I have to share with you in researching the commentators for this parable of the unjust steward, they were not much help. Even so great a theologian and philosopher as Augustine apparently questioned whether Jesus even said the parable because he found it so confusing and awkward. As I sat and prepared for today’s sermon, the temptation to find another parable to speak about was very strong!
However, the parable did get me thinking as this is a uniquely Lukan parable not found in any other Gospel; and it causes difficulty because it seems to endorse the dishonest actions of a profligate manager by both his employer and apparently also by Jesus.
So how might we begin?
My entry into this reflection was through the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32, which comes immediately before this story. These two parables are set together in Luke and I think, show two sides of the same message from God, which is of love and forgiveness.
The word used to describe the prodigal son’s squandering of his father’s wealth is ‘diaskorpizo’ (15:13), and it is the same word used to describe the charges against the dishonest manager (16:1). The word describes and has the meaning of careless or irresponsible spending. Both the son and the manager are accused of the same thing. Instead of being good stewards, their actions in looking after money badly, result in significant financial loss.
The consequences of this behaviour for the son mean he is left completely penniless and broke after squandering his inheritance given so generously by his father. The manager is equally wasteful. He is intent on squandering the owner’s property and inflicting his mismanagement on his employer; and it adds insult to injury for those who owe debts to his employer and see their hard labour and debt payments not going where they should.
Jesus tells us both the prodigal son’s brother and the debtors share the same feelings, outrage, self-righteous indignation, fear of the consequences of such thoughtless actions – all sorts of anger, frustration, dislike, hatred and concern. The brother resents the restoration of his profligate brother back into the family and wants him sent away in punishment; the debtors want to see the manager’s downfall and would rejoice in this outcome and would not offer him hospitality or support once it is known he is sacked.
You and I can quickly and easily understand those emotions. How angry and upset we become when we see people wasting our taxes, our gifts, the fruits of our hard work on behaviour, actions and decisions that are selfish and not for the purpose for which they were originally given. We are angry our labour is not rightfully acknowledged, praised and honoured.
And yet, Jesus tells us the prodigal son’s return has been celebrated and he has been welcomed back with love and joy by his father. The story tells us about God’s love and forgiveness for the lost and repentant. Jesus highlights quietly the brother’s resentment at such abundant love at what he sees is his expense and dishonour. We do not want to accept forgiveness being given for someone else’s poor behaviour on these terms when we have worked so hard to be good.
Our unkindness and meanness that continuously counts the cost and keeps the account in all its fine details and never lets it be forgotten is not Kingdom behaviour. Yet we have all been the prodigal son’s brother.
Then we have the dishonest manager whom we have heard about; but perhaps it is also a story about an unjust owner. An owner who doesn’t bother to check the charges against his manager but immediately accepts the accusations of squandering and dismisses the manager out of hand.
This parable is in contrast to the one about the prodigal son and focusses instead more clearly on some of the defining characteristics of our human relationships and transactions in ‘this generation’.
The manager is quick to reckon up the cost of his past actions and the consequences of being dismissed. Having made himself hated and despised by his profligate and wasteful behaviour with his neighbours and his owner’s debtors, he does something very smart, and well within the rules of Judaism. The manager forgives the debts, just as Jesus promised would happen for everyone and just what was required in the ‘year of our Lord’, in every seventh year and every 50 years.
And here’s the next part of the story which takes our breath away. It is forgiveness being given by someone we have judged, found guilty and whom we despise. We would find it hard to believe such actions could be taken by someone we despise, but I’m not surprised no-one checked to see if the manager had his owner’s permission to take this step.
The remission of debts or part of the debts would have been too good to miss and I expect those with the debts were lining up to negotiate and find whatever relief they could in such tough times. By such an action, the unjust and dishonest manager has now become a good and worthy man. Smart, shrewd and timely in his behaviour.
Was it dishonest? The law might allow for it.
Was the owner out of pocket by this? Perhaps, but maybe not. If you’re drowning in debt, a creditor may end up with nothing if you go under. Far better to reduce the debt or forgive it completely as a way of changing relationships and power forever.
I look around and see the cruelty in insisting on payment of debts to the last cent; occasions where our accounting is fierce and uncompromising and consequently justice is not done.
It seems like we are simply being vindictive and cruel in demanding recompense to the farthest possible extent we can manage and what the law allows us to insist upon. There is no justice, no redemption, no love in such behaviour from anyone, simply fear, power and greed.
Even though God forgives us, if we cannot believe and trust in that forgiveness and unconditional love and if we do not forgive ourselves, we will not understand or experience the joy of God’s love.
The unjust, dishonest manager forgives. He forgives things he has no right to forgive. He forgives for all the wrong reasons: for personal gain and to compensate for past misbehaviour before it catches up with him. This is one of the messages in this strange parable, I think: we are to go ahead, forgive it all, forgive it now, and forgive for good and for selfish reasons, or for no reason at all.
You may ask why should we forgive someone who has sinned against us or against our sense of what is right?
We could forgive out of love or in Jesus’ name, or because we have been forgiven, or because we want to be free of the burden of bitterness, or because we think it will improve our changes of winning the lottery. There is no bad reason to forgive. All forgiveness puts us in touch with God’s grace.
It reminds us that we have ourselves behaved like the dishonest manager and like the owner. We are the prodigal son and we’re his resentful brother. When all is said and done, we are God’s children and are gifted with God’s love and forgiveness whether we seek it or not. As Jesus’ disciples our challenge is to ask ourselves whether we can accept God’s abundant love and forgiveness for all people, and not seek to limit it just to ourselves and those whom we think worthy while excluding those who do not measure up to our standards.
And in the end, Jesus calls, challenges and forces us and our churches to ask ourselves if we are using the resources God has given us, faithfully, forgivingly, in love and without counting the cost. To love abundantly and forgive generously as often as it is needed.
The Lord be with You