It’s time—that dreaded week that comes around once every three years, when preachers who follow the Revised Common Lectionary have to face Luke 16:1–13 and the Parable of the Shrewd (or “Dishonest”) Manager. The week when parishioners hear Jesus saying things like, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth,” and affirm, “This is the Gospel of Christ.”
The parable tells the story of a rich man and the man who manages his property. The rich man finds out that his manager has been “squandering his property” (16:1) and threatens to fire him. In response, the manager secretly calls his boss’s debtors in and reduces their debts—a hundred jugs of olive oil down to fifty, a hundred containers of wheat to eighty, and so on. His reason for doing this is so that, in his own words, “when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes” (16:4). When the rich man finds out what has happened, instead of being upset with the manager, he praises him “because he … acted shrewdly” (16:8). Jesus seems to commend the manager’s actions, too, although Jesus’s priorities are not the same as the rich man’s. While the rich man praises the manager’s acumen that can be used to increase profits down the line, Jesus seems to applaud the manager for something else: making friends. He closes his story by saying, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (16:9).
What are we to make of this? Growing up, this parable was one that I probably just filed away in the “confusing words of Jesus” folder, along with all the other things that didn’t quite fit into a fairly simple moral framework. But this parable started to make a little more sense to me when I spent a few months in Senegal, West Africa, as a college student. Many people in my new neighbourhood experienced more poverty than anyone I knew back home. But they were wealthy in social relationships, maintaining vast networks that were wider than those of the most well-connected people I knew back in Canada. During my time in Senegal, I learned that, among other benefits, these social networks provided a financial safety net. Saving for the future in this context was less about personal savings accounts and more about helping out a friend, certain that they would return the help when it was needed.
I sometimes wonder if it is only in a modern, Western, capitalist economy that Jesus’s parable doesn’t seem to make sense, that his words strike us so strangely. And for this reason, maybe we are the ones who need to hear it most. Perhaps we are the ones who most need the reminder that money, and our use of it, is always, inherently social. Buying, selling, lending, investing… all of it part of making and maintaining the social fabric that we share with others, for better or for worse.
Jesus doesn’t give too many details about the rich man in his parable, but we do know that he held people in debt for such basic necessities as oil and wheat. In addition, Jesus’s references to “dishonest wealth” (sometimes translated “worldly wealth” or “unrighteous wealth”) in this passage give us a sense that the rich man had probably gained his wealth at the expense of others. It is striking to me that it is within this context that the shrewd manager enacts liberation for others, by reducing their debt load. Jesus follows up the parable by saying, “If … you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” (16:11–12). It seems to me that Jesus is telling us here that the shrewd manager was faithful with what belonged to another. But what if that “other” wasn’t the rich man at all? What if the “other” whose funds the manager was faithful with was those who had been oppressed in the process of building wealth?
To my fellow white people, maybe we need to hear this gospel as particularly speaking to us. Most of the “worldly wealth” that we claim as our own could rightfully be said to belong to another. One way or another, what we have has been gained on the backs of others—the Indigenous peoples whose lands our ancestors took, the Black slaves our ancestors bought or sold or benefited from, the cheap goods we obtain at the expense of poorly paid factory workers half a world away. We live with dishonest wealth, with what belongs to another. How can we be faithful with it? What would that look like?
The shrewd manager presents us with a challenge, and maybe a bit of hope—that even in the midst of harmful systems and dishonest wealth, there are ways to use money to liberate rather than oppress. To make friends, rather than build a hostile world. Tasked with managing dishonest wealth, the shrewd manager used his position to cancel debts. Who knew that it would be a dishonest, shrewd manager who would set the debtors free? God’s kingdom is always surprising.
This week, instead of filing this parable away and moving on, perhaps we can try to let ourselves remain unsettled by it for awhile. How might we—individually and collectively—be part of releasing debts, of making reparations? What kind of world are we making and remaking through our finances? And what might be possible instead?
Image: Karolina Grabowska (Pexels)