The parable of the dishonest manager
St Mary’s Marlborough, 22nd September 2019
Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity: 1 Timothy 2.1-7 & Luke 16.1-13
If you feel that this morning’s parable in Luke’s Gospel is a little bit confusing, you are certainly not the only one. For centuries, Christian theologians have been puzzled by the structure and meaning of the story of the dishonest manager. I even consulted my German compendium on Jesus’ parables, which doesn’t happen very often, witnessed by the eight-year old bookmark I found … Some themes are obvious: the parable has something to do with honesty and our attitude to wealth, but its overall message is by no means entirely clear.
It is even not clear where the parable ends. In the translation we heard this morning, the parable ends at verse 8, concluding the story by saying that the dishonest manager is commended by his master. However, an alternative, equally plausible, translation could be that the parable ends a verse earlier, and that the Lord, in other words Jesus himself, comments on the actions of the manager.
Other questions remain unanswered too: was the manager wilfully squandering his master’s property, or was he just not a very good manager? Did the master fire his manager as a punishment, or because he could simply not afford his property to be squandered like this? And when the manager told his master’s debtors to change their bills, was he continuing to cheat his master, or was he sacrificing something that was legally owed him?
The way in which we decide to answer these questions will have some impact on how we understand the parable. However, I would like to suggest that despite its lack of clarity, some of the lessons we can learn this morning are not that dependent on the precise detail of the story. Particularly this is true for the key message, that also lies at the heart of the Christian Gospel, namely that our freedom lies in our faithfulness.
Let’s start at the beginning of the parable. A manager is called to his master on charges of wasting the property of which he is in charge. He is asked to draw up his final accounts, as he is no longer deemed to be able to be looking after his master’s affairs. Basically, he has been fired. Although nowadays we would not expect to be fired without any warning or sign, so the specific situation probably doesn’t really apply to us, we too may find ourselves in a crisis situation caused by our own choices, either intentionally or by accident. A crisis that calls for a decision: what do we do when going back is not an option?
The first piece of advice is one of the most important lessons we can learn, and a very practical one too: if you cannot be trusted with little, people won’t trust you with much. The Christian Gospel is based on forgiveness, so yes, dishonesty can be forgiven, but it is much harder to forget. One of the lessons we all need to learn is that it is very hard to gain trust, but very easy to lose it.
That’s a hard message, and we see its immediate effects. The master has made up his mind: he has fired the manager and does not offer him the opportunity to come back. Although he may forgive him, he cannot afford to leave his property to someone whom he does not trust. However hard it may be to live with the consequences of what we have done, it is often those moments that force us to re-evaluate ourselves, and give us the chance to turn a crisis into a blessing.
When we cannot go back, we must go forward. Just like the manager, we may go through the options. He concludes that he is not strong enough to dig and too ashamed to beg, the only two apparent options. So he decides to make sure that he finds people who will welcome him into their house; he decides to make allies and find friends. We may not be very impressed by the manager’s motives to suddenly make friends, but maybe it is this moment of crisis that has brought home the realisation that we are all dependent on others. None of us is self-sufficient, no matter how much money or wealth we have.
In that realisation certainly lies a freedom. By accepting that we all need friends, we need each other, we can liberate ourselves from the illusion of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Again, just like the manager, we can start focussing on investing in real relationships. Jesus is not, I suspect, trying to encourage us to ‘buy’ friends, but forge real relationships by giving something of ourselves, which brings us to the second insight we can glean from this parable.
That is, that our freedom lies in our ability to give ourselves. When the dishonest manager realises that he cannot dig, nor beg, he starts this new phase of his life by being who he is: a manager. He does what he can do, he does what he does best: managing property, whether that’s his master’s or his own.
Some scholars have suggested that this is precisely the reason why he is praised: for being a good manager when he summons the people and reduces their debts. We see here that, although the questions who we are and what we do, are not the same, we are most free when what we do is governed by who we are. And that may be very different from who we thought or have been told to be.
There is one other dynamic underlying the parable which has to do with our freedom, and that is our ability to live and speak truthfully. Although it is unclear whether dishonesty is to be condoned when it is done with an ulterior, noble, motive, we know that generally truthfulness and faithfulness belong together. That brings us, very briefly, to Paul’s letter to Timothy, where Paul writes that he was appointed a teacher in faith and truth, and that it is God’s will for everyone to come to the knowledge of the truth.
We have already seen by looking at our parable this morning, that it can be very hard to know what God’s truth and God’s message are. So the question becomes: how can we seek a truth when we don’t quite know what it is? Here, I suggest, faithfulness may come first, and the truth will follow.
As Christians we believe that God made us in His image, so I like to think that this means that we also have been given the ability to see the truth, to know what is right, despite the fact that we don’t always do what we know we should. And if, with that attitude of faithfulness, we look to the Scriptures, we can trust that God will speak through them to us as well.
Because, ultimately, it is God who searches us, as much as or maybe even more so than we search God. It is Him who is the source of truth and love, and so we can and should be confident that if we wish to be found, we will be. That is our hope, because that is His promise.