The (Previously) Dishonest (Fund) Manager
Luke 16:1-8a (Proper 20, Year C)
There are two (at least) interpretations of this parable. The
traditional interpretation says that Jesus was approving, not of the dishonest
servant’s morality, but of his cleverness, his fast action in light of
an impending crisis. He acted swiftly and cleverly in a critical situation.
(The word translated “shrewdly” is phronimos,
which is translated as “wisely” 11 times in the rest of the nrsv New Testament.) The parable, in
this interpretation, is therefore a warning about an imminent end, whether it
be the coming of the reign of God or the coming death of each of us. Jesus,
then, is urging us to act with a similar creative, clever decisiveness before
it is too late.
A second, more recent, interpretation argues that the remitting of
debts by the Manager may not have been such an act of evil as we thought.
His actions may in fact have been not only legal, but also moral. Most of
Palestinian land in the first century was owned by just a few wealthy--mainly
absentee--landowners. As a result of increasing loans and foreclosures,
Galilean peasants had been gradually reduced from free families and individuals
to either sharecroppers on their previously-owned land, or outright slaves.
A large amount of money was extracted from peasants. In addition
to official burdensome taxes levied by Rome and Herod (or his descendents), and
skimming done by the local tax collectors, the absentee landlords also hired
unscrupulous property managers to collect payments on the odious debts that
virtually all of the peasants owed. They were something like the “loan
origination fees” added to any mortgage arranged today, except that the fee
could add as much as twenty percent on top of the already odious debt. It is
estimated that after taxes, skimming, and stealing, first-century peasants
retained only around 20 percent of their produce for subsistence needs.
This parable is likely based on the debt collection policies of
one of these unscrupulous managers. The property managers were powerful,
trusted agents of the land masters. They were empowered to make deals and sign
contracts in the name of the owner. They could rent plots of ground, make loans
against a harvest, liquidate debts, and keep accounts of all transactions. When
they collected on the loans, they would add their “commission” on top of the
loan payment, but would not put the amount in the books—a widespread custom in
the ancient eastern Mediterranean world, and
fairly common in modern investment banking houses today.
Quite probably what is being described in this parable is an
occasion (possibly historically accurate) in which a fund manager worked for a
large and wide-ranging farming and investment company. We know its investments
were wide because of the examples of items owed him. The wheat was a
locally-consumed commodity, but olive oil (especially a hundred jugs) was
produced almost entirely for export. In fact, one of the reasons for the growth
in hunger and poverty in that era was the increasing involvement in cash crops
such as oil and wine for inter-regional and international export, which then
lowered the amount of available food in the region and forced up the price of
the smaller amounts that remained.
Evidently the manager had made some bad “investments” (from diaskorpizo, to
spread around, scatter), some of which were surely dishonest, and lost a
great deal of his boss's money. When his boss found out about it, he fired him
(unlike, say, the behavior of the CEOs at Lehmann Bros. a few years ago). The
fund manager has a foxhole conversion and goes to each of the property owners
to whom he had made a loan and renegotiates their mortgages. It is not said,
but it is likely that he paid for the mortgage rearrangements out of his own fees
because when his boss later speaks, he gives no indication that any company
monies were used in the transactions. It is interesting to note that his
arrangements with the property owners were for different amounts and not just
set at a flat rate. That indicates that he was not just cutting deals, but
adjusting the loans at particular amounts for individual needs, bringing them
down to manageable levels where they could still make payments and still keep
their homes. While there are no examples in the ancient world of managers’
add-ons being as high as 50 percent, it was certainly possible, and 20-30
percent were not at all uncommon).
In this interpretation, his boss praises him not for his
resourcefulness in the face of impending crisis, but for actually doing
good, and it is a good of which Luke believes God approves as well, because
in his additional commentary at v. 9, he tells us that the fund manager is
welcomed into the “heavenly homes” for his actions. He lessened the debt load
of the poor property owners and allowed them to keep their homes and live as
free people. He allowed the company to receive at least something in loan
repayments, whereas if they had foreclosed, they might not have received
anything. And he created goodwill within the houses of the debtors homes. And,
though it doesn't say so in the text, by helping keep property-owners in their
homes and on their farms, he has helped the general economy and helped stem the
slow-motion economic collapse that Palestine
was experiencing in the first century. It is very likely that Jesus calls him the “Dishonest Manager” in v. 8a
because of his earlier, rather than
later, behavior. To Jesus (or Luke) the Manager may or may not have had
self-interest at heart, but his actions did good for the poor and should be
commended for it.
He had a conversion experience not unlike that of Ebeneezer Scrooge in Charles
Dickens’ The Christmas Carol who,
after being shown his meaninglessness life and impending death, decided to
change his ways. In a “stroke of a pen” he made the peasants happy by lowering
their debts to manageable levels, made the landowner happy by guaranteeing that
some debt would be repaid, made
society happy by forestalling the economic meltdown and made himself happy by
not getting fired and being welcomed into heaven.
- The parallels between
this story and the twin crises in domestic mortgages and developing country
debt are easy to see. One discussion possibility would be to talk about
policies that would lower the mortgage payments of home owners to levels they
could sustain and that would keep them in their homes. Why have not more banks
modified mortgages of homeowners who were facing foreclosure? Why has the
government not insisted on it? Who wins with foreclosures and who loses?
- With the international
debt issue, a possibility would be to ask your group to wrestle with the moral
and political implications of the manager's debt relief policy on the world
scale. The Jubilee movement calls for complete cancellation of debts,
not just lowering them. Why would Jubilee USA prescribe a different solution
for sovereign nations than what most people believe would be a good thing for
home owners? How are the two forms of debt different?
Read some of the case studies of countries in debt and the
statistics of some of their debt loads (many can be found at
www.jubileeusa.org). What would be a manageable income-to-debt load for a
country? Most poor indebted countries owe from 40 to 60 percent of their annual
gross national product (GNP) in debt payments. The International Monetary Fund
considers 27 percent to be “sustainable.” What is it for you? It is interesting
to note that following World War II, the Allies refused to allow Germany’s debt
load to go beyond five percent of its GNP because they determined that a
country would be unable to develop and grow out of poverty if the level were
of abundance, thank you for the many blessings in our lives. Help us to turn away from the false comfort
of wealth and serve you by caring for those in need. Help us to not just be grateful for the
relative abundance of our own families but to grieve the lack of it in so many
others. Empower us to hear the cries of the poor and oppressed and give our
lives to creating the more just society that you have envisioned for your
See for example, Jeremias, Rediscovering the Parables, p.35, pp.
142-144; C.H. Dodd, The Parables of the
Kingdom (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961), pp. 17-20.
For this view, see Crossan, In Parables, pp. 108-110; J.D. M.
Derret, “‘Take Thy Bond...and Write Fifty’ (Luke xvi.6): The Nature of the
Bond,” JTS 23 (1972) p. 438-440.
Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic
Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), p. 376.
 John Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1997),
Premnath, Eighth Century Prophets: A Social Analysis (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2003), pp. 77-78.
Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), Vol. 28A
(Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985), p. 1097.