Phyllis Tickle calls it “The most difficult parable of them all.” David Lose calls it “The most confusing parable.” The New International Version labels it “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager.” The New Revised Standard uses the word “Dishonest” instead of shrewd. The Common English Bible goes it different direction with the subheading “Faithfulness with Money.”
All parables have an element of strangeness. That is sort of the point of them. Jesus uses parables to teach about the Kingdom of God, which is a strange concept. Forgiveness, compassion, self-sacrifice, these are counter-cultural concepts that take strange stories to understand. Some parables are strange because we don’t understand the cultural weight of words like Levite or Samaritan. Some parables are strange because of the actions people take (who would plant a weed – one that gets really big – in a garden?) Yet despite the general strangeness of Jesus’ parables, the one found in Luke 16:1-13 seems to be the three-dollar bill.
It is a story of an owner and a manager. The owner discovers that his manager has been dishonest, fearing that he is going to be fired, the manager decides to do some dealing. Facing impending unemployment, he decides to make some quick deals so that “people will welcome me in their houses.” He goes to a few of the owner’s clients and settles their debt at much lower rates. Collecting about half as much as they owe, the manager figures that the clients will be grateful to him, and treat him well in the future. The owner finds out about the tactics, and this is where it gets strange.
The owner commends the man for acting “shrewdly” in the NIV and NRSV, “cleverly” in the CEB. What? The manager, who was already identified as dishonest, goes about being more dishonest, and the owner praises him? This one is a tough one to figure out. Why would the owner praise him? In most parables, the owner or master is supposed to be God. Here we seem to have God praising a man that screwed him. There is only small consolation in remembering that the disciples rarely understood Jesus’ strange stories either.
So what are we left with? What is the good news? I think it comes down to the same place that most of Jesus’ strange stories come to: relationships. At the beginning of the story, we have many strained relationships. There is a strained employer-employee relationship. There are debts and debtors. What are we left with at the end of the story? Reconciled relationship and cancelled debt. It makes no sense for the owner to praise someone for cancelling the debts people owed him. He did not get what was coming to him, and yet he celebrated.
Perhaps a quick scan around the rest of the Gospel of Luke will help lift the fog from this confusing story. Remember when Jesus taught the disciples to pray? Back in chapter 11, he tells them “Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” What if Jesus actually meant that? “But wait!” you might be saying, “He wasn’t talking about money. He was talking about sin, and you know, trespasses (whatever that is supposed to mean).” All I have to say is, really? You don’t think Jesus was talking about money? This is the Gospel of Luke we’re talking about, the one that says “Blessed you that are poor… Blessed are you who are hungry now…” not “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” like the Gospel of Matthew. It is in the Gospel of Luke that Jesus says, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Later he tells a man to “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me;” (Luke 18:22). Then he says “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God'” (Luke 18:24).
And don’t give me the line about the gate in Jerusalem that was called the “Needle’s Eye” or some such nonsense. There is no archaeological evidence of this mythical gate. There are, however, many non-canonical uses of a similar phrase to explain something that is really, really hard.
All of this is to say, maybe Jesus is trying to teach us something about the nature of relationships and money, and our relationships with money. Perhaps the manager was praised because he put relationships ahead of money. You could argue that his motivation was less than pure, but in the end, he valued his ability to “be invited into people’s homes” over his ability to please his boss. And maybe the owner cared more about his manager’s heart than he did about his bottom line. The Pharisees didn’t get it. They valued money, and understood that having money was the same as having God’s favor. Jesus is reminding them that there are things in this world more important than wealth. Perhaps the level of confusion that this parable stirs is evidence of how remarkably important it really is. This one blows our mind, because it seems to go against all of our common understanding of fairness.
And that’s just it. The Kingdom of God has little to do with fairness. It has little to do with keeping proper ledgers and making sure that everyone gets what is their due. The Kingdom of God is about relationships. It is about reconciliation. It is about forgiving our debts, as we forgive our debtors. It is not an easy story to hear. It is sometimes an even harder story to live. It doesn’t make good economic sense. Jesus had a funny way of not making sense.
It doesn’t make sense to plant a weed in a garden. It doesn’t make sense to ruin a whole vat of flour with some leaven. It doesn’t make sense to turn your other cheek, throw a party for people that can’t invite you to theirs, leave behind a flock because one sheep strayed, or throw a party for your good-for-nothing son who finally came back home with his tail between his legs.
It doesn’t make sense that God would come to earth and take on flesh. It doesn’t make sense that God would claim me as his own, or invite me to the Table of Grace. It doesn’t make sense that Jesus would do all he could for a people that responded by nailing him to a cross. It doesn’t make sense that tomb was empty, or that disciples have been able to experience Christ in the breaking of bread for centuries since he was said to be dead.
This strange parable is a doozie. It is a challenge. It is a challenge to look at what cancelling debt really looks like. It is a challenge to take a close look at how I serve wealth over God. It is a challenge to look at how I spend money, how I save money, and how I treat others. It is a strange one, all right. Maybe that’s how God intended it.