A Provocation: Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost (September 18, 2016): Luke 16:1-13


Luke 16:1-13
16:1 Then 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.
16:2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’
16:3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.
16:4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’
16:5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
16:6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’
16:7 Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’
16:8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.
16:9 And 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.
16:10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.
16:11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?
16:12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?
16:13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”


A Question or Two:

  • How does any of this make business sense?
  • If it doesn’t make business sense, then how does it make theological sense?
  • I’ll take any kind of sense at this point.  What makes sense here?

Some Longer Reflections:

Here’s the short answer to each of the questions: it doesn’t.

(For a longer exploration of this short answer, see my commentary, Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary. )

To begin simply on the surface: Who in their right mind would think that being crafty and re-writing contracts is the way to make friends with future business partners? Perhaps Donald Trump would. But who in their right mind would do this?  My friends in business tell me that they aim always to hire the best person, and by “best” they mean the person you can trust, the person of character and solid integrity, the person you do not have to watch all the time.  I’m still trying to find such a person in this parable.  No luck so far.

It gets worse if you read Greek.

The English translation says that “charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.”  This sounds serious.  There are legal charges involved.  And the charges allege that the manager is squandering the master’s property.  This not only sounds serious, it IS serious.

Unless you read Greek.  In Greek, there are no charges.  The storyteller informs us only that the manager was “slandered.”  That is what the word naturally means.  Why is it translated as “charges were brought?”  Because the translator already knew that this was the parable of the “Dishonest Manager.”  That’s what it says in the heading in my bible.  That’s actually what it says in several of my bibles.  So it must be true.

But the word most naturally means “slandered.”  The charges were false.  So the manager was NOT dishonest.  At least not yet.

But what about the matter of squandering property that did not belong to him?  That sounds illegal, even if the charges were the result of some unfounded conspiracy theory.

Again, reading Greek complicates things.

The word translated as “squandering” is διασκορπίζων.  The word has nothing to do with wasteful spending or illegal bribery.  It is a word with its roots in the sowing of seed.  That means that the master was upset because he heard (whether accurately or not) that the manager was spreading his money around.  The manager was investing.  Or he was diversifying.  Or he was stimulating the local economy.  Or he was making allies for the master against a time when allies would come in handy.  

And the master was opposed to this.

At this point, the master sounds as if he were as economically inept as the farmer who somehow thought that a bumper crop meant that all he needed to be secure forever was bigger barns.  That is not how farming works.  And this is not how doing business works.  The goal is to keep the money moving, not to build walls to stop the flow of resources.  That’s the quickest way to go broke.

Why do we insist on translating this way?  

The Greek words have a plain sense (though the practicality and legality and theology are not at all plain), so why blunt the force of those words?  Why make them behave?  This is a parable, after all.  There is something in us that wants things made more simple.  Parables will not help with that.  

Parables prepare us for the complexities of real life.  

The key to interpreting parables, I think, is to allow them to be as complex as they actually are, and then wait to see what they cause us to wonder about.  This one makes me wonder about how it is that we actually live together.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his Ethics that a responsible life (and therefore also a responsible theology) is one that is in accord with reality.  This sounds sort of obvious.  But it gets more interesting when you read it in the original German.  The word for “reality” is Wirklichkeit, which is related to the verb, wirken.  Reality, in German, therefore, is not a matter of how things really ARE, but of how things really WORK.  And this parable, with its twisted notions of how business is to be conducted, forces reflection on the roles played by integrity and dishonesty in the way things really work.  If dishonesty play the role that this parable implies, then all the bad jokes about “business ethics” as a contradiction in terms are suddenly justified.  More significantly, Bonhoeffer’s words about how a responsible life requires the willingness to take on guilt gain a sharper edge.  Interpreters of Bonhoeffer often focus their reflection on his involvement in the resistance against Hitler, including the plot against Hitler’s life.  But what if his words about guilt are primarily concerned with simple involvement in business?  This will be harder to justify.  And it will complicate our attempts to offer ethical advice to each other.

I have included a link to a commentary I did a few years ago for the Network of Biblical Storytellers.  Perhaps this provides a useful way to think about the complications of our life together.

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4 thoughts on “A Provocation: Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost (September 18, 2016): Luke 16:1-13

    1. True. And significant.

      And the use of “slandered” in this sentence complicates things. If he is indeed scattering resources to the wind, the reports are true, and not slanderous. If he is investing (or otherwise spreading resources around) and the reporters call it “scattering to the wind,” then it is indeed slanderous, and the reporters share a deep economic misunderstanding with the master in the story.

      That leaves me inclined to translate diaskorpizo as a “sowing the seed” word, and that hands me an intriguing interpretive tension between this parable and the one just preceding it: the Prodigal Father (there is plenty of prodigality to go around in Luke’s story, I think).

      And I am not sure what to do with this interpretive tension.

      Any ideas, Bill? How do you read this?


  1. I’m pondering some thoughts:

    If the “dishonest” manager has indeed been slandered, his consequent actions suggest that the accusation / slander perhaps created a dishonest manager out of an honest one. He became what the reporters (and then the rich man) first wrongly accused him of being.

    [An aside: Isn’t it significant that the boss is “rich” and this is the Gospel of Luke? What implications are we to take from this additional adjective? (versus the naming of simply “a man” in the Parable of the Prodigal Son”)]

    Verses 10-13 are what really tangle all this up for me, though. Very all or nothing, and yet very quantitative too–the “little” and “much” to be faithful and honest OR unfaithful and dishonest with… What master did the “dishonest” manager serve? God or wealth? The slander accusation suggests he served both in the same parable at different points… which supports the premise of not being able to serve two masters. Evidently one can only really effectively serve one master at a time. (Here’s hoping we all choose God most, I mean ALL of the time)

    But what about verse 9? Do you suppose the making friends by means of dishonest wealth actually refers to the actions of the manager BEFORE being falsely accused of the crime he would soon commit, (so to speak)? Because the boss is “rich” and “rich” carries some of its own trouble in this Gospel…

    Forgive me if this whole comment is the parabolic equivalent of Billy Collins’ students’ approach to poetry from his poem, “Introduction to Poetry” (But all they want to do / is tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it. / They begin beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means.) https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46712/introduction-to-poetry

    I know I often really would like to beat a bruised, but clear meaning out of a parable.

    Liked by 1 person

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