18th September 2016
The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
Amos 8: 4 – 7
1 Timothy 2: 1 – 7
Luke 16: 1 – 13
By Leslie Spatt
What’s dishonest about the manager?
Oh dear – here we are at one of the most difficult parables in the Bible – and an awful lot of people wish it wasn’t there. How on earth can anyone even start to explain it? And just to confuse things further, there seems to be two or even three parables grouped into one narrative; with the words about trust and about serving two masters which might originally have been separate sayings.
There’s a considerable conviction from Biblical scholars that at least the first part of the parable is authentically Jesus, very close to what he actually said – if only because the words are so difficult but survived omission or softening by later Gospel editors, because they were fairly accurately remembered. This brings its own problems of trying to winkle out what Jesus might have meant as opposed to what he’s recorded as saying. Could we even suppose that Jesus is encouraging us to be dishonest?
Diving rashly headlong into the text we can see that someone has complained to the rich man that his manager has been doing naughty things with property that wasn’t his. Interestingly enough, the manager doesn’t ever admit that he’s done anything wrong and there’s no evidence produced of existing fraud. Unjust accusation, perhaps? Someone else after the manager’s job? Jealousy that the manager has a nice affluent lifestyle? When the rich man wants the account books, the manager panics because he’s convinced he’s going to be out of a job and probably unemployable when the word gets round. Help!! what’s a person to do? Even if he’s proved innocent, mud will stick.
There’s endless speculation about the underlying motives of the manager, and just as many attempts at explaining why he behaves the way he does. Well, among the more believable versions, perhaps this particular manager is counting on the rich man’s debtors to be grateful that they will get a discount on what they owe. Maybe it’s just that the manager is reducing his own (inflated?) commission on the invoices, a commission the rich man knows nothing about, and isn’t actually cheating him out of anything! One by one, the debtors are happy to alter their own bills and pay the new lower amounts. The actions of the manager please the debtors who now owe the master less. This pleases the master who takes pride in having such a clever manager; and, as a fringe benefit, the master is now on the receiving end of goodwill from the debtors. However, there’s no comment that any of this is dubious practice. Satisfaction all round. But what of the teaching purpose of this parable? The first part, the section which Jesus may really have said, doesn’t have any moralising in it, so what’s the point?
Ultimately, Jesus is not praising the dishonesty, but the ability of the manager to see what was coming, and use what he had at the time to obtain something far greater: self preservation. The word used in the NRSV is “shrewd” and the KJV is “wise” and both are concerned with foresight, evaluating a situation and making careful judgements about future actions – and determination to avoid serious loss or disaster. Maybe the underlying message has nothing to do with creative accounting or affairs of this world but “Why can’t we all do the same to make sure of our spiritual well-being?” Could Jesus be saying that we, as honest people, children of the Light, should use the worldly wealth and all the influence it brings to benefit the purposes of God? Or, quoting a modern day commentator, “Observe the dishonest steward: be just the way he isn’t. Instead of conning people out of money, instead of being focused on money at all, use money to help the poor so that you can have real treasure in heaven.” It seems like one fair way of interpreting this enigmatic parable.
The 16th century Bible translator Tyndale pointed out that the manager was not praised by Jesus for his conduct, but merely provided as an example of wisdom and diligence, so that (his quote) “we with righteousness should be as diligent to provide for our souls, as he with unrighteousness provided for his body.” What is money really for? Don’t many of us think of ourselves first when we answer that question? But throughout the Gospels Jesus invites us to realize that our money isn’t really ours — we’re managing it for its real owner, God. He teaches that even tainted money or gains can be applied to the service of God and neighbour. When this happens, any benefits will last beyond this life — which the things we buy for ourselves won’t. Jesus’s point in this parable could well be that we avoid spiritual crisis and personal disaster through the exercise of faith and foresight. If we would only bring as much energy to spiritual matters which have eternal consequences as we do to earthly matters which have secular consequences – like the shrewd manager – then we would be truly better off, both in this life and in the age to come.
Now, money is really morally neutral. In itself it isn’t good or bad. It’s what we do with it and how we use it which flavours its ethical dimensions. This is true of lots more things than money. Ethical decisions like truthfulness and faithfulness – that’s how we may well be judged in both our secular and spiritual lives. I think many of us have experience of the verses here which say “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.” If we trust someone with a little task and they do it well, then we’re inclined to trust them with more responsibility. Even with so-called dishonest wealth: whatever its origin, we have to be honest in dealing with it. Thinking it’s OK to skim the top off dishonest wealth just because it didn’t arrive legitimately, and divert it elsewhere, will only prove to others that we can’t be trusted.
And ultimately, whether or not the saying about serving two masters properly belongs to this parable or not, it really is true. If we try to divide our time and serve two masters with equal enthusiasm, eventually we’ll favour one and ignore the other. We might be able to believe we can serve God and Mammon equally by making lots of money to be used for charitable purposes. Sometimes that feels like it’s true – look at Bill Gates and the many anonymous millionaires who give away uncounted riches to try and make the world a better place without expecting thanks or even recognition for it. But for most of us, money is a seductive master which can easily demand all the time we have to give; so that we concentrate on ourselves and what we want to do, rather than what God wants us to do. If we spend all our time pursuing money – the wonderful old-fashioned word Mammon meaning greedy pursuit of material wealth – we won’t have time for God. Mammon then becomes our god, and that in turn becomes idolatry. And I don’t think Jesus was a big fan of worshipping anything other than God.
Being a bit dishonest could seem like being the easier path to travel at first. Who will notice that tiny bit of tax evasion, padding an invoice with phoney expenses, or pretending that you give a lot to charity when in reality you don’t give at all? But ultimately a bit of dishonesty can lead to more and more, ending up in travelling down a very iffy road leading us further and further away from God. We can only serve one master – and only we can make that choice.
Leslie Spatt ©2016