Luke 16:1-9: The Dishonest Manager

The beginning of Luke’s Gospel: A pregnant virgin sings, rejoicing in her God.  The Lord “toppled the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly.  The hungry, he filled with wondrous things but sent away the rich with nothing” (Luke 1:52-53).  The song of Mary sets the stage.  The rest of Luke’s written Gospel highlights this reversal of life as usual in this world, weaving its way through his account of Jesus’ life.

More than a few chapters later, we arrive at today’s Gospel reading, about a dishonest manager.  At first, this parable tempts us to bail out Jesus, who praises a devious thief.  Hey, we don’t want Jesus honoring some cheat or fraud.  So, we come up with various explanations to rescue Jesus from His sin-praising parable.  The parable is not ours to rationalize away.  So, we must permit Jesus’ words to soak in and change us, though we may be unsure what He is doing. 

First, however, pay heed to how Luke introduces the parable, “Jesus said to his disciples.”  A disciple is a follower of Jesus, a fellow believer in our heavenly Father’s kingdom.  So, this isn’t about getting into heaven but living as His people.

In this not-so-simple story, focus a moment on the estate’s business operation.  From our cultural perspective, we default to an employer-employee setting.  The boss fires his worker, whom he catches stealing from him.  Not so here, for the manager acts as a domestic slave, authorized to run the owner’s estate and household, not some “hired hand.”  Though a slave, he is also included as part of the family.  So, this manager is a family member of the Master’s household, someone belonging to God’s holy people.

Well, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  Let’s go back to the start, where Jesus begins by telling us about a “rich man.”  Now, if you’re living in the first century and listening to this at Church, Luke prepared you well.  By placing our Lord’s parable well into his Gospel, we are inclined to disfavor the well-off and prosperous.

Earlier, Jesus sounded the alarm: “How terrible for you who are rich, for you received your comfort” here, not in heaven (Luke 6:24).  In Luke 12, another warning: The one who lays up treasure here is not rich toward God (Luke 12:21).

At the story’s start, when we realize Christ is talking about a wealthy man, we may assume he’s the wicked one from the get-go.  Is he abusing his power because his influence and position allow him to do so?  A second later, the story flips us, informing us about someone else wasting the owner’s possessions.  With Jesus, His stories always challenge, putting us in an unwanted predicament.

Well, what is the owner going to do?  First, if he’s a worthwhile Jew, he’ll verify if these charges are accurate.  The accusers are anonymous.  Are they credible?  Any person can accuse anyone of anything, valid or not.  The owner, however, challenges his manager, “What’s this I hear about you?”  In a Jewish court, this is “hearsay.”

An indictment is only legal based on two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15), not what someone may rumor or gossip.  Worse, the rich master doesn’t bother verifying the truthfulness of these claims.  Built atop the grapevine of bandied talk, he dismisses the manager, soon to take effect, before he reviews the financial records. 

Once again, we applaud the assumed-to-be-guilty manager.  How can we not?  The well-to-do owner is using this presumed pilfering of profits as an excuse.  An unknown judge at any court will require more diligence from this master than he is offering for his own, supposed family.  No one should treat his family with such contempt.

By now, you think you figured out what’s happening.  Yes, Jesus is following the standard, well-known plotline, where a master falsely accuses a slave of some wrong.  Well, if so, we’ll expect the maltreated slave to resort to cunning and trickery, outsmarting his master and clearing his name.  The humor and expected glee in such a story revolve around the slave ending up on top, showing his master as the fool.

So, if this owner is accusing his manager on false grounds, will this manager outfox him?  All now hinges on the allegation, if real or not.  At this point, we can’t say.

The manager still worries.  Should he?  The master may be appropriating this accusation as a pretext for some evil purpose.  “My master is taking the management away from me.”  The word “taking” is neutral, which gives us no clue who is at fault.  In the parable’s twists and turns, Jesus leaves us hanging and uncertain.

The manager contemplates his possibilities.  In a perfect world, he needs to do nothing.  Let the books clear his name—if he’s innocent.  Nevertheless, the business owner appears disreputable, not wanting him to remain his slave.  Of course, this man can try to go somewhere else, but no one wants a crooked slave who steals.

So, the slave must act while he is still sanctioned to make decisions concerning the estate.  Off he goes to others who owe his master money.  One man must reimburse the costs for 100 measures of olive oil, about three years’ pay for a day laborer.  Another owes about eight years’ worth of earnings for the wheat he purchased.  The slave takes off about 1-1/2 years of wages for both amounts.

Is he this bold to rob from his master, with customers conspiring with him because they can save some money?  Well, if so, they’ll never buy from this owner again, for they are taking part in this thievery.  None of these customers will consider risking his future purchasing power in such a misspent venture (unless he’s dying or something).

So, what’s going on?  Commercial practices permitted a manager to earn a bit of money through a sales commission.  The reduction for these buyers reveals two facts.  First, this manager pretended to be an upstanding slave, who chose not to charge any commission, though he did.  Second, despite not appearing to add on any charges, he did—to illegal levels!  The amount he discounted from both customers unmasks his illicit activity.  All is now laid bare, with the slave exposed as a greedy thief. 

At first, we cheered for the slave, hating the master.  Now, we’re the fools, for this Master understood His slave’s nature and what he did, knowing the charges to be true.  Do not doubt—he’s giving time for his self-serving slave to repent, which he does by eliminating his illegal seller’s fee.  The records are now what they should be.

Next, the manager delivers the ledgers to his master, who catches the changed numbers and broods over his options.  The debtors assumed he authorized the reductions.  Why not?  The manager lowered them while still serving as his slave.

Oh, he realizes, full well, the manager did away with his tacked-on, unauthorized, and secretive surcharges.  Still, these panicked and hurried cuts don’t affect the owner’s earnings.  How so?  The corrupted manager stole from the customers, returning what belonged to them when he repented.  The master loses no money, and his customers keep what is theirs. 

Now, if the owner disowns his slave, what might happen?  Well, he risks unsettling his customer base, for everyone will learn of these criminal acts and think he may also be a victim of theft.  No, this will only cause turmoil.  So, he keeps the manager, which he wanted all along, a moment later commending him for his cleverness.

The head of the house, not the slave, holds the cards.  The changing conditions forced this misguided slave to ponder life from a different perspective.  Earlier, he only thought about his short-term gains.  Not anymore.  The possibility of expulsion compelled this slave to contemplate his continuing and permanent existence.

Appreciate again, Jesus told this parable to believers, disciples.  Ah, so this is to help us understand something about our faith-lives.  The Master forces the underhanded manager to face his sin, and he does.  No longer will the slave allow immediate gratification to steal away his long-term blessings and well-being. 

Once, the thieving manager lived only for the short term.  All too often, so do we.  How well we enjoy life here can shape our understanding of what will be.  No, this is backward.  “Make friends for yourselves [instead] by unrighteous wealth.”  For “when [this wealth] fails, [which will happen, those friends] may receive you into eternal dwellings.”  In other words, use the things of this world for the life of the world to come. Use the things of this world for the life of the world to come. The greater reality is eternal.

Don’t miss this!  The entire parable is a story about what matters most.  The unrepentant slave only sought the fast pay-off, depicting our short time on earth.  The repentant slave realized the long run mattered more, representing everlasting life. 

Both Master and slave wind up winning.  The Slaveowner retains the slave He never wanted to lose, and His slave is now living for the eternity awaiting him.  Both are blessed because the slave, indeed, is better off. 

Did God cause the slave to sin?  No.  Still, He used the slave’s embezzling, something contrary to His ways and commandments, to serve His ends. 

A divine reality now seeps into our bones.  No matter the events or circumstances, God can, and will, work in and through all for your eternal prosperity.  Didn’t Jesus do this in His death and resurrection, to save you?  Yes! 

So, God will never stop working, moving in ways beyond all understanding.  Now, this is not so you can treasure your sins; no, your eternity.  Remember, everything God does is for you and your immortality yet to be.  Amen.

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