Luke 16:1-13

This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on September 18th, 2016.

Jacob Adrianensz
Jacob Adrianensz

Which one of these acts with the most cleverness?  Is it a student composing a poem, a small business owner trying to turn a profit, or a preacher working to convince listeners to live like Jesus?  The Parable of the Dishonest Manager challenges ministers to think outside the box.

Jesus looked at the disciples and did not see much thinking going on—inside or outside the box.  Jesus’ followers have not always been known for their creativity, but it is not because Jesus did not try.

Jesus tells this outrageous story about a rich man who gets word that there is a bad apple in the barrel.  The snitch noticed the manager driving a car that was a little too nice for a mid-level manager’s salary.  The rich boss summons the dishonest manager and gives him a pink slip:  “Audit the books, turn them in, and clean out your desk because you’re done.”

The manager knows he is in big trouble:  “I’m no good at manual labor.  I’m too old to start over.  I’ve grown accustomed to this lifestyle, and unemployment compensation is peanuts.  All I’ve got left is my ingenuity.  I’ll outsmart them.”

He moves quickly because the news of his termination will not be news for long.  He gets together his boss’s biggest clients at an expensive restaurant—one last fling on the corporate credit card.

The scoundrel says: “I know you’re having a hard time.  I am going to mark down what everyone owes.”

The clients are overjoyed and go along with it, even though they know this is probably blackmail.

When the manager turns the books in, they show one last act of theft.  He does not even try to cover it up.  For a moment the boss considers going to his clients—who are celebrating the rich man’s generosity—to tell them that he had not planned on being so charitable.  Then he realizes how badly that will go.  He could have the manager thrown into jail, but that will not do much good.  Then the boss starts laughing: “You are clever.  How much money would I have if I was as sneaky as you are?”

This parable is nobody’s favorite.  There is not a single good person in the story.  The main character, the one Jesus praises, is Bernie Madoff.

The fourth-century Roman emperor Julian the Apostate used this story to discredit Jesus asking, “What kind of Messiah would tell this kind of story?”

The crook has not only been caught swindling his boss out of a considerable amount of money, but he continues to steal even after he is caught.  He has no ethics.  Why would Jesus compliment an embezzler?

Luke himself has trouble with the story.  Luke takes a few verses from the Sermon on the Mount and puts them right after the parable to try to keep readers from getting the wrong ideas.  Luke quotes Jesus saying, “We cannot love God and money”—which is true, but it does not have anything to do with this parable.

Luke also quotes Jesus’ warning to be careful of the one who is not faithful in little things, because that person may not be faithful in big things—which is also true, but it does not have anything to do with this story.

Scholars struggle with this parable.  Some argue that it cannot be Jesus’ story.  That leads to the difficult problem of figuring out whose story it is.  Many are comfortable, for example, attributing Jesus parenthetical remarks on divorce to a second-century scribe, but second-century scribes would never come up with this story.

Biblical experts have attempted all kinds of contortions to make sense of this story.  Perhaps the parable got mixed up with others.  Maybe the story is hyperbole—a bizarre overstatement.  Some suggest that if the manager included the interest owed to his boss, and all he did was reduce the interest to the legal limits, then what he did was not so wrong.  Perhaps the unscrupulous manager only cuts his own commission, so that what he did was generous.  Alternatively, maybe it is not that complicated.  Jesus tells this story to say that not nearly enough people do anything out of the ordinary.

He praises people who take chances.  What does Jesus say at the end of his parable?  The people who are not religious are better at taking chances than the people who are.

Jesus is right.  Church people do not usually take risks.  We get used to doing what we are accustom to doing.  We spend too much time tied up in small concerns.  We are timid about important matters.

People are often applauded for doing nothing at all.  Evil is associated with activity and goodness with inertia.  School children get good citizenship awards for staying out of trouble.  We confuse virtue with just saying no.  We let our fears keep us from trying to change things.

Letting someone who has been liberated from fear into a church is like letting a cat loose in a room of preschoolers.  People who face their fears start asking questions:  How can we live more like Jesus?  What can we do to care for the least of God’s children?  Why can’t we give away more of what we have?  What can we stop doing so that we will have more time for others?  Would the people who need our church come if we invited them?

By the grace of God, we step out of our routines.  We think the best of a person instead of thinking what others think.  We extend forgiveness instead of nurturing our anger.  We choose not to do unto others what they have done to us.  We speak to someone we have gotten used to passing by.  Christ invites us to take chances because God’s love calls us to live with courage.


Brett YoungerBrett Younger
Senior Minister
Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, New York




Tags: cleverness, creativity, the dishonest manager, risk

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