Luke’s gospel is notorious for its hard hitting and sometimes stymying parables, and we get another one today. This is one of the most confusing parables, and it’s been argued over and over again what it could possibly mean. While all those arguments are worthwhile, mostly because the archetypes for the various characters are somewhat unclear, for me the point Jesus is making is clear. To get to why I view it the way I do, it will take a little bit of recapping the story and noticing some details along the way.
At this point in Luke, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He’s been ushered away from Samaritan villages, eaten dinner at the house of Pharisees, stopped to preach at synagogues, and has gotten quite a crowd following him as he heads toward the holy city and the Temple he loves so dearly. Just before telling this parable, “tax collectors and sinners had come near to listen to him,” and the Pharisees and scribes present began to grumble about who was welcomed to eat with Jesus (Luke 15.1-2). Jesus responds to these grumblings, telling the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin (Luke 15.3-10). Immediately preceding our Lukan passage this morning is the infamous Parable of the Prodigal Son and His Brother (Luke 15.11-32).
Jesus then tells his disciples this parable what we heard this morning. “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property” (Luke 16.1). Whenever the phrase “a rich man” appears in a Lukan parable, it is important to note that there is a critique of wealth that is not used to benefit the poor layered into Jesus’ point.1 Another detail to pick up, particularly in relation to the immediately preceding Parable of the Prodigal Son and His Brother, is the use of the word “squandering” in both. It’s also used to describe the Prodigal Son’s use of his inheritance that he requested as if his father was already dead. In both places, the grammatically correct version of the Greek word διασκορπίζων is used. Its primary meanings include: “to scatter abroad, disperse,” or “winnow,” or “throw into the air.”2 We get the sense of someone who’s not paying much attention to the resources in their charge, flinging them about without being responsible.
The master, or lord, having been told by unnamed sources of the miscreant behavior of his appointed manager, summons him, and demands a full accounting of actions of the manager to transition him out of the master’s dealings.3 “So 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. (Luke 16.2)’” The lord’s intention cannot be clearer, he wants to move on immediately, but has entrusted too much to this unjust manager to simply fire him right then and there.
The manager begins an internal monologue: “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. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes. (Luke 16.3-4)” The manager may be feckless with his master’s property but is quick on his feet when it comes to positioning himself for favor with others. He knows that he is not honest or fit enough for strenuous physical labor, and he has too much pride to beg and glean the fields as a way of subsistence living. He does not desire to have a meager life, much like the prodigal son in the wake of his own squandered living. And, like the prodigal son, he thinks first of his relationships that he may yet still depend upon to keep himself above impoverished living.
Now, to be clear, when we hear about the unjust manager, we don’t know who, how, or what he’s been unjust in relation to. Clearly, that detail was not important to Jesus or the writer of the gospel, he is simply unjust. In fact, the word his lord uses to describe his manager in verse 8 is ἀδικία, which means “unrighteous of heart and life” or “lack of justice”.4 In Greek mythology, Adikia is the goddess and personification of wrongdoing and injustice. This manager is not merely a squanderer of entrusted property, but a thoroughly unrighteous person, willfully disregarding ethical conditions of life, business, and community. Again, while we do not know to whom he’s been unjust, that detail doesn’t matter, because as a person he is simply inequitable and unfair without conscience in all matters.
At this moment, his sense of self-preservation orients him towards survival within the community. He begins slashing the debts of those who are in business with his lord, hurriedly currying favor without mentioning his own failing circumstances. He would surely be popular with those whom he suddenly begins unburdening, though he never gives them a reason why he’s doing this. The commodities of oil and wheat bear great significance, as oil was used to light the dark, care for and anoint skin, and prepare food, while wheat would have been a staple grain of bread and life. Oil was also a metaphor for righteous deeds, and wheat for fertility, usually of the earth and feminine in character. The forgiveness of these owed substances to the account of the manager’s lord reduces that same lord’s resources of righteousness and fertility, robbing him of his contractual profit in exchange for the manager’s continued survival.
And yet, we come to the most baffling statement by the master and what I also find to be Jesus’ clearest point of the parable: “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly… (Luke 16.8)” If we focus only on the characters, it is indeed bewildering to find anything substantive in Jesus’ parable as it relates to living righteously in God’s economy. Yet that’s not where I find my own footing in this parable, instead, it is the phrase “because he had acted shrewdly”.
The word for “shrewdly” here is φρονίμως, and it means “intelligent”, “wise”, “prudent”, or “mindful of one’s interests”.5 My personal footing to find meaning here rests on this notion: that God is always giving us signs to act prudently as Christ’s body in this world in relation to our communities and our neighbors, especially in the light of Jesus’ good news. Luke’s gospel is littered with parables of literal wake-up calls, for bridesmaids, kings, masters of vineyards, and among family members. One could argue that all four gospels, and that Jesus’ life itself, is THE wake-up call of the divine for all of humanity, calling us to live in harmonious peace and justice in the knowledge of God’s grace and love. My sense is that Jesus’ parable here is not about the characters themselves, but the actions they take when they see the end coming. That is the message to Jesus’ disciples on their way to Jerusalem and to his death.
How we respond in the face of God’s signs in our lives tells the story of who we really are, regardless of our intention. By setting up a vile character who redistributes debts as a response to being told of his own demise, the manager serves as an object lesson: we cannot run from the results of our actions, but we can nevertheless act differently in the face of the end.
What wake-up calls are we receiving in our time, individually and as a community? What behaviors have we habituated, and how will they inform us as we move in the world when we are called to account? What are the ways we can act prudently, mindful of God’s love in a world so desperate for it? How do we redistribute righteousness and possibility in the face of debts, our own or otherwise? What is it to be swift and prudent in God’s economy? Amen.
- Amy-Jill Levine, The Jewish Annotated New Testament, p128.
- διασκορπίζων, http://greekbible.com/, accessed 9/16/2022.
- κύριος, http://greekbible.com/, accessed 9/16/2022.
- Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, pg. 249.
- φρονίμως, http://greekbible.com/, accessed 9/16/2022.