“There was a certain rich man who had a manager handling his affairs. One day a report came that the manager was wasting his employer’s money.” That’s how one of the most confusing and challenging of all the parables of Jesus begins.
A rich man discovers that his manager is squandering his assets, so he decides to fire him and insists on a final accounting so he can audit the manager’s books. The manager, realizing that his future is suddenly not too bright, decides to curry favor with the people who are in debt to his boss by reworking the books in their favor. To everyone’s surprise, the boss admires the manager’s shrewdness. Even more surprising, Jesus tells his followers that they could learn a thing or two from the crooked manager.
So what do you think Jesus is trying to tell us here?
Before we dive too deeply into this odd story, I want to say a word about parables in general. As I mentioned, this is one of the most confusing and challenging of all the parables, but frankly, all of Jesus’s parables should challenge us if we’re listening to them properly. If we think we have found an easy explanation for a parable, we’re probably short-circuiting its power. Parables are supposed to stick with us and needle us and make us ask ourselves tough and touchy questions.
“What makes the parables mysterious, or difficult,” says Amy-Jill Levine, “is that they challenge us to look into the hidden aspects of our own values, our own lives. They bring to the surface unasked questions, and they reveal the answers we have always known, but refuse to acknowledge. Our reaction to them should be one of resistance rather than acceptance.” John Dominic Crossan says that a parable “shatters our complacency” and forces us to look outside of our comfortable assumptions about life. Robert Funk said that a parable asks us to “cross over” into the kingdom, the mysterious land that Jesus is trying to evoke for us and in us.
“A parable,” says Thomas Moore, “is the opposite of a gentle teaching story. It confronts us, asking us to change our way of seeing things. It turns conventional ideas upside down. Its very point is to make us uncomfortable.”
So think about this parable of the dishonest manager again. Who do you side with? Who in this story are you inclined to like? Who are you inclined to dislike? Is there someone in this story you maybe identify with? The rich man who discovers that his manager is squandering his assets? The manager, himself, who cooks the books when he finds out he’s getting the sack? The debtors who have their debts reduced, who, by the way, don’t object even a little bit to what the manager is doing?
Would it surprise you to learn that the people who originally heard this story in the first century—people listening to Jesus tell it or listening to it being read from Luke’s gospel—those original listeners probably didn’t feel any sympathy for any of these characters.
The common belief in their world was that there is only so much good stuff to go around. If someone was wealthy, it was usually assumed that they had accumulated their assets by cheating someone else out of theirs, or by flat-out stealing. So the people who originally heard this parable would not have felt any sympathy for the rich man whose assets have been squandered and who ends up with a reduced payback on the loans he’s made.
But what about the debtors? Well, did you notice that the commodities they owe are in really large quantities? The first borrower owed 800 gallons of oil. This isn’t some poor schmo who borrowed a cup of oil to do a little cooking and keep the lamps lit for an evening. Same with the guy who has borrowed the wheat. He owes a thousand bushels of wheat—that’s 60 thousand pounds of wheat. So, who borrows these kinds of goods in such large quantities? Commodities traders. Or merchants. And people didn’t generally have a high opinion of them, either, because they marked up the prices on everything they sold as much as the market would bear, and with daily necessities like oil and wheat, the market would bear a lot, especially since the empire was the biggest customer for those things.
There is also another important economic dynamic in the background of this parable that the original audience would have been well aware of but that we wouldn’t know about just from reading of Luke’s text. Remember, Jesus was a Jew and most of his audience were Jews. They would have assumed that the characters in the parable were Jews, too. There were very clear laws in the Torah, in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, that prohibited charging interest. The Jewish Virtual Library sums up those laws this way: “The prohibition on interest is not a prohibition on usury in the modern sense of the term, that is, excessive interest, but of all, even minimal interest. There is no difference in law between various rates of interest as all interest is prohibited.”
All interest on loans was prohibited. And yet we know from abundant records that wealthy landlords in Jesus’ day were often loan sharks. Since charging interest was prohibited, they created ways to charge interest without it looking like they were charging interest. Most often they did this by rolling the interest into the principal. New Testament scholar William Herzog says that the hidden interest rates appear to have been about 25% for money and 50% for goods. The rich man’s manager would probably have also been taking his own cut of the profits on top of that 50%, and then on top of all that there would be taxes owed to Rome. And all those costs got passed down the line to the eventual consumer.
The upshot of all this is that when the crooked manager cuts the oil merchant’s debt from 800 gallons to 400, he is extracting his boss’s interest so that the oil merchant now owes something closer to what he actually borrowed. Same thing with the wheat merchant, although the crooked manager doesn’t give him quite as big a break.
By reducing the debts of the oil and wheat merchants, the manager is bringing their debt more into conformity with the law—with Torah. This is why the rich man who made the original loans can’t be seen to complain about it. It would expose his own violation of the law. So he smiles, takes his lumps, and admires the shrewdness of his former manager.
So what does Jesus want us to get from this parable? When you have all the information, none of the characters comes off looking like a role model. It’s true that the crooked manager did a small good deed, a bit of a mitzvah, for the two merchants, but giving them a break was all about his own self-interest, and he gave his former boss the shaft in the process.
“If you’re not faithful with other people’s things, why should you be trusted with your own?” said Jesus. That question sounds like it’s directed at people like the dishonest manager. But biblical scholar Barbara Rossing has suggested that Jesus might really have someone else in mind with that question. She suggests that he’s talking to the the wealthy landowners of this world, that he’s talking about being faithful to what rightfully belonged to the peasant farmers who were being financially squeezed into giving up their land by people like the rich man in this parable.
When we read this parable it’s tempting to ask ourselves, “How does Jesus want me to judge these people?” But maybe what Jesus is really asking us to evaluate is the economic system they’re all trapped in.
Even the most benign economic systems create a kind of bondage. In this parable Jesus was painting a portrait of common economic practices that trample on the poor, practices that lock them into bearing the heaviest load of a debt-driven economy in which the bondage of financial obligation rises all the way up to the bankers at the top. And, of course, the Empire gets its cut.
It’s not all that different for us in today’s world. Almost all of us live with some degree of debt—car loans, mortgages, credit card debt, student loans. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, as of June 30 of this year, household debt in the U.S. reached an all-time high of $16.15 trillion. That’s up from 15.6 trillion last year. According to Debt.org, that averages out to $90,460 of debt per person.
Credit card balances this past year saw their largest year-over-year percentage increase in more than twenty years, and aggregate credit limits on cards saw their largest increase in over ten years. All this debt is a major contributing factor to the top-heavy disparity in wealth distribution in this country, a system in which the gap between rich and poor keeps getting wider while the middle continues to shrink.
In this parable, Jesus was telling his followers—telling us—to pay attention to the world’s economic dynamics, to pay attention to how the game is played. He’s telling them, as Professor Matt Skinner said, “You either play the system or the system plays you.”
“No one can serve two masters,” said Jesus. “For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money.” If we’re not careful, money can become a kind of religion. But it’s a religion that enslaves. So pay attention. Use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends. And keep an honest eye on who you’re serving, because no one can serve two masters.
 New Living Translation
 Amy-Jill Levine; Short Stories by Jesus, Introduction, p. 3
 Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 25:35, Deuteronomy 23:20
 JewishVirtualLibrary.com, Usury
 Matt Skinner, Sermon Brainwave #862, Luther Seminary