The Dishonest Manager
By Dr. Mickey Anders
Hollywood movies often glorify the anti-hero. Those are the ones where the star of the movie is the bad guy who is so lovable that the audience winds up pulling for him. I remember at least a couple of those anti-hero movies which starred Robert Redford Paul Newman. In Butch Cassady and the Sundance Kid, they played two Western outlaws who led a gang of cutthroat robbers. They were such delightful characters that I found myself rooting for them even though they were robbing banks and trains. I was hoping they would escape when the railroad tycoon organized a special posse of experts to hunt them down.
I also liked these stars in the movie The Sting. There was much to like in this movie – the music and the complicated build-up to the surprising sting operation. The audience cheered when they successfully fleeced the wealthy bad guy. But there I was again, cheering for con men who were clearly stealing.
We all know that it really is a bad thing to pull for the con men, the crooks and the train robbers, but that’s Hollywood! We often expect something like that from Hollywood, but not from the Bible and not from Jesus.
Our passage of Scripture for today is one of the most troubling in the Bible for me. What was Jesus doing praising a dishonest manager? Why did Jesus tell us that we should emulate a man who clearly stole property not belonging to him? It’s the kind of story that I wish were not in the Bible, but since it is, we need to wrestle with it and try our best to understand it.
The story begins with classic story-telling words, “There was a certain rich man who had a manager.” We have already discovered that the gospel of Luke talks more about riches than any other gospel. Luke loves a good story about a rich man, but the focus on this particular story is on the manager. There was gossip about this manager. We don’t know who was doing the talking, but there were people in the community or on the farm who suggested that this manager was squandering the owner’s property. We are not told exactly what that means. The word “squandering” is the same word used in Luke 15 about the Prodigal Son who squandered his wealth.
It may be that the manager was being accused simply of being inept and unable to make an efficient profit. Perhaps the manager was abusing his expense account. Perhaps he was throwing lavish parties for himself and his friends. Perhaps he was using the owner’s funds to build himself a house. Maybe he was simply stealing money from the owner. We don’t know the exact nature of the “squandering,” but it is clear that it was a dishonest thing to do. He is clearly called a “dishonest manager.”
So the owner summoned the manager saying, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” It seems that the story is compressed in this speech, for there are three different themes here. First, the owner rightly asks the manager if the rumors were true – “What is this that I hear about you?” We can imagine that the manager could have responded at this point with a protest about his innocence. Perhaps there was a perfectly good explanation for the “squandering.”
But the owner moves on quickly, “Give me an accounting of your management.” This is a reasonable request. The owner wants to go over the books with the manager. He wants the manager to explain in detail how he had run the farm in the owner’s absence. Perhaps the manager can demonstrate his honesty through his record keeping.
However, the owner doesn’t really give a chance for any response since his speech moves through points one and two to the final blow, “because you can no longer be manager.” This poor manager is fired before he can ever give an explanation or a defense. We have to assume that the dishonest manager is fired for good reason. The owner actually did look at the books and discovered glaring inconsistencies, and apparently there were grounds for dismissal. The manager was not an honest man.
The scene changes abruptly at this point with the impression that the manager has been given two-weeks notice. In today’s corporate environment, this event would have taken place about 4 pm on a Friday, and the fired employee would be instructed to clean out his desk, turn in his company credit card and office keys and never come back. But in our story, the manager has the opportunity for a few last official actions.
The fired manager analyses his position thinking to himself. He knows that he will not be able to get another job as a manager, and concludes that the best he could expect would be a job as a ditch digger. We don’t know his age or the state of his health, but the manager quickly rules this option out because he is not strong enough to dig.
This leaves his only other option which is to beg. There would be no unemployment insurance to tide him over. There would be no welfare from the government. And he was too ashamed to beg.
At this point in the story, the manager knows that he has no family or friends to count on. Perhaps he has a reputation for his dishonest ways, or even ruthless ways, so that he is convinced that no one will come to his aid.
But he hits on a plan to change all that. He says to himself, “I know what I will do, so that when I am removed from management, they may receive me into their houses.”
One by one he calls on the people who owe money to the owner and negotiates reduced settlements. The one man owes one hundred jugs of olive oil. The manager says, “Pay it now, and you will only have to pay fifty.” The next man owes one hundred containers of wheat. The manager says, “Pay it now, and you will only have to pay eighty.” One man gets a fifty percent reduction in his debt; the other gets a twenty percent reduction.
Was the sacked man overcharging and so, when he knew he was to be dismissed, gave up his cut to gain acceptance among his former clients? Some have suggested that the manager was merely removing the exorbitant interests on these debts, but the text does not tell us that.
The way the story is told, this manager apparently has no authority to do this. We can imagine situations where a manager would operate like some credit counselor today who will negotiate reduced interests rates or even reduced payments at so many cents on the dollar. But the story does not give us this out. The owner clearly does not intend for the manager to take this action. And make no mistake about it; it is stealing from the owner to so reduce the payments to him. This is not behavior that anyone should emulate just because we read it in the Bible.
We can imagine the results of this action for the manager and for the owner. The debtors would be eternally grateful to the manager. No doubt, they would have said to him, “Listen, we won’t forget this kind consideration on your behalf.”
It reminds me of the insurance salesman who took me to a nice restaurant and bought an expensive meal for me while he showed me the policies. After he had spent all that money on my meal, I felt obligated to purchase the insurance from him and did.
If the manager shows up in a few weeks, and asks these debtors for a job, they will have a sense of obligation to him. They will very likely give him work, and the man will land on his feet. It was a stroke of genius to ingratiate himself to people who could help him out after his employment with the owner.
And what do you think the debtors thought about the owner after this debt reduction. They obviously would assume that the negotiation was authorized by the owner, so their opinion of him would skyrocket. Perhaps they said, “You know, that owner has always been a cut-throat competitor and a tough businessman. His interest rates have always been high, and he has been brutal in his collection techniques. Maybe we were wrong about him. This was such a generous gesture. He’s not such a bad guy after all.”
Word may have spread through the town, and suddenly the owner found everybody slapping him on the back and singing, “For he’s a jolly good fellow.” The owner may have enjoyed this newfound popularity and thought to himself, “I should have been generous before now.”
Something like that must have happened because the owner responds in the next verse with an unexpected commendation of the dishonest manager, “His lord commended the dishonest manager because he had done wisely.”
This is where this story becomes difficult for the modern mind. Why on earth did this owner commend the dishonest manager who had just caused him to lose a great deal of his wealth? And by implication, Jesus is commending this dishonesty as well.
In this story, we are not sure where the parable ends. Verses 9-13 seem to be Luke’s attempt to find a moral to this amoral story. Perhaps these are verses added by Luke to try to make sense of the parable, but it seems to me that none of them fit the story very well.
Jesus concludes with this moral, “for the children of this world are, in their own generation, wiser than the children of the light. I tell you, make for yourselves friends by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when you fail, they may receive you into the eternal tents.”
What exactly is it that Jesus is approving here? Deceit? Surely not. Stealing? Never. Dishonesty? I think not. Not really.
It reminds me of the time I was invited to speak to a group of valedictorians from the local high school. I decided on a novel approach and shocked them when I announced that my advice was for them to cheat, lie and steal. Of course, they did not expect to hear that kind of message from a pastor at a Rotary Club meeting. But then I went on to explain that the odds were that they would not be as successful in college as they were in high school and that the odds were they would not really change the world as they dreamed. I suggested that they cheat those odds and succeed anyway. I told them that college would be very busy with lots of demands on their time. They would have to steal time for their studies. And I advised that they not forget time for meditation and prayer. They should remember to lie in the grace of God. Cheat, lie and steal!
Maybe Jesus was doing something like that. Perhaps this story was a real incident that had happened recently. Since everybody knew the story, Jesus picked it to make a surprising point. But Jesus is not praising the manager for his morality.
Let me suggest three possible lessons for us. The message of this passage may well be about money. That seems to be what Luke thinks because he collects some of Jesus sayings about money at the end of this parable. We find statements that we should be trustworthy in handling worldly wealth so that we will find true riches. We cannot serve God and money.
Robert Cueni, President of Lexington Theological Seminary, suggests that Jesus is simply saying, “It’s only money. Don’t make money a bigger deal than it is.” The “unrighteous mammon” mentioned in verse 9 does not refer to money gained by dishonest means. Rather it means the wealth of this world, all of which is tainted and temporary, which is to be distinguished from the treasure in heaven.
Money is not an end in itself; it is a resource. And if we believe the message of stewardship in the Bible, all that we have belongs to God. We are indeed merely stewards, like the man in our story. And we should not squander the Master’s resources. We need to be trustworthy with little so that we can be trusted with much. God does want us to be shrewd with the wealth that God has entrusted to us so that we serve God and people in need.
Money is clearly a big topic for Luke, and he always cautions against using it unwisely. But these morals really don’t fit well with the story.
But there is a second possibility for interpreting Jesus’ message. He may have been praising decisive action. When this man discovered that his livelihood was threatened, he proved resourceful and clever. In his determination to provide for himself and his family, he took strong actions in a crisis situation.
Other people may have frozen up. They would become immobilized and do nothing. This man didn’t bury his head or wring his hands. Jesus advises that we too should take decisive action, especially about our spiritual lives.
When we find ourselves drifting spiritually, we must take decisive action. Every week in our church we invite people to make decisions for Christ. Jesus would advise us to respond to the invitation – to take action.
A final interpretation relates to forgiveness. At the core of this story is the forgiveness of a debt. The steward forgives. He forgives things that he had no right to forgive. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and to compensate for past misconduct. But that’s the decisive action that he undertakes to redeem himself.
So what’s the moral of this story? It’s a moral of great emphasis for Luke – forgive. Forgive it all. Forgive it now. Forgive it for any reason you want, or for no reason at all.
Whether we apply this principle to debtor nations or to someone who’s sinned against us, we don’t have to do it out of love for the other person, if we’re not there yet. We could forgive the other person because we are convicted by the line from the Lord’s Prayer. And it is significant that Luke translates the line,“forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (Luke 11:4).
We could forgive because we want to be deeply in touch with a sense of Jesus’ power to forgive and free sinners like us. Or we could forgive because any other reason.
There is no bad reason to forgive. Extending the kind of grace God shows us in every possible arena can only put us more deeply in touch with God’s grace.
The steward traffics in what is, by definition, unrighteous currency – money. We are called to traffic in righteous currency. The currency of God’s kingdom is forgiveness.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2007 Dr. Mickey Anders. Used by permission.