- But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great. (6:35)
- … and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. (11:4)
Jesus, if he is consistent, is instructing us to do precisely the opposite of the dishonest manager – rather than making deals with the poor for personal gain Jesus calls us to genuinely make friends with those who cannot repay us thus creating social unity between rich and poor.
It is these acts of compassion that have a bearing on our ultimate judgement – “make friends for yourselves by means of mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” The following story about the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31) depicts something akin to not being welcomed into eternal dwellings precisely because no friendship with the poor was created. Negative judgement in this story is not reckoned because of lack of belief, but because of lack of compassion for the poor.
Ultimately the issue comes down to our love of mammon, or money and possessions. Jesus is quite clear that we need to choose between God, who calls us to serve the poor, and money, which will cause us to be shrewd in seeking personal benefit like the dishonest manager.
The fact that the Pharisees are said to have sneered at this teaching (16:14) seems to indicate that they, who resembled the dishonest manager in their doing of good deeds for personal benefit, understood that Jesus was likening them to a character who was not to be viewed as admirable.
The fact that so many have tried to make the dishonest manager an example of wisdom to be followed may well demonstrate our penchant for interpreting the Bible in ways that support our radically wealthy Western lifestyles.
Though the systems of this world can be used for personal gain in wealth or power (particularly for the majority of my readers who are educated and middle+ class) those who seek to follow Jesus must renounce such collusion.
I wonder what this means for our desire for cheap material goods (where were they produced, and by whom?), our abuse of the environment or our investments in the share market…
In conclusion, don’t copy the manager.
* Leon Morris, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Luke, (London: IVP, 1974), 245.
Posted on November 30, 2011, in Biblical Studies, Economics, New Testament and tagged Brian McLaren, Dishonest Manager, Dishonest Steward, Luke 16:1-13, Mammon, Money, Rich, Shrewd Manager, Shrewd Steward, Wealth. Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.