A cursory glance at the Gospels shows that Luke is very interested in attitudes to the material possessions of both rich and poor. Luke’s teaching circles around several of Jesus’ most famous parables: the rich fool, the lost son, the dishonest manager, and the rich man and Lazarus.
For brevity, we’ll focus our attention on the parable of the dishonest manager.
The parable of the dishonest manager (Luke 16:1–13)
This manager was accused by his wealthy boss of being a waster. Charges (plural) were brought and the boss summons the manager to account: ‘What is this that I hear about you?’ Is the boss asking for information? Not really. He wants to see the reaction of the manager. If the manager panics, he might reveal a lot more about what has been going on.
However, he does not appear to say anything. The tension of silence in the narrative is broken by the rich man telling the manager to turn in the books (not to balance them). In effect: ‘You’re fired!’
In ancient law, such a firing was regarded as taking instant effect. ‘Handing in the books’ means the cessation of the manager’s authority over the estate, that is, when he does hand them in, for he still has them. The rest of the story turns on that circumstance.
Now comes the astonishing thing in the narrative. There is no mention of the manager asking to be reinstated. The manager knows that protest would be of no use. His boss was a man of integrity, who would not budge on such an issue.
As the manager now goes to get the account books, he talks to himself and surveys the range of his possibilities. He must get work. Manual labour? Not strong enough. Begging? Ashamed to do it.
Then, a possible solution dawns on him. He can see a way of doing something that could lead to him being ‘received into another house’, which is a phrase meaning ‘being offered another job’. He cooks up a clever scheme that will do two things: demonstrate his shrewdness and, at the same time, make him popular, maybe even employable.
He now makes haste to use the brief time window, during which no one, except himself and his boss, know that he has been fired. He summons some of the debtors to come to him individually. He asks the first: how much do you owe? He is not asking for information, as he already has the information in front of him. He is initiating negotiations, by getting the debtor’s agreement on the amount owed. If the amount on the steward’s docket agrees with what the debtor says, they can proceed to the next stage. If not, there will have to be some haggling.
The first debtor admits that he owes 100 measures of olive oil, whereupon the manager gives him his docket, and tells him to sit down and write 50. This is an enormous reduction, since 50 measures of oil, at that time, were worth around 500 denarii – a year’s wages for a farm labourer. Note that the manager gets the debtor to write the change on the docket, so that anyone looking at the accounts will know that the debtor has been involved in the transaction and, therefore, knows all about it.
Thus, having been fired for stealing, the manager decides that his best course of action is to steal a great deal more!
A cunning scheme
Commentator, Ibn al-Tayyib points out that this parable is set in an honour-shame culture that makes a clear distinction between public propriety and private awareness. Public propriety preserves personal honour. In this case, the debtor’s public stance will be that he didn’t know that the steward had been fired, and so naturally thought that the reduction had been authorised by the boss. Privately, the debtor will accept a little deal that benefits both himself and the steward, since the manager’s instruction to ‘sit down and write 50’ implies that the extra 50 will be split between the two of them afterwards. By being complicit, the debtor has forfeited the possibility of going to the boss later and telling him what really happened.
Clever stuff! I hope this is not giving anyone ideas!
The upshot is not hard to predict. Having received such generous rebates, the delighted debtors will go home and tell their families and friends the great news of their debt relief. That news will spread like wildfire around the village, until the whole community is celebrating the generosity of the rich man.
The steward returns the books and makes himself scarce. It will not be long until the boss finds out the fraud that has been perpetrated by the wily, thieving manager. But what is he now going to do about it? Indeed, what can he do about it? If he goes back to the debtors and informs them that they have completely misread the situation, since fraud has taken place, and the debts have not been altered as they think, the festivities will cease at once, and the rich man will now be the subject of endless vilification.
His only real alternative is to dig deep into his generosity, take the hit, and enjoy his heightened celebrity. We should note that the fact that he simply fires the steward is another mark of his magnanimity: after all, he could have had him imprisoned, or sold into slavery, possibly with his family as well.
As for the sacked manager, he is likely to get a job again, since the locals will take the view that it’s better to have him working for them than against them, since he did, after all, save them a lot of money, and might do so again – but he will be carefully watched.
A lesson in shrewdness
The narrative now tells us that the boss (not the Lord Jesus, please note) commends the manager for his shrewdness, but not, of course, for his dishonesty. You can just imagine him saying: ‘You clever old so-and-so. How did you ever think of that?’
It is a fascinating parable, brilliantly designed to light up Jesus’ audience. He now applies it, and it is important to notice the precise terms in which he does so. He applies it to his disciples, who are ‘sons of light’, which the manager most assuredly was not. He was a dishonest man, a son of darkness.
In Jesus’ application, it is not the disciples who are unrighteous – it is money that is unrighteous, hence the description ‘unrighteous wealth’. This is a strange phrase, at first sight. Yet it is not hard to see what it might mean.
Jesus tells us to act as honest managers, and use what we have righteously.
Jesus tells his disciples, and through them believers all down through the ages, that they are to make the kind of friends that ‘will receive you into eternal tabernacles’ (Luke 16:9). That is, friends who become believers and who go to heaven to be with the Lord, before we do. They will receive us on our arrival.
I suspect that this is all somewhat unfamiliar territory to many of us, and so it needs some teasing out. The first thing to see is that this is not a matter of a mercenary ‘buying’ friends, as the prodigal son did. It is doing something with our possessions that has the effect of increasing our circle of friends in eternity, friends that we may be mostly unaware of.
Being welcomed to eternal dwellings
Humphrey Monmouth financed Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English. I like to think about what will happen one day. Along with all of us (see later) Humphrey Monmouth will arrive at the judgement seat of Christ in heaven. Can you imagine how the untold multitudes of people who were converted through Tyndale’s translation will react as they learn that it was Monmouth’s money, and Tyndale’s hard work, that were instrumental under God in their conversion? They will receive those two men as friends, will they not?
This will not only happen to wealthy patrons. At a much humbler level, think of a medical student who arrived at her Cambridge college and was feeling quite lonely in her college room when a knock came at the door. It was a fellow student asking if she would like to join her for coffee. They chatted and, eventually, the first student asked the second why she had invited her. It was not long before the student who provided the coffee was quietly talking about her Christian faith. Not long after that, the medical student gave her life to Christ. I don’t know who the student who shared her faith was, but many hundreds of thousands know who the medical student was – Helen Roseveare.
The student who shared her coffee and had no idea of what would flow from that encounter – and yet it turned out to be a wonderful example of gospel patronage. Just imagine the reaction of the thousands of Africans who became believers through Helen Roseveare’s ministry. They were Helen’s friends, but won’t the girl who gave Helen the coffee be instantly received as their friend too? She will have a vast circle of friends in the world to come.
The parable of the dishonest manager is about money. Yet, it is clear that the principles that Jesus used the parable to teach apply to all those other kinds of wealth we have mentioned earlier. Indeed, the student used not only her money, but she gave her time to befriending Helen Roseveare.
One of the main, very encouraging lessons here is that this is open to anyone. It was, after all, only a cup of coffee! What an illustration of the potential of small things. After all, a young man’s five loaves and two fish were used by the Lord to feed five thousand people. The key was to put them into the Lord’s hands. It does matter and matter eternally if we waste what we have been given. We have a responsibility to use the by-products of work to make friends that will be in heaven to welcome us.
Paul enunciates a similar principle for wealthy believers in 1 Tim. 6:17–19:
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.
We notice that Paul says that those who are rich in this present age will only be rich in the future if they invest in God’s kingdom in this life, and lay up a good foundation for the future. That is the only sensible investment strategy.
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