Sunday, September 18, 2016

Dishonest? Shrewd?

Today’s text is a difficult one. It is one that would be easier to skip over. On first reading it seems to be affirming dishonesty. So long as the end result is good it doesn’t matter what means are used to get there.

The story is usually entitled “The Shrewd Manager” or “The Dishonest Manager” (Luke 6:1-13)

The tale tells of a rich man whose manager was accused by a third party of squandering his resources. The manager was being sacked. He was worried. He knew he did not have the ability to compete in the market place for a job doing manual labour nor did he want to have to beg for sustenance. So he schemed! He went to all the people who owed the rich man money and reduced their bills. His rational being that when he was destitute they would remember his kindness and welcome him into their homes.

Here the story twists, instead of the rich man being angry he commends the manager for being shrewd and praises him for ensuring his future. The story ends with a discourse about faithfulness in serving.

Very complex!

Firstly, I want to make the point I have made many previous times about understanding parables. Don’t assign roles. Don’t assume that the central character is representing God. If one does that it often ends up with a significant problem in seeing undesirable characteristics for God. Read parables simply as stories to illustrate a point.

Next I want to glance at the context. This story is the fourth in a series of parables told by the author of the Gospel of Luke to a mixed audience of “tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees and scribes”. The prior ones are the story of the sheep who was found, the coin which was found, and the son who squandered his inheritance but was lovingly received back into his family. This seems to continue the theme of riches with comments on a just way to use them and administer them. Time doesn’t allow but a parallel study of the manager who squandered his employer’s wealth and the son who squandered his father’s wealth could prove very fruitful.

It is hard to read this story and understand it. (I’m sure there will be as many interpretations as readers) One of the reasons it is hard is because we live in a capitalist economic system where what the manager did would be criminal if it happened today. So our minds don't get beyond the thought that what he did was wrong.

The story starts with no detail of what the manager actually did to get dismissed. All it says is that he “squandered” the rich man’s property. Then after hearing he would be fired, he reduced the bills of those owing the rich man. Note that he reduced the amounts he did not cancel the debt.

So questions must be asked (and I have no answers only, I hope, some thought-provoking ideas).

Who was really the dishonest one?

Often people described as “rich” in the parables are seen as those who are unjust. Their riches are gained at the expense of others. Certainly, worth remembering that the first group of people named as the audience for this story were the tax collectors. Those who were renowned for getting rich at the expense of others. The latter verses of this story certainly hint at the money being dishonestly gained.  That later reference can’t refer to the manager because he gained nothing monetary from adjusting the bills. His effort was all a hope for a future home.

How was the rich man’s wealth/property/oil squandered by the manager?

Was it to help the poor? Was it to ease the suffering of the sick? Was it his own way of bringing a more equitable economic system? Or was he simply greedy?

Why did the rich man commend him?

Did the manager provide a challenge to the rich man about his own overpricing system? Was the rich man’s conscience bothering him?

Was it acceptable for the manager to try to find a way to assure a future for himself without resorting to begging?

The text certainly indicates that looking for economic stability in the future is a good thing. It is certainly something that contemporary society does both collectively and individually.

Was the reference to being “faithful with dishonest wealth” a commendation of the manager?

The underlying message of riches, service to the poor, redistribution of wealth was obviously in the mind of those who compiled the lectionary. This week there were two alternative texts for the Old Testament reading, both offered concern for poor and advocated sharing wealth (Amos 8, Jeremiah 8). Although I don’t want to jump ahead next week’s story continues the theme as it moves to another tale which talks about the rich and the poor (Luke 6:19-31). It is an important story in helping us to understand this one in context.

So ultimately, what do we do with a text like this one? Often it seems contradictory. At the very least it is confusing and hard to understand. We can’t really comprehend the impact on the first century readers as we can’t fully know how the relationship between owners and managers worked.

I think we can only try to let it challenge us. . .
about our handling of riches,
about our relationship with those we work for and with
about our response it we feel others are being harmed by those we work for
about our relationship and care for those who work for us
about our own planning for the future