The Dishonest Manager (Luke 16:1-9)

Lesson 4: The Dishonest Manager (Luke 16:1-9)

The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

O merciful Creator, your loving hand is open wide to satisfy the needs of every living creature: Make us always thankful for your loving providence, and give us grace to honor you with all that you have entrusted to us; that we, remembering the account we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of your good gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sixty years ago tomorrow, 12 September 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave one of his most famous speeches. It was at Rice University that he announced his intent to land a man on the moon and to return him safely in this decade, the 1960s; sixty years later we are attempting to repeat the endeavor.

That was one of several bold initiatives he proposed in that speech. And he said this about them:

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

There are certain things we do in life specifically because they are hard, because we need to challenge ourselves, to know our strengths and weaknesses, because the things themselves are worth doing. Keep that in mind during this lesson.

We can be certain of our interpretation of a parable when Jesus himself provides the explanation, as with the Parable of the Sower. If not certain, we can be at least quite confident of our interpretation when the evangelist provides the context that evoked the parable and/or the summary/moral that concludes it, as with the Parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, and Lost Son. Our confidence decreases significantly if we lack both of these, both explanation and context. We make relatively uncertain conjectures and hold them up for scrutiny to see how they align with truths we hold to be certain. And we hold those conjectures humbly and lightly. Some few parables are so ambiguous that interpretation is especially fraught with difficulty. But, I think I would be disingenuous, I think I would fail in teaching a class on parables, if I did not tackle one of these difficult ones, not because it is east, but because it is hard. I have chosen one that I have struggled with for years, not because I now have the “answers,” but because I don’t, and because it will be a useful exercise to struggle with this together. I am not alone in my confusion; I have consulted several commentaries, both ancient and modern, and there is no consistent or predominant interpretation offered. This has stumped better minds than mine. The parable I have chosen is the Parable of the Dishonest Manager.

The Dishonest Manager (Lk 16:1-9)

Luke 16:1–9 (ESV): 16 He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. 2 And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ 3 And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7 Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ 8 The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.

Notice that we are given no context for this parable. The audience is the broad group identified as disciples, those who have made some commitment to Jesus and to the Kingdom of God as he envisions and lives it. That’s some help toward interpretation — we have to assume that this parable will be in keeping with his general kingdom teaching, as in the Sermon on the Mount, for example — some help, but not much.

The parable begins with a rich man; we’ll see as the parable progresses that this is a very rich man, not just comfortable, but abounding in wealth. “Rich man” is probably not a neutral term in the parable; the disciples likely had a visceral reaction to it, and that is likely what Jesus intended. But, positive or negative? If I started a story with, “There was a certain Republican/Democrat,” that would establish an emotional response and a set of expectations that could vary from highly favorable to nearly demonic depending on the listeners’ identification with the group. So, which is it here — positive or negative? We don’t know, but, if this parable is consistent with the whole of Jesus’ teaching, which interpretation would we lean toward? I think of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus or the Rich Fool who tears down his barns. I think of Jesus’ frequent warnings about the dangers of wealth and his statement that it is so difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom that only God can bring it about. I think of the Rich, Young Ruler and the spiritual impediment that wealth presented him. I think about some members of the early church selling homes and land and giving the money to be used at the Apostles’ discretion. So, the overall tenor of Jesus’ teaching is that wealth, while not necessarily evil, tends to twist people in unhealthy ways and distorts their humanity. So, rightly or wrongly, I tend to have a negative view of this rich man from the outset. Is that important? Well, possibly. If we try to interpret the parable allegorically, I need to know whether the characters are positive or negative. For example, I would absolutely miss the mark if I tried to allegorize the Judge in the parable of the Persistent Widow as God. The judge is wicked; God is righteous. Is it important in this parable? Perhaps not as much, because we will not approach the parable as an allegory. But, still it’s worth noting; it adds “color” to the parable, if nothing more.

So, we have a very rich man, maybe shady, maybe not. But we’ll keep an eye on him and our hands on our wallets just in case. The rich man has a manager; here, think business manager or accountant. Think Joseph over Potiphar’s house just before his fall from grace, or else Joseph over Pharaoh’s House — Egypt — just after his return to grace. Someone — and the parable does not identify this person or persons — brings a charge against the manager that he is squandering his master’s possessions. Interestingly, we are never given to know with certainty whether the specific charges are true or not, though Jesus does characterize the manager as unrighteous, often translated as dishonest or wicked.

The rich man calls the manager on the carpet and says, “I know what you’ve been up to. Turn in the ledgers. You’re fired.” At this point, what do you expect to happen? Think of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Mt 18:21-35). When his ten thousand talent debt was called in — an enormous sum and one that was impossible to pay — the debtor fell on his knees before this creditor and begged for patience, for a little more time to pay down the debt. This kind of reaction is what I would expect in this parable, too, some response to the rich man: either a denial of the charges or a plea for mercy and time to make restitution. Instead, the manager just accepts the reality and finality of the situation and begins to look for a good way forward. Does that suggest anything? So, as the parable starts, I think we have a possibly shady rich man and a certainly dishonest manager who has just been fired.

What now? The manager has an internal dialogue in which he takes stock of his pretty desperate situation. Fired. Too weak or lazy or both for hard blue collar work. Too proud to beg. But not too upset to scheme his way out of this. He hasn’t turned in the ledgers yet, which means he can still make transactions on behalf of his employer. Technically he’s already been fired, but, thankfully, nobody knows that yet. He is going to “buy” his way into the good graces of his boss’s debtors, so maybe one of them will give him a job; that is probably what “receive me into their house” means.

He calls in the debtors one by one and decreases their debts. They write out a new IOU and the manager probably signs it; together they “fix” the books to the great advantage of the debtors. It’s here we find out the true wealth of the rich man; these debts are large and the debtors receive quite a discount. It is here that the various interpretations of the parable offer different options. Three stand out.

1. The crooked rich man has been charging interest to his fellow Jews, which is against the spirit of the Torah, though technically he is exploiting a loophole. Interest that is charged on money and payed back with money is forbidden. But, if interest is levied on goods or paid back “in kind,” i.e., with material goods like oil and wheat, interest may be charged. Even so, that would be an example of the rich exploiting the system on par with major corporations and billionaires using loopholes to avoid paying income tax today: maybe not illegal, but shady and frowned on by the “common” people. If the manager simply eliminates interest and has each debtor write the bill only for the principle, the rich man can hardly complain publicly; if he did so he would be shamed by his charging of interest. The manager curries favor with the debtors and the rich man is stuck in a problem of his own making. Clever.

2. The rich man is in the clear — doing the right thing, charging no interest — but the manager has been tacking on his own service charge and pocketing the difference. This might explain the charges against him. If this is the case, then the manager’s solution is brilliant. He makes restitution — against his will, yes, but he makes restitution nonetheless. Since the debtors don’t know what he’s been up to, they would think that the discount comes from the rich man, so that this generous action would raise the rich man’s community esteem. He’ll very likely take credit for it rather than blaming the manager. And, lastly, by doctoring the books, the manager erases all evidence of his mismanagement. This is brilliant, if it’s “true” to the story.

3. It doesn’t matter whether the rich man is shady or not, the manager is crooked and simply cheats his boss out of a lot of oil and wheat by lowering the claims against the debtors. He buys his way into the debtors’ good graces by defrauding his boss. In this view he probably starts as a cheat, but he certainly ends as one.

So, which of these is right? That’s part of the difficulty with the parable; we don’t know. There are details “missing” that we’d like to have to righty interpret the parable. What does it tell us that we don’t have them? Either they are unimportant and we can rightly understand the meaning without them or else the original hearers would have understood perfectly those cultural elements that leave us baffled. So, there may be nuances to the parable that we will never uncover; we may have to be content with a general meaning that harmonizes well with the whole of Jesus’ teaching.

Now, in our culture, we might expect the rich man to be livid; whichever interpretation is right, he’s lost a large sum of money. Instead, he commends the manager for being shrewd! We don’t know if he re-hired the manager, but we do know that he was impressed with the manager’s cleverness and resourcefulness. He’s probably the kind of guy you’d want working for you and not for your competitor. You want your crooked manager to be smarter than the crook managing your competitors’ accounts.

On the surface, that seems strange. But our culture has the same quirk: we grudgingly — and not so grudgingly — admire the good-hearted knave, the likable rogue. And what makes them so likable? Their cleverness. Their resourcefulness. There is the thief Flambeau in Chesterton’s Father Brown Mysteries. There is Robin Hood who stole, yes, but redistributed the stolen wealth from the rich to the poor (hints of the parable?). More recently, in film, there is Disney’s Aladdin, the “gutter rat,” and Captain Jack Sparrow, chief rogue of the pirates. Before them there was Han Solo in Star Wars and after him there is Star Lord in The Guardians of the Galaxy. All of these are slightly — and some more than slightly — disreputable; but, against our better moral judgment, we like them and root for them anyway because they are the clever and resourceful underdogs.

I would argue that the same is true in Scripture; there is a rather exalted place for the scoundrel, the conniving trickster, the one who profits at the expense of others. There is Abraham who lies to Abimelech and is enriched at Abimelech’s expense (Gen 20:1-18). There is his son Isaac who does exactly the same thing to Abimelech — probably the son of the Abimelech his father had cheated: like father, like son in both cases. There is Isaac’s younger son Jacob, the supreme scoundrel of Scripture, who cheated his brother Esau out of the birthright; who stole Esau’s blessing by colluding with his mother to deceive his blind, invalid father; who enriched himself at the expense of his brother-in-law Laban; and who tried to bribe his way back into his brother’s good graces upon his return to Canaan. And, in the interest of gender equity, let’s not forget Jacob’s favored wife Rachel who stole her brother’s household gods and lied to his face to conceal them. And in none of these cases did Scripture speak a word against these actions! You get the sense that Moses winked at them; “See how clever our people are?!” In fact, you get the sense that God is working through these actions to bless his chosen ones, the rogues through whom he will redeem Israel and the world. In the end, they are God’s chosen rogues on a journey with him toward holiness.

Is that what’s going on in the parable? Is the manager a likable scoundrel whom we are to admire for his cleverness? Well, it seems as if the rich man feels this way.

That’s the parable. It seems pretty ambiguous to us. Jesus closes it out and points toward in meaning by saying:

8 The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.

Apparently, the parable has to do with the shrewd use of money; Jesus’ disciples are to emulate the manager, not in his dishonesty — if it were dishonesty — but in his cleverness and resourcefulness. The last verse puts me in mind of the Parable of the Rich Man (Dives) and Lazarus: make friends of yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings. What if Dives had shown compassion to Lazarus: had fed and clothed him, had brought a doctor to tend his wounds, had shown him even a modicum of human decency? Perhaps then, when Dives died, Lazarus might have received him with joy and welcomed into a blessed place at Abraham’s bosom, two brothers side-by-side in the eternal dwellings. What if the “goats” — and I don’t mean the greatest of all time — the ones on the left in the final judgment (Mt 25:31-46) had fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, visited the sick and the imprisoned? In other words, what if they had used their wealth and their resources shrewdly in this manner? Would they not then have inherited the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world? What if the rich fool in that other parable had not built — or planned to build — bigger barns but rather had filled his old barns to overflowing and then had given what was left to the poor? Would his life have been required of him that night? And when he finally died, would he not have been welcomed into the eternal habitations? What if we all were as shrewd with our Master’s money as the manager was with his master’s money?

I suspect there is much in this parable that I am missing. But, I think what we’ve said is a reasonable take on it and comports well with the whole of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels. Money matters. James, the brother of our Lord, is very clear on this and very harsh in his condemnation of hoarded wealth:

James 5:1–6 (ESV): 5 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. 4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.

Before we leave this topic of wealth — really the right use of money — and because I alluded to it earlier, perhaps it would be a good time to say just a bit about the Parable of the Rich Fool.

Luke 12:13–21 (ESV): 13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” 16 And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, 17 and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” ’ 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

Luke helps us out with this one; he gives both the context — a financial dispute between brothers — and the topic, the dangers of covetousnesses. The premise of the parable is simple enough: a rich man’s land produces a bumper crop. This is a great blessing for the man and could be a great blessing for the poor, but the man actually turns it into a curse. Jesus very subtly hints at the problem in the premise statement; if you blink, you’ll miss it: “The land of a rich man.” See it? Probably not; we need to read a bit further as the man conducts his inner dialogue. “I have nowhere to store my crops.” OK: the land is his, the crops are his, the barns are his. Do you see any hints of an acknowledgment of God or of the fact that the rich man is God’s steward — God’s manager if we borrow language from the other parable — God’s steward of all that has been entrusted to him? I do not think this man has been praying his Psalms:

Psalm 50:10–15 (ESV): 10 For every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
11 I know all the birds of the hills,
and all that moves in the field is mine.
12 “If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.
13 Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?
14 Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and perform your vows to the Most High,
15 and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”

I don’t think he had been reading his Scripture — or attending a traditional Anglican Church during the offertory:

Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty; for everything in heaven and on earth is yours; yours is the Kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as Head above all. All things come from you, O LORD,
And of your own have we given you
(BCP 2019, p. 114. 1 Chr 29:11, 14).

The land is God’s land. The crops are God’s crops. The proper response to abundance is a sacrifice of thanksgiving, which would involve, among other things, caring for the poor. This rich man doesn’t even sing “This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land.” For him it’s just, “This Land Is My Land.”

You really see this play out in the repeated use of the first person in his internal dialogue.

What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops. I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and the I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul (His soul — really?!), “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

Nary a mention of God: the man talks with himself, seeks his own counsel, instead of conversing with God and seeking God’s counsel.

And then God turns the table and reveals the man’s true condition. Notice the change in language: no longer a self-satisfied “I” but an accusatory “you.”

Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?

The rich fool makes a double mistake: he thinks he is rich in goods and rich in time. He neglects to see that he is not the owner of his wealth but God’s steward of it, and he fails to realize that his time is in God’s hands. Pride, greed, and presumption — an unholy trinity of sin. Throw in lack of compassion and you have the perfect storm that just might cost you your life.

And Jesus even caps off the parable with the moral: “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” The rich man should have been as clever with his wealth as the shrewd manager was with his master’s wealth. It is all God’s anyway, which means we are all managers and stewards of that relative wealth God has entrusted to our keeping. Will we use it shrewdly? That’s the question these parables leave us with.

Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty; for everything in heaven and on earth is yours; yours is the Kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as Head above all. All things come from you, O LORD,

And of your own have we given you (BCP 2019, p. 114. 1 Chr 29:11, 14).


About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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