Sunday’s Gospel is a puzzling passage!
A dishonest manager is about to lose his job because he has misspent his employer’s assets. Because he is unable to do manual labor and ashamed to beg, he goes around to all the people who owe his employer money and reduces their debts. He does this so that they will be hospitable to him after he loses his job. To our surprise, the employer commends the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. Why is he commended? And, why does Luke include this story in his Gospel?
To begin to answer these questions, we can note that this parable serves as a bridge between the stories of the Prodigal Son and the Rich Man and Lazarus. Like the prodigal in the preceding story (last Sunday’s Gospel), our dishonest manager has “squandered” what was entrusted to him. And, like this story, the one that follows (next week’s Gospel), begins with the phrase, “There was a rich man” (16:1,19).
Although our dishonest manager does not repent (like the prodigal) or act virtuously (like Lazarus), he nonetheless does something with the rich man’s wealth that reverses the existing order of things. In Luke, reversals are at the heart of what happens when Jesus and the kingdom of God appear: the proud are “scattered”, the powerful are brought down and the lowly lifted; the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty.
But why does the employer commend the dishonest manager for being shrewd? Some commentators have suggested that the dishonest manager has reduced his own commission in the debts owed and that this is what is being commended. Yet others have suggested that the employer is simply commending the manager for responding shrewdly to a difficult circumstance. The word for “shrewd” can also be translated as “prudent” or “wise”.
The text itself provides four interpretations of the master’s commendation. First, “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light”. In other words, Jesus’ disciples — often referred to as “children of light” — could learn something about acting prudently from the “children of this age.”
Second, what they could learn from the “children of this age” has to do with “making friends for themselves” by means of “dishonest wealth” so that those new friends might “welcome them into the eternal dwellings”. Instead of using “dishonest wealth” to exploit others, disciples are to use (honest) wealth to “make friends for themselves.” If friendships are based on reciprocal relationships, then releasing other people’s debts not only enriches them, but also establishes a new kind of reciprocity between them.
Third, there’s a connection between being faithful (or dishonest) with “very little” and “very much.” How one deals with “dishonest wealth” and “what belongs to another” says much about how one will deal with “true riches” and “what is your own”. How we use the resources at our disposal in this life — especially in tight circumstances — matters, even though our “true riches” can only be found in that place “where no thief can draw near and no moth destroys” (12:33-34).
Finally, the capstone to all this is that “no servant can serve two masters … you cannot serve both God and mammon”(mammon means, earthly goods, wealth, property, possessions). This reiterates a central theme in Luke. The kingdom of God entails giving up all other commitments, including the commitment to economic security. As already noted, Luke places great emphasis on how the reign of God reverses the status of the rich and the poor; the humble and the exalted.
In the book of Acts, the Christian community is one where disciples share “all things in common,” distributing “to all, as any had need” (2:44-45). These texts cannot just be spiritualized. Luke is talking about a different way of using wealth. Our wealth belongs to God and is to be used for the purposes of God’s reign among us and not simply for our own interests.
So why is our dishonest manager shrewd? Even though he is still a sinner who is looking out for his own interests, he models behavior the disciples can emulate. Instead of simply being a victim of circumstance, he transforms a bad situation into one that benefits him and others. By reducing other people’s debts, he creates a new set of relationships based not on the vertical relationship between lenders and debtors but on something more like the reciprocal and vertical relationships of friends.
For many Christians who wish to follow Christ and yet find themselves rich in material things, Gospel teachings concerning money can be troubling. Sometimes, it may seem difficult or even impossible, to reconcile material security with faithful discipleship that often we may give up trying to figure it out.
Jesus, in the Gospel, tells us that we should not give up the effort. This is the recommendation (not advice to deceive and manipulate) behind the story of the unjust steward. The steward musters every available bit of farsightedness when it comes to working out his material fate. We must do likewise when it comes to working out our eternal fate.
Money is for persons and the only proper use of it is in sharing. Jesus says that we cannot give ourselves to God and to mammon: “No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.” The more we allow ourselves to be mastered by earthly goods, the more we are likely to despise those who remind us of another dominion. We might even resent the very Gospels that challenge our attachment.