Jesus likes parables. The parable of the Unrighteous Manager is a challenge. It has challenged Christians since the first century. Why? Because it could appear that Jesus is commending a deceitful man, and encouraging us to follow in his footsteps. Julian the Apostate (pagan Roman emperor on 361AD) used this parable to attempt to prove that Christianity is deceitful and people should return to the old pagan gods. Was he right?
Have a read:
Jesus also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. 2 And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ 3 And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7 Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ 8 The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.
You see the difficulty? The manager first loses his master money, and then lies to his master’s debtors and in doing so cheats his master again. But then the master commends him for it. Then Jesus says that the ‘sons of the world’ are more shrewd than the ‘sons of the light’.
Sounds odd. What is going on here?
Well, much has been written about it as Christians have grappled with it. But, here are a few thoughts (with thanks to Kenneth Bailey in his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes).
1. The Master in the Parable Demonstrates Justice, Mercy and Personal Integrity
We can miss this if we do not understand the middle eastern culture that Jesus is in. The master discovers that his servant is managing badly and losing him money. This is not only bad financially but is a big slur on the master’s honour – very important in Middle Eastern culture. Instead of beating and imprisoning the manager – the master just dismisses him. Incredible grace, at the cost of the master’s honour. You see how the master is representing God in the parable? It is a very similar image to the father in the parable of the prodigal son (which immediately precedes this in Luke) – where the father welcomes his son back at huge cost to his honour. Costly grace.
2. Sin is Exposed and Condemned
Our secret sins will be exposed with the coming of the kingdom – as the manager’s have been here.
3. Sin is Insidious and Difficult to Get Rid Of
The manager should have repented and changed when he was discovered. Instead he chooses to steal from his master in an even bolder way. Sin breeds more and greater sin.
4.The Manager Understands the Character of His Gracious Master (This is the really clever bit)
The manager is not commended for his ethics (he’s a cheat – Jesus calls him a ‘son of this world/age’) – but for his accurate perception of his master’s character. He correctly reads his master. The manager experiences extraordinary mercy at the beginning of the story (he is dismissed rather than imprisoned and beaten). He opts to risk everything in the confidence that this mercy and generosity are at the core of his master’s identity. If he is wrong, he will lose everything, including the freedom of his family. His judgement of his master is proved right. Jesus longs for his disciples to have the same informed perception of God.
5. The Manager is Willing to Act
The manager has the courage to act on his deepest perceptions. It’s a huge risk but one he takes.
So, Jesus wants us to realise the radical, generous and merciful nature of our Father in heaven – and to act on it. It’s not an invitation to lie and steal – but to take risks with the knowledge of God’s character. We should not hoard our money – but use it generously (like the master) to make friends for eternity.
Phil Trainer, our assistant pastor at CBC, wrote a paper on this passage which you can read here.