Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (22 September 2013)



  • Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 & Psalm 79:1-9
  • I Timothy 2:1-7
  • Luke 16:1-13

Gospel: The Shrewd Manager

All commentators confirm what the typical Bible reader senses: this is a parable that challenges our normal way of looking at life, and of hearing Jesus. We do not anticipate hearing Jesus commend a corrupt manager, and we find it all but impossible to separate the Kingdom message of Jesus from the immorality of the characters.

Of course, this is not the only parable to challenge our skills as active listeners.

As we saw when discussing the Good Samaritan, the morality of the characters is not usually the focus of a parable. This is more easily recognised in parables that involve no moral agents, but is more difficult to keep in mind when the key characters seem to be enagged in immoral conduct as part of the storyteller’s art:

When Jesus gave the Sower parable, for example, his first hearers and his modern readers would probably all agree on one thing: Jesus was not interested in agrarian reform in eastern Galilee. Whatever he might have meant one is immediately certain that agriculture is not the point of the story. But when Jesus tells parables whose content is not some morally neutral activity such as sowing or harvesting but involves a morally significant action, it may or may not be at all so clear if he is giving examples (act/do not act like this) or telling parables. It will be argued in this chapter that the parables of reversal have been turned in almost all cases into examples precisely because of this ambiguity. It will also be clear that Luke is especially fond of this type of transformed parable. (John Dominic Crossan, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus p. 55)

To that insight from Crossan we might add the observation that what strikes us as immoral or unacceptable behaviour will be largely determined by our own social location. Wealthy internet-connected property-owning westerners will see the failure of trust implicit in this story more keenly than a poverty-stricken landless farmer in many parts of the Third World. The horror of finding our pension plan has been obliterated by the self-serving actions of a trusted advisor is only a nightmare for those with wealth to entrust to the care of another. What is it about a corrupt trust fund manager that speaks to us of God’s empire?

John Dominic Crossan [In Parables, 106-108] discusses this saying as one of four “action parables” that reverse the expected development of the story line. In this case, rather than being punished for his crooked bookkeeping, the manager is commended even (and especially) by his master.

He begins by noting the care with which Luke places this saying in a wider context within Luke 16:1-13:

There is already a scholarly consensus that a variety of applications have been added to this parable in the succeeding verse (sic) in Luke 16:1-13. The classical statement of this is in C.H. Dodd: “We can almost see here notes for three separate sermons on the parable as text.” But this consensus breaks down completely when one discusses where the original parable ended and the additions began.

Crossan later highlights the significance of 16:2 “within the literary economy of the story.”

Whatever is happening in 16:5-7 there was already a problem between master and servant as early as 16:2 (“wasting his goods”). When 16:2 and 16:5-7 are read together within the literary tension of the story, one has the picture of laziness organizing itself under crisis. The steward has not obtained sufficient return for the master and is therefore being removed 916:2). In such a situation he may as well get some terminal benefits from the master’s losses and so ingratiates hismelf with the debtors (16:5-7). When he is later out of a job they will, hopefully, feel grateful to him for his help and maybe even responsible for his firing (16:3-4). He has created a sort of Robin Hood image out of his inefficiency.

After outling a three-part structure of this “carefully formed mini-drama,” Crossan concludes:

The cleverness of the steward consisted not only in solving his problem but in solving it by means of the very reason (low profits) that had created it in the first place. In the light of this the parable ends quite adequately at 16:7. The rest, including 16:8a, is commentary.

Bernard Brandon Scott [Re-Imagine the World: An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus, 85-95] discusses this saying in some detail. He begins by alerting us to two common misconceptions that distort many interpretations of the parable:

This is one of the strangest and most difficult of Jesus’ parables. Two customary assumptions undermine most attempts to interpret the parable.

  • The master is God.
  • The economics system is capitalism.

As Scott points out, those who identify the master with God then face the embarrassment of the master’s commendation of the manager for his immoral conduct. This approach results in interpretive contortions to excuse God from condoning dishonesty and to find (impose?) some other meaning on the parable. Similarly, if the underlying economic system is assumed to be capitalism we again miss the central thrust of the parable, as we are distracted by our natural empathy for the master/capitalist who has been defrauded by his corrupt employee. The actions of the master and manager need to be read within the context of an ancient honor/shame society. Scott observes:

The manager’s situation is precarious. He is not simply out of work, as in a capitalist system. He can’t just go to look for work somewhere else. He is homeless and without resources. He will soon be in a life or death situation, for he has no way to earn a living. …

The manager envisions as his options two of the most disgraceful things in the ancient world. “To dig ditches” is too contemporary a reference. “To dig” in the Greek probably refers to digging in the mines which is slave work and nearly always a death sentence.

The quotation from Sirach [40:28-30, below] makes clear that begging is also a condemnation to death. Someone who is reduced to begging is without resources. Without the patronage of his master, the manager is in real danger. …

Digging and begging are images of his desperation.

My child, do not lead the life of a beggar;
it is better to die than to beg.
When one looks to the table of another,
one’s way of life cannot be considered a life.
One loses self-respect with another person’s food,
but one who is intelligent and well instructed guards against that.
In the mouth of the shameless begging is sweet,
but it kindles a fire inside him. [Sirach 40:28-30]

In his desperation the manager contrives to create a social space that will sustain him as the interacting lines of honor and shame enmesh around his crisis. He extends generous discounts to his master’s major debtors, and puts them in debt to him as a result. Scott continues:

Just what does the manager do to gain the good will of his master’s debtors? Apparently he eliminates the profit or usurious interest. When the word gets back to the master of what has happened he has two options.

  • The master can repudiate his ex-manager’s action. But this would involve severe loss of face on the master’s part. When those whose debts have been so generously reduced begin to praise the master, it’s unlikely he will risk owning up to what happened.
  • He can accept his ex-manager’s action.

What then? How is the tension — created by this shrewd move on the manager’s part — to be relieved? Scott sugegsts one way of reading the intentional tension left as the story concludes. It begins by noting that the accusation against the manager is, from the beginning, a slanderous misrepresentation. The Greek word diaballein in 16:2 has the sense “accuse” in the sense of “falsely accuse, slander, lie about.” The great Accuser in the Greek Bible is the Devil, diabolos. Our word diabolic comes from the same root. So the manager has been innocent all along, but sees no way to prove his innocence other than by demonstrating what a shrewd operator he really is (and always has been). Scott then questions whether the manager is to be dismissed after all?

The master had originally dismissed the manager because he had [allegedly] squandered the master’s property. Now he commends him for acting shrewdly — the way a manager is supposed to act. If the master cannot repudiate the reductions in debt instituted by the manager without loss of face, do we have to imagine that the master let his dismissal stand or could he have taken the manager back?

In the social world of 1C Palestine, where debt burdens reduced people to poverty and consigned many to slavery as a consequence, the master would not have been the object of public sympathy as Jesus’ listeners first heard this tale. As Scott points out, both the master and the shrewd manager have been dishonest. The master has been making a huge profit at the expense of his fellows, while the manager has been willing to fiddle the books to gain himself new friends.

In this parable the manager gets even with the master by appropriating the master’s profit, which itself is morally suspect — for as we have seen no characters in this parable are innocent. When the master commends the manager for his shrewdness, he also reminds us that the manager is unjust or dishonest. We are reminded that the moral holiday is not really a holiday. Wrong has been done, lots of wrong on all sides.

Jesus Database

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:


Music Suggestions

  • All the earth, proclaim the Lord – AHB 100
  • Alleluia, the gospel is among us (Bruxvoort-Colligan)
  • Jesus the Lord said I am the bread – AHB 185
  • Lord of the dance – AHB 183

See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.

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