The Parable of the Dishonest Manager
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Our series on The Parables of Jesus continues this morning with The Parable of the Dishonest Manager. We’ve got one more to go after this – The Parable of the Talents, found in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, verses 14-30. We’ll get to that just as soon as I get back from vacation. Stand by.
The Parable of the Dishonest Manager is one of the most unusual parables of Jesus. Did Jesus really condone the actions of a thief? And are we supposed to go and do likewise? In his book, Speaking Parables, David Buttrick writes,
“The parable has embarrassed Christians for centuries. Clearly, the parable embarrassed Luke, for he keeps adding verses – 8b, 9, 10-12 – trying to find an acceptable moral for the story. How could Jesus tell the story of a crook and, what’s more, seem to approve of the crook’s behavior?” (p. 210)
A couple of years ago I preached a sermon based on this parable entitled, “As Resourceful as a Thief.” The gist of it was, if we were as diligent in using our creative abilities to serve Christ as thieves are to get something for nothing, there’s no telling what we could accomplish.
I used the story of Billy Sol Estes to illustrate the point. You may remember. Billy Sol Estes built an empire of grain elevators and fertilizer tanks out in West Texas, then banks and holding companies and just about everything else money could buy. He was as crooked as a snake. Some say he could sell the same crop of wheat a half dozen times or more! But he was charismatic and charming and bigger than life. Even people he defrauded brought their business back to him time and again, never believing ole Billy meant them any harm. Well, his corruption finally got the best of him, and as far as I know, he’s still serving time in a federal penitentiary.
But I think it’s only fair to say if he’d used his imagination and charm to helping people instead of robbing them, he could’ve left a lasting legacy for generations to come.
And this is how I’ve interpreted the Parable of the Dishonest Manager up to now: Dare to be as bold and decisive about sharing the Good News of God’s love as a crook who’s about to lose his job.
Then I came into conversation with another Bible scholar and theologian who helped me see the parable in a new way. His name is Roger Garrett. Roger W. Garrett, to be exact. Roger and I have been comparing notes on the parables ever since he came back to us in June. Roger brought out some aspects of this particular parable that other commentators overlook. For example, the parable begins,
“There was a certain rich man who had a manager. An accusation was made to him that this man was wasting his possessions.” (1)
If you look closely, you’ll realize something’s missing: We’re not told who brought the charges against the manager. The implication is that they were made anonymously. Luke simply says, “An accusation was made to him.” This sounds like hearsay. Perhaps some disgruntled worker slipped a note under the rich man’s door.
And from every indication, the charges were never substantiated. The manager never got to have his day in court. The allegation itself was enough to prompt the rich man to fire him.
And, if this is true, then it was the manager who was the victim of injustice, not the landowner.
What’s more, it’s not clear just what the manager had done that was all that dishonest to begin with. The text says he was squandering the rich man’s property. That could mean he was wasting it. The same verb is used in The Parable of the Prodigal Son when it says the younger son “was wasting his possessions.” But it could also mean that he was simply spreading it thin, investing widely. The question is, was it dishonest?
And so, without a proper hearing and some sort of proof of misconduct, we’re left with the impression that the manager could have been more of a victim of injustice than a crook caught with his hand in the till. And, if this is true, then it’s easy to see how Jesus may have used this incident as the basis of a parable; in which case, the kingdom of God is a like a manager who was falsely accused and put out of work, but instead of getting angry and feeling dejected, he got busy and used his position and what little time he had left to land on his feet.
Seen in this way, the parable’s not so far-fetched after all. Sometimes you have the rug pulled out from under you through no fault of your own. You lose your job because the company you work far decides to downsize its work force … a love one dies … a drunk driver runs a stop sign or drifts into your lane of traffic … a storm takes the roof off your house.
The question is – whether it’s your fault or not – what are you supposed to do when the wheels come off the wagon? The parable teaches us to get into high gear. And this is exactly what the manager did. He said,
“What will I do, seeing that my lord is taking away the management position from me? I don’t have strength to dig. I am ashamed to beg.” (3)
It’s at this point the parable really gets interesting. For it says the manager summoned his master’s debtors, one by one. He summoned them. Sounds like a court of law, doesn’t it? In the same way the rich man had summoned the manager to stand before him, then acted as judge and jury in deciding his fate, now the manager uses his authority to summon those who were indebted to the rich man and act as judge and jury over them. Only, this time, the intent was not to treat them unjustly as he had been treated, but to grant forgiveness and mercy and reduce their debt to a manageable sum.
“Calling each one of his lord’s debtors to him,
he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe to my lord?’
He said, ‘A hundred baths of oil.’
He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’
Then he said to another, ‘How much do you owe?’
He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’
He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.'” (16:5-7)
Now, some commentators say that the manager had overcharged them to begin with and was simply doing what was right, discounting the bill to what it should have been in the first place. Some say he was taking off his own manager’s fee that he was entitled to receive, exorbitant as it was. Whatever the explanation, the effect was to reduce the debt of money owed to his master and, in so doing, create a debt of friendship owed to him that he would be able to cash in on in the future. And it was hardly underhanded because, at every step along the way, he dutifully recorded his actions for the rich man to audit.
Luke makes this plain. He says that when the rich man examined the books and saw what the manager had done, he commended him because he had acted so shrewdly. In my mind’s eye, I can see the rich man poring over the books, then smiling to himself and saying, “That’s good. By golly, that’s really good. You could’ve chosen to become bitter and angry; you could’ve gotten discouraged and felt dejected; but, no, you took the high road. You took a bad situation and made something good come out of it. Yes, your friends will make a place for you. And some day you’ll look back on me and laugh at my foolishness.”
Well, that’s at least one way to understand The Parable of the Dishonest Manager. The question is, what does it mean for us today?
First, it reminds us that injustice is a part of life. Oh, there are times when we’re our own worst enemies. We do and say things that cause us grief. At the same time, I dare say we’ve all experienced a taste of injustice. We’ve been cheated, slandered, lied to, betrayed and doublecrossed.
If you haven’t, just wait. What’s ultimately important is not what happens to you, but how you respond, whether you let you the circumstances of life get the best of you or rise above them.
Personally, it helps me to remember the story of Joseph. Joseph’s brothers sold him to a band of Midianites, who took him to Egypt and then sold him into slavery. His master’s wife tried to seduce him and when he wouldn’t go along, she cried rape. He spent the next years of his life in a dungeon. Well, you know the story: He interpreted the Pharaoh’s dream and was made Prime Minister over all Egypt. A drought struck the region and, in time, his brothers came down to Egypt to buy grain. Well, guess who they had to deal with – Joseph! You could say it was an awkward moment. They stammered and stumbled and finally managed to say something like, “You know, Joseph, when we sold you to the Midianites we really didn’t mean you any harm.” And in words I’ll always cherish, Joseph looked at them straight in the eye and said,
“As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” (Genesis 50:20)
How we respond to the circumstances of life – especially the injustice we experience – is a matter of character and faith. It’s a matter of choosing to believe that “all things work together for good for those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
It also encourages us to look to God to lead the way, to believe that God’s will for our lives is good and perfect in every way. Remember what God said to Jeremiah? I believe this is what God is saying to us today:
“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says Yahweh, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
The parable also encourages us to look for a blessing in disguise. One of my dear friends and saints in Odessa used to say that every time she looked back on her life, she could see how the times of greatest disappointment were but the prelude to an even greater blessing. Every time one door closed in her face, another opened to a new and unexpected opportunity.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying we ought to celebrate and throw a party whenever heartache and tragedy come crashing into our lives. I’m only saying we ought to look to God and trust God to order and provide just as he always has, just as he always will.
When things go awry, look to God to lead the way. And, as you do, use the time and energy and resources you have to make friends rather than money.
For all I know, the manager may have been dishonest. He may have been playing fast and loose with his master’s wealth, trying to pocket all the money he could for himself.
Regardless, when the moment of truth came, he used the waning seconds of his authority to endear himself to others.
And in this fast-paced, cut-throat world we live in, this is a lesson we need to learn: Put others first. Make lasting friendships your first priority, and, no matter what happens, you’ll be O.K. Jesus put it this way:“But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)
I’m told this is a true story. There was a middle-aged man working as a night clerk in a small hotel in New York City. An elderly couple came in late one night looking for a room. The man said, “We haven’t been able to find a room anywhere. You’re our last hope.” “Sorry,” the clerk said, “We’re all full up.” The couple stood there helplessly. Then the clerk said, “You’re welcome to stay in my room if you like. I’ll be down here all night.” The man said, “I’ll pay you double the going rate.” The clerk replied, “Oh, no you won’t. I’ll be honored to treat you as my guests.” With that, they took their bags up to the room and got a good night’s sleep.
Two years later, this same elderly gentleman came to the hotel in the early morning hours, just as the clerk was getting off work. “Come with me,” he said. “There’s something I want to show you.” They got into a stretch limousine parked out front and drove a short distance across Manhattan. The driver stopped in front of a towering new hotel within weeks of opening its doors for the first time. “It’s called the Waldorf-Astoria,” the man said. Then putting out his hand he said, “My name is William Waldorf Astor and I’d like you to be my general manager.”
Sometimes, you just never know.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2011 Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.