Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Luke 16:1-8 – The Crooked Manager (often called “The Unjust Steward”)

Topic: Being spiritually shrewd by gambling on God’s grace
Intended Audience: Jesus’ disciples (and the overhearing Pharisees)


NRS Luke 16:1-8  Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.  2 So he summoned him and said to him, 'What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.'  3 Then the manager said to himself, 'What will I do, now that my master is taking the position 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 dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.'  5 So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?'  6 He answered, 'A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.'  7 Then he asked another, 'And how much do you owe?' He replied, 'A hundred containers of wheat.' He said to him, 'Take your bill and make it eighty.'  8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly . . .”

NAB Luke 16:14  The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all these things and sneered at him.


Not a popular parable

While The Parable of the Crooked Manager is neither familiar nor popular, it’s one of my favorites. Why is it little-known and little-liked? Here are some reasons that come to mind:

  1. The Crooked Manager immediately follows The Prodigal Son in Luke’s Gospel. How do you follow the most popular parable Jesus ever told? This parable stands in the shadow of a giant.
  2. The “hero” of the parable is a crook, which is confusing, if not off-putting.
  3. Even more troubling is that the crook, when he gets caught, tries to worm his way out of it by doing something even more crooked. Some hero!
  4. The crook gets off Scott free, not only getting away with his original offense but with numerous subsequent offenses.
  5. Not only does he get away with it, but this dishonest fellow is praised by his boss for being shrewd! Are we supposed to be cunning liars? What kind of lesson is this?

So, are you telling me that The Prodigal Son is followed by a parable about a terminated crook who gets praised by his boss for doing something even more crooked than what got him fired in the first place? You’re kidding, right? When this one comes up in the New Common Lectionary or the International Lesson Series, I imagine most people skip it.


The Genre

This analogy is a parable. It is a brief drama with characters and a plot.

Our “play” begins and ends with a meeting between the boss and the manager. It has four mini-scenes:

  1. Rich man fires crooked manager for wastefulness
  2. Crooked manager steps aside and talks to himself until he comes up with a scheme
  3. Crooked manager meets with the boss’ debtors one-by-one to reduce their debts
  4. Rich man praises crooked manager for shrewdness


The Characters

There are two main characters:

  1. A rich man
  2. The rich man’s crooked/wasteful household manager

There are supporting cast members:

  1. Other household members who bring a charge of wastefulness against the manager
  2. The rich man’s debtors (we don’t know how many, but two have lines in the drama)
  3. Townspeople whose favor the manager seeks

Oikonomos

In New Testament Greek word is oikonomos (from oíkos, "house, household" and nemō, "to allot, apportion"). It means household manager. Such a person could be called a steward, overseer, administrator, or treasurer.


The Plot

A rich man discovers that his household manager is being wasteful and he fires him. The manager comes up with a quick scheme involving reducing what his boss’ debtors owe (making them happy and making him and his boss very popular) before they can find out that he’s been fired. The boss commends the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.


What’s the crime and punishment?

“Wasteful” is a vague term, but that is the charge brought against the manager. At the end of the parable, Jesus calls him a “dishonest manager,” so we wonder whether the man is stealing. Though wastefulness may not be outright theft, it nevertheless means that he’s costing his boss money. Technically, then, he’s robbing, though it may be theft by white-collar mismanagement.

The expected response of the rich man would be to have the man arrested and prosecuted. If the manager were a slave, he might have done more than that. Slaves managed money for their masters in other of Jesus’ parables (Matt 18:23-35, 24:45-51, 25:14-30; Lk 19:12-27). A beating of a wasteful slave would have been in order, perhaps more.

Strangely, the rich man only made the manager surrender the books. That’s it. It’s an unusually lenient response by an unusually generous man. The boss is neither interested in recouping his losses nor punishing the “criminal.” Caught red handed, the manager gets little more than a tap on the wrist. The mercy that this man shows his manager will prove essential to the manager’s shrewd scheme.


He talks to himself about himself

We learn six things about the manager from his self-talk in verse three:


  1. “What shall I do?” he asks. His perspective is, “It’s all about me, and getting out of this is all up to me.” There’s a self-centeredness here. A selfishness. And he sees no alternative to fixing this than to continue in his free-wheeling, conniving pattern by devising a dishonest self-salvation scheme. We now know without a doubt that he’s a self-serving schemer.
  2. He doesn’t seem to be sorry for what he did. He offers no explanation, he expresses no remorse, and he makes no offer of restitution. The easiest thing to do would be to come clean, show everything he’d done wrong, apologize, and set up a schedule of payments that would reimburse his master with interest. But no. Clean and easy and honest are not options. Either he can’t face the truth (about what he’d done and about himself) or being honest just never occurs to him. Instead, every neuron in his cerebral cortex is firing.
  3. At least he has the facts straight. He knows he’s guilty, he knows that his boss knows he’s guilty, he knows he deserves to be fired, and he knows he can’t get his job back by making excuses. He’s not stupid.
  4. But he’s self-deceived. As he put it, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me?” What does he mean, “taking”? It’s already “took”! He was fired. There are no shades of gray here. There’s no wiggle room. It’s a done deal. But not in his mind! No one knows he’s been fired yet except the master, and he still has the books, so “his brain is squirming like a toad.” Maybe there’s some book cooking he can do yet. There must be something brilliant and underhanded that he can come up with to pull this out of the fire. Strategically, to his way of thinking, this thing isn’t over, his job hasn’t been taken until he turns in the books, and he is just the rascally rabbit who can presto-chango un-take the take.
  5. “I’m not strong enough to farm,” he says. In an agrarian society, with farmers in the audience, no doubt, this line is a hoot. What kind of 98-pound, conniving, lazy weakling do we have here? What kind of pampered, manicured, spoiled sissy are we talking about? The plowboys among Jesus’ listeners had to be loving this.
  6. “I’m ashamed to beg,” he says. What a blind hypocrite (not unlike the Pharisees – Matt 15:12-14, 23:15-16, 23:23-24)! The manager is not too ashamed to waste his boss’ money, but he’s too proud to panhandle? What a crock! He won’t work and he won’t beg. What’s left? Let’s see. Oh, yeah! He can scheme, lie, cheat, and steal. What’s to be ashamed of in that?

I’ve mentioned this repeatedly in these exegesis papers, but just in case you missed it before: Jesus was funny.

What’s the manager’s goal? Popularity. If the people of the town were given a reason to actually like him (and given what we know about him, this may be a challenge!), maybe they will feed and house him when he finally turns in the books.

My hypothesis, however, is that he has an unspoken hope: to get his job back. He’s got a plan that will result in the restoration of his position or, if not, enough popularity to be housed and fed by the townsfolk. It could go either way, and he’ll take either one. But both results depend on one thing: the rich man being a softy.


The crooked manager’s scheme

“I know what I’ll do,” he says. Oh, Lord, there is no telling what this bamboozler has cooked up. Given the brevity of this parable, Jesus has given us a remarkably colorful character, hasn’t he? This manager is quite the weasel. So what’s the weasel gonna do?

His primary job, it seems, as oikonomos was to collect the rent. As the financial steward of a landed estate, his master’s debtors would pay their rent in produce. In return for living on the rich man’s land, they gave him a percentage cut of the goods. So the renters know the manager all too well. They know the drill. Summoning them concerning the rent would not seem suspect.

The key to the success of his daring plan is that none of the renters know he has been fired. Word is not out yet. As far as they know, the manager is (as he has been) the legal representative of the landlord. If the manager pulls this off, he could be the toast of New Orleans whether he gets his job back or not. Here’s the plan:

  1. Get the books quickly and summon the debtors immediately to a discrete location so that no one will see what he’s doing and turn him in.
  2. Keep them thinking he’s still the manager by asking them, “How much do you owe my master?” He’s lying, obviously. Thus Jesus can call him “the dishonest manager.”
  3. See them one-by-one so they can’t talk. As far as each debtor knows, the manager is doing him a special hush-hush favor. And if he can keep them from talking to one another, it will keep word from getting out before he can finish. He hurries them in and out discreetly.
  4. He gets them to write out a legal bill in their own handwriting to make it legally binding. He tells them to write fast! “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.”
  5. He significantly reduces the debt of every renter, making himself quite the celebrity in the process. He basks in his sudden popularity, and thus insures that no renter will treat him badly if the master, in the end, doesn’t return him to office.
  6. He delivers the books with the new figures to his master.

Crazy or courageous, brainless or brilliant, it’s a gutsy move. He has everything to lose. The boss may not have thrown the book at him before, but he might throw it at him now, aiming for right between the eyes.


The rich man’s choice

The manager has forced the boss’ hand. He only has two options.

  1. Go to the renters and explain the mistake.
  2. Do nothing.

Explaining the mistake is a problem, however. Once the debts had been reduced, the manager was a popular guy. The renters and other townsfolk likely saw him as a hero, and they might not take kindly to his being fired. Moreover, the boss was no doubt suddenly a popular guy, too. Everyone would have assumed that the boss had authorized the cuts. For him to turn around and take it all back would go over like a lead balloon. He would become the villain. If he cares anything about popularity, he can’t select this option.

The only other option is to do nothing. Doing nothing, of course, means that the new reduced rates illegally obtained must stand, the renters must never know that the manager had been fired, they must never know that the debts were reduced without authorization, and the manager must keep his job. For the sake of popularity, this is what the boss decided to do.

The boss did more than that, however. He praised the dishonest manager for his cunning. He was impressed and expressed admiration. What a parable!

I believe that this outcome was foreseen by the crooked, scheming manager. I believe he planned for this, the best of all possible outcomes. It was a gamble, yes. But he bet it all and believed it to be a good bet.

What made him so sure that the master would do nothing? Simple. The boss let him off easy before, so he bet the farm that the boss would let him off again. It was the boss’ generous mercy in the beginning of the parable that the manager banked on. When he could have and should have thrown the book at him, he didn’t.

The Mishna contains the oral traditions followed in Jesus’ day by the Pharisees. They were written down finally in 200 A.D. And the Mishna is clear about what should have happened to the wasteful, dishonest manager: 1) he should have paid back the losses; 2) he should have been tried; 3) and if convicted, he should have gone to jail. But Jesus—ever the challenger of Pharisaic legalism—tells a parable in their presence about a rich man who ignores the legal, religious traditions, and let’s an offender of the law go his way without remuneration, trial, sentencing, or punishment. The word that most aptly applies here is grace.


The meaning: from light to heavy

As with The Parable of the Friend at Midnight and The Parable of the Unjust Judge, our featured parable uses the ancient teaching technique of “from light to heavy.” If THIS is true, how much more then is THIS true! If something is true in a lighter everyday situation, then how much more true it must be in application to a much weightier matter.

This can be put a couple of ways:

  1. If a dishonest manager can bank it all on getting grace a second time from a pushover boss, how much more then can you, a sinner, bank it all on the mercy of your loving and gracious heavenly Father?
  2. If a boss forgives the crimes of a crooked manager all for the selfish sake of his own vain popularity, how much more then can you count on the forgiveness of your heavenly Father whose sacrificial mercy is willing to pay the full price for your salvation, even if it means he comes off looking like a weak fool?

The meaning in light of the immediate context: Pharisaical opposition

The Pharisees responded to Jesus’ parable with a sneer. And no wonder! They held the oral laws recorded in the Mishna in equal esteem and authority with the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament. The oral law is clear about what to do with the manager, as surely the meticulous Pharisees knew. And Jesus throws a parable in their faces in which “the God character” lets the manager off the hook demonstrating a blatant disregard for the law. How can God disobey God’s law? Ekmukterizo means to deride by turning up the nose, to sneer at, to scoff at. Sneers are smiles of utter contempt.

Soon they would do more than sneer. Soon they would do to Jesus what they felt the rich man should have done to the manager. They would have him arrested, tried, and convicted. Grace is more terrifying than anything to the graceless.


For more on Jesus' parables see my blogs The Absurd Parable of the Unforgiving SlaveThe God Who GamblesParable of the Vine and BranchesThe Crooked ManagerThe Friend at MidnightHeaven Is Like a Crazy FarmerHe Speaks Of . . .Salted With FireTalking Sheep and GoatsIs Your Eye Evil?Two Prodigals and Their Strange FatherThe Lazarus Parable Is Not About the Afterlife,and Jesus Used Parables Like a Sieve.

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