The Parable of the Dishonest Manager (Luke 16:1-13) is a really tricky story. I’ve seen one commentator call it the ‘story of the trickster’ full of ‘trickster theology’, known as making the best of bad or even terrible things. It’s an interesting introduction to the confronting words by Jesus on money, marriage, heaven and hell over the course of Luke’s chapter 16. It also comes after hard words about greed, vanity, and hypocrisy in chapter 15. Altogether a rich mix of human behaviour about which Jesus continues to speak to his followers.
The Parable of the Dishonest Manager is told only in Luke and it opens up some challenging reflections for us, some of which I hope to tease out for you.
As I thought about what Jesus might be trying to say, this story reminded me of a book by Primo Levi, called The Drowned and The Saved‘. Primo Levi was born in Turin in 1919 and trained as a chemist. Arrested as a member of the anti-fascist resistance during the war, he was deported to Auschwitz. His experiences drove him to write several books trying to understand the ‘rationale’ behind the concentration camps. This particular book was finished shortly before he committed suicide in 1987. In it, he explores the steps and compromises one takes to survive in the camps. His death would suggest he was unable to reconcile what was for him, irreconcilable.
In the book, Levi assumes the role of witness while leaving any conclusions to the readers. No one, argues Levi, can judge others who did what they had to do to survive. It’s hard for those judging with hindsight, and it’s hard for those having to make choices about survival at such cost. He asks us to think about memory, repentance and forgiveness. In the book’s ending, Levi reminds us of the importance of truthfulness, of individual honesty in heat of battle and afterwards by both onlookers and actors.
I’m using this lens described by Levi, guided by God, to think about the story of the tricky manager, summoned to account for himself after being accused of ‘squandering the owner’s property’. These are the same words used about the prodigal son.
So, here’s the story as I hear it! A rich man enjoyed a lifestyle made possible by the income from his country estate, run by tenant farmers. The farmers buy what they need from the company store, with whatever is left after exorbitant rents have been paid to the landowner. The harvest is never enough to pay rent and purchase sufficient for their families to live. The farmers slip deeper into debt with illegal interest on loans, working harder to pay what cannot be paid.
The steward is fired. He knows he did not have enough moral strength to resist the owner or the farmers while he knew he was colluding in an unjust system. He couldn’t see another choice. Given his own self-justifications to benefit himself, the manager has now been brought undone. The farmers will not take him in when he is sacked after his unjust dealings with them.
So the manager does something shrewd and clever. He gathers the farmers together and tells them their debts are reduced. Indeed, reduced so much the farmers can begin to see relief and hope. Maybe they can repay their debts, make choices, move out of poverty.
The steward doesn’t tell them he’s been fired, or that he is doing this without the owner’s permission.
However, both the owner and the steward become heroes. The owner hasn’t changed his behaviour but he realises now he has a choice to make. He can either reimpose the debts and illegal interest on loans or accept the praise and take the steward back.
All is now well. Except, the steward has been dishonest, the owner has been profiteering and enslaving of others and the system hasn’t really changed. The steward is guilty of all charges, taking the owner’s property and squandering it, even after being dismissed. He was authorised to do nothing, yet he did a great deal. He made choices to survive, he was selfish and smart enough to know how to change the situation to save himself (he hoped) and if it happened to do good for the others, even better.
In the business world we appreciate shrewdness and risk taking. We even enjoy listening to the stories of survival in tricky times. At the most extreme, when confronted with the need to make sense of trickster theology, making the best of bad or even terrible things, our hearts and minds shift seismically as we are confronted by our own trickiness in our relationships with God and our neighbours. I suspect we’ve all been faced with such choices.
As we grapple with the ideas Jesus is giving us, we arrive at what I believe may be the theological heart of the story of the dishonest manager.
The 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 bad behaviour. This is the message in this strange parable: go ahead, forgive it all, forgive it now, and forgive for good and for selfish reasons, or for no reason at all. Forgive.
I can hear you asking: Why forgive someone who has wronged us or acted 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 chances of winning the lottery. There is no bad reason to forgive. Forgiveness always puts us in touch with God’s grace.
If a man who is dishonest and a trickster can forgive to save his job or give himself a safety net if his firing proves unavoidable, then we who have also experienced real grace and forgiveness have even more reasons to forgive others.
For Primo Levi as he reflected on living and staying alive in Auschwitz, in the most dreadful of dreadful circumstances, and on forgiveness:
No-one Levi argues, is in a position to judge these unfortunates, most of whom were obliterated in due course because of their knowledge of the workings of the gas chambers. The truth died with them. ‘It has been testified that a large amount of alcohol was put at the disposal of those wretches and that they were in a permanent state of complete debasement and prostration. One of them declared: ‘Doing this work, one either goes crazy the first day or gets accustomed to it.’ Another, though: ‘Certainly I would have killed myself or got myself killed; but I wanted to survive, to avenge myself and bear witness. You mustn’t think we are monsters; we are the same as you, only much more unhappy.’’
Theologian Miroslav Volf sums up our position and writes:
‘the proper goal of forgiveness is to enable the memory of wrongs suffered – its appropriate end – is the formation of the communion of love between all people, including victims and perpetrators.’
We must remember truthfully and honestly what happens to us or was caused by us. We seek to reconcile through forgiveness on the one hand, the death of the One for the forgiveness and reconciliation of all, and on the other, the hope of the world to come, as a world of love.
Perfect love is the goal of memory, and when that goal is reached, through repentance and forgiveness, the memory of wrongs, unjust systems, victims and perpetrators can end.
Love and forgiveness mean the end of memory and needing to remember, of remembering because we can’t forget or forgive, and the trickster theology of making the best of bad or dreadful things can be discarded.
God’s forgiveness is real, God’s love is real. In all circumstances and for all people.
The Lord be with you.
Jarvis, C.A., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Ed’s]. 2014. Feasting on the Gospels Luke Vol. 2. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.
Johnson, L.T. [Harrington, D.J., S.J., Ed.] 1991. Sacra Pagina Series Vol.3. The Gospel of Luke. A Michael Glazier Book. The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota.
Rohr, R. 1997. The Good News According to Luke. A Crossroad Book, The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York.
Volf, M. 2021. The End of Memory. Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. 2nd Ed. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan.