As I was reading about our parable in preparation for preaching this morning, the opening line of the first book I read was, “None of the parables of Jesus has baffled interpreters quite like the story of the dishonest steward.”*
Great. That’s exactly what I want to hear as I’m just getting started.
He’s not wrong, of course. It’s a weird story, no one knows what to do with it, and as I kept reading about it every single person had a different interpretation of this parable.
Let’s start with what’s actually happening in the parable. There’s a rich man and his manager (sometimes translated steward). That is, the rich man is rich enough that he can hire someone else to manage his properties. The rich man hears that the manager is “squandering” his wealth. It’s unclear if that means the manager isn’t as efficient as he could be, or if the manager is actively stealing from the rich man in some way, but the rich man decides the manager is done, and tells the manager as such. ‘What shall I do?’ the manager asks himself. ‘I don’t have the strength to work, and I am too proud to beg.’
So instead he decides to make people owe him, so he’ll have somewhere to go. He tells one man to halve his debt, another to reduce it by 20. These people will owe him, in other words; the manager will have somewhere to go when he is done at the rich man’s estate, or at least some people who will feel obligated to give him some food or other resources. OK. Straightforward enough. I mean, skeezy and manipulative, but it makes sense.
But then the owner finds out somehow and “commends” the manager
for his “shrewdness.” (The story ends there, although I always wonder: does the rich man find it commendable enough to hire the manager back?) The commendation is harder to understand: after all, shouldn’t the decrease of the debts directly harm the rich man, who will be getting less money in the long term? And wasn’t he upset in the first place because the manager was managing the property badly? And what is so commendable anyway about forcing yourself into someone’s home by erasing part of a debt?
And, of course, the parable itself raises some questions, but then we have Jesus’ remarks after the parable. Which, if I’m being honest, seems like an absolute smorgasbord of random money-related sayings.
I don’t have an answer, by the way. I have no idea what Jesus is trying to say here, so instead of trying to pretend I do, I’d like to do something a little different today, and present some of the interpretations I found in my research. As I do, I invite you to see which interpretation makes sense to you, and wonder what God is saying to you through that interpretation.
Some people focus on the manager’s behavior and what it shows. The manager is in a difficult position, and in this moment of crisis trusts to money to get him out of it. That’s why he manufactures these obligations by reducing several people’s debts; then they will owe him. (This implies, by the way, that the manager hadn’t already been endearing himself to people by being a good or even likable person; perhaps he was trusting to his position and his master’s wealth to give him security, rather than the relationships in the community (as many subsistence farmers would have done). But if he were already well-liked, he wouldn’t have needed to manufacture obligations).
Jesus, by contrast, wants His listeners to trust in God rather than wealth. Hence the well-known saying at the end, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Hence Jesus’ assumption that “dishonest wealth” will always run out in the end.
Some look wider than the manager himself. They look at the entire system: that is, the fact that one man has so much wealth that he can’t manage it on his own and must hire someone, and the fact that so many smaller farmers have such impossible debts in the first place. (a hundred jugs of olive oil or containers of wheat is a lot of olive oil or wheat, and these were small, independent farms we’re talking about here, not giant estates!) In the manager’s actions, then, they see either a man undermining the system by canceling debts, or a man in an impossible situation: is it possible to be entirely good or do exactly the right thing when you are stuck between a oppressive landlord and his oppressed tenants? Then the parable is condemning the inequality of the system and calling us to join in the struggle against oppression.
Others think the parable isn’t about money at all. Rather, it is about the manager’s reaction to the crisis. That is, the manager saw that there was an issue (the issue being that he was about to be fired), and instead of dithering or giving up entirely, he responded to the crisis. He reduced people’s debts so that they would owe him and he would have somewhere to go after he’d been fired. That is why the rich man commends him, and that is what we should take from the parable, as well: God calls us to respond to the situation that is in front of us, often in creative or unexpected ways.
Or it is about the ways that we use (or don’t use) what has been entrusted to us. That is, the manager used the resources that had been entrusted to him to make sure that he would have somewhere to go after he’d been fired. And Jesus does say that the “children of the age” are more shrewd than “the children of the light.” We should use what we have, and strive to use it for God’s purposes.
As I said, I don’t know what this parable is about. I have no idea. But this is a reminder, too: we often think of parables as having one proper meaning, and once you’ve fit all the pieces together to find that meaning–great! all done! With this parable, it’s especially obvious that isn’t true, but it’s true of all the parables: there is no one right meaning, and there is always more to discover. Indeed, it is true of all of Scripture. God is always speaking anew to us through Scripture, and we can never know everything about Scripture (or God, or anything else!).
And so may you find God anew in Scripture. May you find answers, or at least the right questions.
*Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, Charles B. Cousar, p. 93.