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Ask Andrew 6: Why Did Jesus Praise the Dishonest Manager?
The parable of the dishonest manager has bothered Christians for centuries. It seems to contradict what Jesus taught about justice, dealing respectfully with others and basic honesty.
One way they dealt with it was to offer a correction or balance. Normally, the Luke reading continues with a long explanation of not being able to serve two masters, which is a good lesson but probably not connected by Jesus to this parable.
Modern scholarship tends to believe that Jesus felt quite free to say controversial things when he preached. He was trying to shake things up, to challenge the traditional thinking of his day. If Jesus could get the crowd saying “Did he really say that?; What does he mean by that?” he would have accomplished at least part of his mission: to get people thinking seriously about what it is God wants from us.
There are other, similar controversial teachings of Jesus. In Mark’s gospel there is the lesson about having to bind a strong man before you can plunder his house.
Matthew and Luke also tell this story: do we believe that it’s good to do home invasions; to tie up the strong man who can defend the house and then empty the place? Of course not! But there is a lot of symbolism tied up there to give us a way to understand the deeper message. I’ll save that for another sermon, but it sure is memorable.
Today’s lesson from the Gospel of Thomas is similar. Many of you will not have heard it before because Thomas is a Gnostic gospel, considered a heretical book. It was lost for centuries until a copy was found at the Nag Hammadi excavation in 1945. The book was buried to hide it from the church after the Bible we now have was declared official.
The Gnostics believed they had special, secret knowledge and this book is a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus, most of which really don’t fit Jesus’ message well at all.
But the Jesus Seminar – modern scholars who are in search of the original words of Jesus – voted that the parable of the assassin was probably real; that this was most likely a parable that Jesus had said himself.
None of them believe that Jesus was supporting assassination but it sounded to them like the kind of outrageous thing he would have said to get people thinking.
The dishonest manager you will notice, is commended for his shrewdness, not for his dishonesty. Some have tried to let him off the hook, by declaring that the amounts he gave away to the master’s debtors were actually the equivalent of his commission on the work – I’ve never seen a 50% commission, even 20% is really high – this is just someone trying to take the sting out of Jesus’ words.
But the absurdity of it all is enormous! The Kingdom of God is portrayed by Jesus as a time when justice reigns supreme, when oppression and abuses of power and corruption will be washed away. How could anyone get into God’s perfect kingdom through a back door?
This dishonest manager is counting on his dishonest friends to take care of him. We know they are dishonest because he has them participate in the fraud that relieves then of part of their debt: they re-write the receipts with lower numbers and he signs off on them.
From his perspective, it’s not a bad bit of insurance: it’s in their handwriting so if they refuse to help him out later, he can threaten to expose them. After all, he’s already been fired: what does he have to lose?
In the real world, the master would have been wise to lock the manager’s office, disable his computer access and send in the auditors. But no, the master orders him to make his own accounting. Obviously not a shrewd judge of character, the master isn’t a great image for God in this parable – the opposite of what Jesus usually did in these stories, and adds to the overall surprise and offence that Jesus is causing here.
We know what Jesus isn’t saying: he is not suggesting that there is a dishonest way to achieve God’s kingdom of justice and peace, which is not a bad lesson by itself. There are always people looking for shortcuts, as recent history has made very clear: forcing children to love God by sending them to Residential school was an abusive shortcut that sold out the principles we were taught by Jesus.
What is he saying, then? That shrewdness can be valuable; that we can be righteous without having to be naïve.
This is no different than our call to be innocent as doves and subtle as serpents. This dishonest manager was creative and he was prepared to seize the opportunity he had in the short time he had to render his accounts.
A Biblical example of this might be when Paul preached in Athens and used the Pagan altar to an unknown god as the basis for introducing the God of Israel and Jesus to his philosopher audience.
We don’t have to be stodgy or stuffy; we don’t have to be predictable
as we follow the example of Christ in our lives. After all, Jesus wasn’t!
This parable is a prime example of that: educationally, it was a back door; it was a way to startle people and get their attention; not in a cheap way, like sparkly lights and loud noises, but by challenging their expectations and presumptions, by being shrewd like the dishonest manager, thinking several steps ahead and counting on an understanding of human nature to carry the message once people made an effort to figure it out.
When we learn, the lessons that stick with us are the ones we discover rather than the ones that are dictated to us; the delight of figuring out a puzzle is one that touches every age.
Jesus made a point of handing us puzzles; just about every parable he told fits into that category.
And frankly, nearly every interpretation given in scripture was not stated by Jesus for his inner circle. It represents what they figured out; what they agreed upon as the likely meaning, which leaves free to faithfully consider other interpretations.
I preached my first sermon in 1975 (I was only 16; my minister took a chance on me) and I’m still not tired of it 46 years later because of this very reason: there are always new interpretations possible. The more experiences life throws at us, the more truths can be discovered.
But it helps is we are shrewd; if we remain open to the opportunities that come our way; if we don’t listen to what everyone knows and are prepared to think creatively.
These are challenging times and I would suggest that they call for shrewdness; not dishonesty, or corruption or any of those other bad influences in this lesson; but for creativity, planning, and an eye for the way human nature will respond to us.