Have a read of this text, then you may want to read it again, then just for kicks try it again- it just doesn’t seem to make sense no matter which way you look at it. We have a guy that is ripping people off, that instead rips his master off and is then rewarded for it. We are then told it’s impossible to serve two masters- huh! This is clearly one of those tricky readings that ministers all over the world religiously avoid, just going to the end bit about serving mammon (money) or God. There is meaning here, but it’s not very obvious to 21st century eyes. To gain an understanding of what the author was attempting to say we need to background ourselves a little on how these matters would have played out at the time.
First off, the only bit that kind of makes sense- the last bit about serving multiple masters in verses 10-13- is almost certainly a later addition, and not part of the original story. So we are left with the hard bit as the only bit. That’s the bit I’m going to focus on here.
We start with an estate manager (most likely a slave born in the household) that has been overcharging rent on villagers. It was forbidden in Judaic law to charge interest on loans, but managers via their masters would often do under the table deals where money would change hands prior to making very public and transparent contracts for land rentals. The manager is effectively ‘sacked’, which is interesting from the start. He is accused of a fairly serious offence- public fraud- which could have very serious retribution, but instead he is only demoted from his role. It would be normal practice for the manager to be personally responsible for any debt or loss of prestige of the master, and be thrown in prison to pay off the debt, or worse. There is a relationship here as the manager is simply dismissed, an action that would be immediate. Before news of this dismissal spreads the manager calls in the masters debtors and massively fraudulently reduces their debts. The amounts on load here are ridiculously huge, which either alludes to poetic exaggeration, or more interestingly, a debt not to an individual, but to the entire village. The manager is obviously seeking approval from the villagers in the hopes of snagging another manager’s job (as he said he can’t dig holes and doesn’t want to beg).
This is where the story gets interesting (or confusing, take your pick). The culmination of the story is that the master “commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” The justification for this is that “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of the light. Jesus is then quoted as telling the disciples to “make friends for yourself means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” A little more unpacking is required here.
One interpretation given concerning the refund was that the manager was simply taking away his profit and bringing the debts back to what the master would have prescribed, but this doesn’t hold. The debts are reduced from one hundred jugs of olive oil to fifty, from one hundred containers of wheat to eighty. Had the manager gouged the villagers to this extent then his fraud would have been revealed very early. It is clear here that the manager is in fact reducing the master’s return, and the master is commending him for it!
A clue may be in the situation that the manager placed his master. There would have been great celebration in the village at the generosity of the master in this undeserved charity. Had the master re-increased the debt he would have been shunned and shamed in the village. By agreeing to the reduced debts he was the hero of the village, and in honour and shame communities such as these, this elevation meant more to the master than the lost income. The master wins as his honour is raised, and the manager wins as he has also gained favour in the village and has an excellent chance of getting a new job as a manager (and not forced to dig or beg).
But this is not just a simple “go and do likewise” scenario, unless you want to land in a present-day prison. The key to the parable lies as it pretty well always does, in the final summative words. Jesus is telling the disciples that money does indeed make the world go around, and that they should get it and use it lavishly for good while they live. They should shower it on those around them, so that when they finally die (presumably after the recipients of their charity have already passed on) that those very recipients will welcome them into paradise. Jesus doesn’t shy away from the very real truth that almost all wealth accumulation involves evil in the form of the suffering of others, but that “children of the light” should learn from the “children of this age” and accumulate wealth, not for self indulgence, but for charity towards those more needy.
So there’s the massage- we live in a broken world, and we can pretend it’s not really broken, or we are not touched by its brokenness, or we can face the reality that we are of the world and therefore by definition part of that brokenness. The trick is bringing healing out of the broken, making light out of the darkness, and using the tools that we have in this world to do good where we can.
This parable has confused and confounded theologians- there are hundreds of interpretations and ideas about what it means. I came across a very different but fascinating interpretation that I thought warranted a mention. The Jewish leaders were calling Jesus a rogue and a deceiver who had no authority from God to forgive sins, so Jesus tells a story about a rogue and a deceiver that forgives debts without authority, and is commended by his master for his actions… interesting.