The so-called parable of the dishonest manager follows on from the collection of parables related to that which was lost is now found, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. The latter, the parable of the lost son (or prodigal son, or two brothers, or forgiving father) involved a noble father, a change in the youngest son contrasted with a lack of change in the elder son. Through his waywardness, the son experienced change in his thinking and, therefore, in his. The shift from being lost to being found has an effect, perhaps demands an affect, the life found is transformed, changed, discernibly different.
In Jesus, who is the personification and incarnation of the kingdom of God, even the understanding of the kingdom of God is changed from a political kingship to a spiritual kingdom. But also, the kingdom of God seems to now be concerned with and enables the bringing about change. Those who liked the status quo, such as those referred to as the Pharisees, were those who struggled with the message of Jesus and “ridiculed” (Luke 16:14; NRSV) the one who brought the message, even to death. If the kingdom of God is a kingdom that brings about change, those who are a part of the kingdom of God ought to expect that things will not stay the same and that the kingdom of God demands that things will be different. The kingdom of God is a kingdom concerned with the justice of God, and that change will always be toward equality, fairness and inclusion for all.
I wonder, with this idea of kingdom change in mind, we can re-examine this so-called parable of the dishonest manager. At face value, the parable seems to be saying that we should buy friends with money, or even resolve our predicament of being caught out cheating our master, by further cheating our master. It has always been, to me, a parable that is most difficult to reconcile with my understanding of the gospel and the person of Jesus.
The first thing we recognise about this parable, unlike the lost and found parables that go before, is that it is addressed to the disciples rather than the Pharisees and Scribes. This is not, therefore, a parable concerning the found to think about the lost, it is a parable directed to those who were lost and are now found; and the implications of change that are the result of their being found.
This steward, property manager, is in the trust of his noble master. There is an established relationship with the master. But the steward is caught out. Although the story is not clear about exactly what he has done wrong (is he ripping off the master or is he ripping off the tenants?), reports have been made to the master that he has been doing something wrong. Whatever he is doing wrong, it is risking the integrity of the noble landowner in the community.
Caught out, the steward makes no excuses and no defence. He is guilty and his silence acknowledges his guilt. Judgement has been born upon him, the master expects obedience, the master knows the truth of his disobedience, and he is guilty. The steward is summarily dismissed and sent to get the books.
Here, however, is the interesting thing. Because the steward knows the master, knows what his nature is, knows what he is like, he knows that the master is a good man and throws himself on the mercy of the master.
So he acts, once again without his masters knowledge – he had not yet surrendered the books. His master would not have known what he was doing. Again, it would have been reports from the tenants to the master, like those reports that first exposed him, of the actions of the steward. He puts in place a plan to that will ensure that his master does not lose face within the community because of his bad behaviour. He makes the master look good in the eyes of his tenants.
We are not told what the outcome for the steward in this story is. There is no suggestion that he remained employed – in fact it was likely that he was still sacked. But it is this action to ensure that the master is continued to respected and trusted within the community and by his tenants, for which the steward is commended.
So, this story is about a person who was a part of the masters household, even so, he behaves badly and he is found out, and, guilty as charged, he is under the judgement of his master and this brings about change in his behaviour. The change in his behaviour is not actually selfish, for his own good alone, it is firstly for the benefit of his master, that is, his master’s standing in the community. If his master has good standing in the community, he too will also have good standing in the community and be welcomed into people’s homes, even get another job.
It is clear, I think, that Jesus intends this parable to speak about God, the kingdom of God, and those who are a part of the kingdom of God. The master represents God, the household that the steward had charge over represents the kingdom of God, and the steward represents the disciples, you and me, who have been charged with the stewardship of the kingdom.
Even though we are members of God’s household, we can so easily get it wrong. What are the words in the Mattins confession, ‘we have followed too much the devices of our own hearts… we have left undone what we ought to have done, and we have done what we ought not to have done.’ Intentionally and wilfully, unintentionally out of ignorance, or because we didn’t do anything when we should have done something, we have been poor stewards of God’s kingdom and we have caused God to lose face in the world.
In this regard, I am often concerned by the responses of those of Islam, such as Osama Bin Laden, to the Western world, countries that are seen as Christian for which anger is directed in such violence. Perhaps we have confused our way of democracy and capitalisms with kingdom of God in such a way that Christianity, and our God in Jesus Christ, brought into such disrespect. We have been poor managers of the kingdom of God. The question is, caught out, where is the change in us, where is the demand for change, where is it that the Christian nations are bringing change to the world for the betterment of the world.
The parable of the dishonest manager is not about money and using money to buy friends and a place in the “eternal homes”. This parable is primarily about the relationship between the disciples of Jesus and God. We are going to get it wrong, make mistakes, stuff it up, from time to time, because we are sinful people. If the kingdom of God is present, then the kingdom does two things. Firstly, it brings about transformation of the people in the kingdom so that the kingdom can grow and become fully present, now, not just in the next life. Secondly, the kingdom of God is, itself, a kingdom that brings about change so that the values of the kingdom can be a reality for all.
As people of the kingdom of God, we are being invited to reflect on our own lives. Where are we complicit in perpetuation of values that are not of the kingdom of God? Where are we working to make right those things which are not of the kingdom of God? This is a question for each of us as individuals, but it is also a question for us as a parish, a church, encapsulated in our vision statement, to grow a Christian community for all.