Summary: Many people struggle with this well-known parable. Jesus seems to condone rather selfish, shady money-dealing. Actually the Gospel of forgiveness lies at its heart: are we ready to forgive?
I don’t know about you, but I do have certainly difficulties with this parable. I’ve always tended to skirt around them, I must admit. But with this text in front of me for this morning I was forced to think about it more seriously. And I find that many of the problems are actually only on the surface.
On the surface it looks as though Jesus is here commending this steward for his unjust actions, and that, even more so, he seems to be commending him for using his money to win friends. These are all rather dubious practices and not this sort of thing Jesus would commend us for doing. It sits rather uneasily within the gospel. Commentators may tell us that Jesus isn’t actually commending the actions of the steward, just his tactics, his shrewdness. But I feel there’s got to be more under the surface of this parable than at first meets the eye.
I think to start with, we need to be aware that there are two mistranslation in the texts which are normally put before us. This is made clear by a Greek scholar by the name of Spiros Zodhaites, who points these mistranslation out. First of all, in verse 1 we have the fact that there was a rich man, who had a manager, and charges are brought before him that this man was squandering his money. Clearly, the manager takes these accusations seriously, and also taking them at face value- with or without any form of trial, for we go on to read in verse 3 that the manager said to himself. What shall I do now? My master is taking my job away. But the point that Zodhaites makes is that the word which is translated ’charges were brought’ is a Greek word is the same root word as that used for the Devil, where the Devil is spoken of as being a liar. Jesus says The Devil is a liar and always has been.
The implication there is that actually it was false charges that were brought against the manager.
The second point is in verse 4, where the manager says to himself, I know what I will do, so that when I lose my job here... Now the Greek word used there is one which was commonly used when speaking about being removed from this world. So we need to bear both those point in mind as we look at the context and meaning of this parable.
For we heard the whole story, of how the manager then invites the tenants who owe his employer money to tear their bills up and write them out for smaller amounts. The common assumption then is that this man is just carrying on doing his master out of money. But we read that the manager commended the, as he thought, dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.
Yes, he had acted shrewdly. But I think Jesus is actually commending the manager at a different sort of level. I don’t think we’re just looking at the money level at all here. Let’s try and put the parable in its context.
Firstly, whatever the manager has to do, he has to do within a very limited space of time. The master summons the manager to him and says, "What’s this I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer" So, he is having a time limit set, and he’s got to do something within that time. And what does he do?
In effect he’s letting the tenants, who owe his master money, he’s letting them off some of their debt. The nature of his job is to act in his master’s interests, and he’s showing here that is masters interests are actually in letting people off their debts. And the point Jesus makes is that within this limited time,, the manager goes about letting people off their debts.
Here I believe are two eternal principles.
1. The manager is responsible for organising his master’s estate. It’s up to him to set the rent and to collect it. Now, this is making an assumption, but a reasonable one, as we’re told the manager had been accused os squandering his master’s money, that he’d collected the money and kept some back for himself, without his master’s knowledge. But when he’s called to account, he realises that his master is actually a man who would let his tenants off some of their debt, so he acts in his master’s interest. God is God whose desire and nature is to forgive, to be gracious. So this parable is actually furthering the teaching of Luke 15, and the teaching of God’s grace in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Now I believe Jesus as actually teaching about money also, as the verses following make very clear. But first he makes another very important additional point in his teaching on grace. For,