Summary: Jesus comends a dishonest manager as a model for righteous behavior. What’s that all about?
I heard about a young lawyer who was called in from the big city to represent a large railroad company that was being sued by a farmer. It seems that the farmer’s prize cow was missing from a field through which the railroad passed, and the farmer was suing for the value of the cow. Before the case was to be tried, the lawyer cornered the farmer and convinced him to settle out of court for half of what he originally wanted. The farmer signed the necessary papers and then accepted the check. The young lawyer could not resist gloating a bit about his success. He said to the farmer, "You know, I couldn’t have won this case if it had gone to trial. The engineer was asleep and the fireman was in the caboose when the train passed through your farm that morning. I didn’t have a single witness to put on the stand!" With a wry smile, the old farmer replied, "Well, I tell you young feller, I was a little worried about winning that case myself because that cow came home this morning."
A shrewd business sense. That’s what both the farmer and the lawyer had. And that’s the back drop for what Jesus talked about in the reading from Luke this morning.
And I have to tell you. I almost chickened out and did not preach on this text. It’s a hard one isn’t it? I’d wager that most of you here have never heard this particular parable preached on before. Why? Because it just doesn’t seem to make sense. It just doesn’t seem to fit in. Here Jesus is commending the actions of deceit and shady business deals as actions we should learn from. To hear Jesus tell us to be crafty as this slick manager was, well, does that seem to jibe with the rest of what you know about what Jesus says? For me it’s been a hard week trying to figure out what this all means.
And not only is the manager seemingly corrupt, the land owner seems a little shady himself. After all, Deuteronomy 23 forbids usury which is what this manager is doing on the behalf of the land owner. So the land owner is technically violating the law to which all Jews are bound. It’s a neat little trick isn’t it? The land owner puts the manager in charge so technically his hands are clean. And then there are the borrowers who are all too willing to enter into what seems a dishonest proposition in order to save a few bucks. All around these characters in this little morality tale are not the most savory. In modern terms these would be the folks from World Com or Enron, pushing the limits of what is legal to simply line their own pockets. And ask yourself, would you ever put someone like Ken Lay at the top of your list for models of behavior and financial trustworthiness? I don’t think so.
But let’s take a little pressure off the manager. He was only doing what he was asked to do by collecting from the land owner’s debtors. The crime lay in the fact that he lied to his master about how much he had collected. Basically he embezzled And he gets caught.. So he makes amends. Commentators have pointed out that the debt he forgives would have only been the finance charge he was collecting for himself. Thus, when he forgave the debts, he was not stealing from the master. If this is the case, his actions were not dishonest, they were simply smart. By making friends among the debtors he was ensuring himself some sort of lively hood after his dismissal.