The Dishonest Manager and the Wasteful God

Luke 16:1-13

Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property….And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly;… (Read the whole passage)

As we continue down this rabbit hole of Jesus’ teaching and ministry, we have heard with Jesus doing odd things, dealing with odd people, and telling odd parables. Jesus healed the salve of a conquering centurion earlier this summer, Jesus gave a very Donald Trump-esque speech about a month go about divided family and neighbours against each other, and few weeks ago, was giving dinner party advice. But today, he talks about something that rubs against our North American sense of pragmatism. Wastefulness.

The manger in today’s parable is a squanderer. To squander is to waste. Wastefulness for us is a sin. In our 21st century society we worry very much about wasting anything. Wasting time, money, the environment, and resources. If there is anything we can imagine wasting, we worry about wasting it. To squander is to misuse, to mismanage, to fritter away. But even more so in our go-getter society, it is considered squandering when we fail to seize any opportunity set before us, when we fail to be in control. We worry about all of this. What if we don’t collect what we are owed? What if what we put our time and energy towards something that isn’t full value in return? We worry so much that it bothers us when wastefulness and squandering isn’t punished.

And that’s the trouble of Jesus’ parable today. A lot of the time, it’s hard to make sense of what exactly Jesus is saying, but today he has said something that is just plain crazy.

Jesus’ story starts out a little rocky. It is about a rich man whose property manager is accused of squandering. And of course the manager gets fired. While there is no evidence given of the squandering, the dishonest manager does not dispute the charges. Instead he concocts a scheme to protect himself for when he is tossed out onto the street. He reduces the debt of some of his clients in the hopes they will return the favour of mercy for when he is in need very shortly. And manager gambles on a clever idea because he has nothing to lose. He cannot lose more than his job and he has no other prospects that seem appealing.

Yet when the manager is brought before his master, the Master commends the dishonest manager for his shrewd actions of forgiving the debts. He restores and entrusts the scheming servant once again. The dishonest man is forgiven, all because he acts shrewdly, according to the Master.

This is where everything falls apart for us. This is where we cannot figure out what this parable means. Luke tries his hand at offering an explanation. Try #1, maybe we need to be more like the children of the world, sly and clever. Try #2, maybe this is about making friends at any cost, even dishonest ones. Try #3, this is about trust and servitude. We must be trustworthy to enter the kingdom of God, we must serve only one master. Luke seems just as confused as we are. Be clever, but trustworthy. Be dishonest, but honest.

The confusion is not only Luke’s. The manager himself seems to have no idea that his Master will respond the way he does. This parable defies our notions of right and wrong to the core. Why would the Master commend the selfish and dishonest manager?

The setting of this parable beings to provide a clue. Land was owned by families and clans. Communities relied on each other, by doing business with each other. If one family had to sell their land, a cousin was obligated to buy it. If one family couldn’t make ends meet, relatives were expected to help out. Maintaining relationships with neighbours and friends was not just polite, it was a necessity of life.

Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Like any small town or rural community or even church community around here.

Things haven’t changed much in two thousand years. Still today, family and land often go hand in hand. Small towns and rural communities have long memories, you can be the new person for decades. The importance of knowing your neighbours goes without saying. You might buy groceries from your next-door neighbour, have a relative as your nurse, vote for your best friend for town council. Everyone is interconnected.

The only way to keep from wasting or squandering your resources is to work together and to help each other out.

And that is the real problem of the parable. Our confusion is about the Master’s response to commend a dishonest manager. To commend selfishness and to restore a squanderer to his job.

We assume that the manager is wasting his Master’s property, that he isn’t putting it to its full potential. Let’s put it this way, the manager is not a friendly corner store owner who lets his customers pay what they can. Instead, he is a squeeze-blood-from-a-stone kind of guy. If you owe 100 barrels, you are going to pay 100. The idea of reducing debt doesn’t come until after the selfish servant is fired from his job.

According to our definition of squandering, by generously forgiving debts and not collecting full value, the manager doesn’t actually waste his master’s property until after he is fired. 

Now, let us step back for a moment. This parable comes along in the Gospel of Luke, right after the parables of the Lost Coin, the Lost Sheep, and the Prodigal Son. It comes right after three parables where God squanders his time, attention and care for the sake of the lost.

God turns the idea of squandering on its head. To God, land, resources and money are squandered when they are hoarded. Holding onto to what you own, collecting full value at any cost… now that is wastefulness to God.

The master doesn’t fire the manager for not producing enough, but for holding on too tight. How opposite of the way we think.

When we first heard this parable today, there was an easily missed cue at the beginning. The first words that are spoken are “There was a rich man”. WE often think that this parable is about the dishonest manager, but it is truly about the generous and self-giving rich man. The rich man who lavishly gives away his time and resources, and his forgiveness.

And the rich man does not commend shrewdness. We are so stuck thinking about what this parable means for us, and what it tells us what we must do and how we must act, that we cannot really see what is happening so simply — forgiveness. We cannot see who it is about — God. God does not praise the servant’s dishonest and shrewd motives but the action of forgiveness. God praises the manager for wise action. God is the rich and forgiving master.

And because God chooses grace and mercy above all, forgiveness abounds. For the servant, the debtors, for us. God squanderingly gives forgiveness away for free.

It is hardwired in our brains, in our bodies, in our very beings that we should take what we can get, that we should make sure we receive 100% value. In our world, a debt of 100 jugs of olive oil would not be reduced to 50, rather we would make sure that when the debt is finally paid it would be 150 in return. A debt of 100 containers of wheat would not be reduced to 80, rather 120 would be paid in return. We are so quick to assume that selfish motivations are being commended, that we cannot see that the rich man praises the shrewd actions of forgiveness, grace and mercy.

This parable, like the ones before about the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Lost Son, is really about a radical, backwards, upside down God who believes in rejoicing with the found and who believes in the bad business practice of giving away God’s most precious resources for free, of giving away forgiveness, grace and mercy.

While we are busy getting 100% value, God is spending lavishly to save us when all seems lost. And this is the radical business practice of God. God who calls hoarding squandering. God who gathers us all in, by giving God-self away. God who is about forgiveness existing in the world no matter the reason.

And we thought this parable was about waste, but instead it is about the upside economy of the Kingdom of God.

Amen

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10 thoughts on “The Dishonest Manager and the Wasteful God”

  1. Thank you for this explanation. This was the passage for today (Sunday) and it was explained in a very different way. I’ve always been confused trying to figure out what Jesus is trying to communicate to us.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for a helpful explanation of a truly puzzling text that has had me scratching my head for years. We truly have a surprising God who delights in turning our world upside down. What a blessing!
    Gayle Moore-Morrans

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I too have been scratching my head over this parable. It seemed rather contradictory. I’m sorry that I can’t commend your explanation, however. It’s a real turn-off when somebody puts down the Author of the Bible. You write off “Luke’s” explanations as faulty. That amounts to finding fault with God himself and stating that your explanation makes the most sense than God’s. I’m not looking for pat answers. I’m certainly not looking for human wisdom. I’m looking for someone who is inspired and filled by the Holy Spirit and seeking His wisdom. I don’t trust a blogger who doesn’t seem to trust the Word of God implicitly, submissively, whole-heartedly.

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    1. I have to disagree with you on scriptural approaches. Having a deep respect and trust of scripture means I am not worried that God’s message needs to be protected. Instead I see that along side the inspired message of salvation are incidental human aspects. I don’t need to cover up for Luke when he offers 3 different understandings of this parable that Jesus told. Instead I can see a fellow struggler with faith. Someone who can be just as puzzled as we can be, all while knowing that God has given us the message of Salvation that we need.

      While it may seem more faithful to say that we just don’t understand when something seems contradictory, it is actually less faithful. Because it is saying that what is actually being said by the text is not what it says. Instead, there is some secret understanding beyond human comprehension. That is in fact the heresy of Gnosticism.

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