Sermon Seeds

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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5] 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).[6]

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.[7] 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.

For Discussion

  1. 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?
  2. 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 higher.

Prayer

God 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 creation.    Amen.


[1]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.

[2]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.

[3]Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), p. 376.

[4] John Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1997), p. 141.

[5]D.N. Premnath, Eighth Century Prophets: A Social Analysis (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2003), pp. 77-78.

[6]Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), Vol. 28A (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985), p. 1097.

[7]Fitzmyer, p. 1099.

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CONTACT INFO

Ms. Edith Rasell, Ph.D.
Minister for Economic Justice
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland, Ohio 44115
216-736-3709
raselle@ucc.org