And [what follows is what] he also said to his disciples,
“There was a Rich Man who had a Manager, and there was a complaint made to him that this man was profligate with his possessions. And calling him before him he said, ‘What do I hear about you. You must hand in your books; you can no longer be [my] Manager.’ Then the Manager said to himself, ‘What am I to make of this, now that my master takes my responsibility away from me? I cannot dig – haven’t the capacity, and I am also too ashamed to beg [and openly admit my unemployment]. I know what I can make of this, so that when I am removed from my management position, these [other] people may yet welcome me into their homes.” So, he called each one of his Master’s debtors to come to him and to the first he said, ‘How much do you owe my Master?’ And he said, ‘A hundred litres of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down here and quickly write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He answered, ‘A hundred bags of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Here, take your bill, and write eighty.’ And [do you know what?] the Master commended the corrupt Manager because he acted with prudence.
“[What then do you make of that?] For the sons of this world are even more prudent [in these matters] than are the sons of light in their generation. And I tell you this: make friendships for yourselves by means of the mammon of unrighteousness so that when it crashes [has done its job and no longer holds] they [the one with whom you trade] may receive you into the households that will go on.
“The one who is faithful in the least is the one who is faithful in much. The one who is guilty in little things is also guilty in great things. If you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, how do you expect to be entrusted with what is truly valuable? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, how do you ever expect to be given what is [truly] your own? No household servant can serve two masters; he will either hate the one and love the other, or be utterly loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon [money].”
The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, ridiculed him when they heard these teachings. And he said to them, “You are those who assert your right-standing before men, but God knows your hearts, since what is elevated among men is what God curses.”
The three parables – of the lost sheep, lost coin and lost son – of the immediately preceding section of Luke’s narrative were all told by Jesus in the face of the bitter murmuring of the scribes and the Pharisees. We have read this not only as Jesus’ polemic against their opposition, but his gracious teaching that invites them to “come and join the party”, just as the Father had done when his older failed to understand how his brother’s repentance had restored a lost dimension of his own life. We should not underestimate the power of Jesus’ parables; that Luke was able to gather these may well indicate that they were recalled by some Pharisees as vital elements in their own conversion!
At the same time, Jesus was teaching those with ears to hear about the unrepentant hard-heartedness of the opposition he was encountering and he was keen to show up its joyless roots.
The opponents of Jesus’ ministry failed utterly to understand how the Father in Heaven, who they assumed was their Father, yearned for the return of his lost children, his depleted family circle. Heaven’s joy when celebrating the repentance of sinners was simply off their radar, beyond their horizon. They were so fixated with sticking “sinner” labels on those whose conduct they disapproved that they were indeed “stuck”.
In fact, Luke’s depiction of the joyless opposition of the scribes and the Pharisees, is the theme that binds so much of his Gospel together. It is that theme which is maintained right up until Jesus’ trial and crucifixion (21:21,23 and even finds a place in the conversation that took place on Golgotha 23:39-43, as well as the reply of Cleopas and his companion to Jesus on the road to Emmaus 24:20). And so the parables of Jesus should also be read as part of Jesus’ persistent efforts to go after and bring back into the fold of God’s Kingdom those lost sheep who murmured bitterly and consistently against him. Luke the companion of that other bitter fanatic whose callousness was removed, the militia leader turned Christian, Paul, has actually developed an account of Jesus’ ministry that shows it overflowing with a grace that involved a persistent effort to reach those bent on destroying him.
We have drawn attention to the importance of “connection sentences” in Luke’s narrative because they help us discern how he understood Jesus’ intention in the story or the description of the event that follows. But notice how the telling of this next parable begins and how it ends. It begins thus:
What follows is also what he discussed with his disciples … (16:1).
In other words, by way of contrast with the previous parables, Luke’s next reported parable was initially given to his disciples and not a public response to the murmuring of his detractors. But after the story of what has come to be referred to as the “unjust steward” has been told, Luke tells us what Jesus says should guide any disciple’s efforts to pass judgment upon the events in the story. (Jesus was also training his Apostles and providing them with rich resources for the teaching work they would be engaged with later on). The section ends:
Upon hearing such teaching, the Pharisees, such lovers of money, ridiculed him mercilessly (16:14).
The picture Luke draws for us is of a teaching ministry that was maintained in the face of ongoing public derision. And unlike the three preceding parables, this parable does not gain its coherence – at least our reading of Luke’s account of it – until we read Jesus’ own commentary on the parable which then becomes quite complex because Jesus seems to have concluded it in a way that demands questions from those listening.
And the Master commended the “unrighteous manager” for his prudence.
We can almost hear Jesus asking:
What do you make of that? Why would he do that? And then the answer comes:
Does it not tell us that the sons of this world are more prudent in these matters in their generation than are the sons of light?
Did the Rich Man as well as his terminated corrupt Manager demonstrate prudence? So how could they each do so? And if we, now, recipients of this parable, follow such a line we too would ask: Was the Rich Man truly righteous himself? How do we know that the report was just? Did the report reflect poorly on the Rich Man’s reputation? Were those who brought the complaint just in their accusation? Maybe the Rich Man feared his own fraud had been uncovered and had to act swiftly? Was the sacking of the Manager his gambit to keep his reputation and keep in the good books of his community?
So having followed that line of questioning we come to the Manager, to investigate why he acted as he did.
Was he only wanting to safeguard his own friendships or did he realise that he had to preserve the Rich Man’s reputation as well?
But the question of whether the man was guilty or not (most renditions of the story are titled “The Unjust Steward” – our preference is “The Corrupt Manager”) is not actually spelled out. The unrighteous (αδικιας) appellation was a convenient label, but the question of whether it was a just accusation is not raised. From the story itself we gather that both the Rich Man and his Manager were not really concerned about justice at all. But what about us as listeners?
Their respective desires for self-preservation suggest they were motivated to come to a friendly agreement – the Rich Man could not cancel the Manager’s termination without implicating himself in the “rip off”, the origin of the complaint against the Manager.
The Manager, as a terminated employee, had handed in his books after first arranging payments that allowed debtors to consider a favour had been extended to them. And the former Manager would henceforth maintain good terms with these people. The “mammon of unrighteousness” has worked its way full circle – the Rich Man, the Manager and the local community. And so Jesus says:
And I tell you this: make friendships for yourselves by means of the mammon of unrighteousness so that when it crashes [has done its job and no longer holds] they [the one with whom you trade] may receive you into the households that will go on.
This is Jesus’ summation of this subtle parable that seems to require the ongoing questioning and elaboration by his disciples. So then the disciples could not avoid asking him about what “making friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness” or “being faithful in unrighteous mammon” means.
Is Jesus meaning to suggest there is a prevailing context in which “sons of the light”, his disciples, will simply have to live like the Rich Man and the Manager? Do they have to get into the “mammon of unrighteousness”, as a fateful system as we have described it above? Is it inevitable? No, it is not but rather faithfulness is called for even though the way that is under God’s curse is still a prevailing part of the context. Others (“children of this generation” – whether rich employers or managers or community complainants) may safeguard their interests by serving the mammon of unrighteousness, but Jesus overrides all this accommodation by asserting unequivocally that there are no valid grounds for trying to serve two masters.
The one who is faithful in the least is the one who is faithful in much. The one who is guilty in little things is also guilty in great things. If you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, how do you expect to be entrusted with what is truly valuable? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, how do you ever expect to be given what is [truly] your own? No household servant can serve two masters; he will either hate the one and love the other, or be utterly loyal to the other and despise the one. You cannot serve God and mammon [money].
Perhaps another way of explaining this is to note Luke’s subtlety here. By telling us how Jesus persistently tried to win over the Pharisees by dealing with them in a way that is parallel to, or similar in basic persistence, to the manner in which he expects his disciples to work in the world.
It is God’s world and there is a battle for total loyalty going on. When that context is seemingly dominated by the Pharisee’s murmuring and derision, or when one’s market place involvement seems dominated by crooked deals of the mammon of unrighteousness, rendering that as a key feature of the situation in which one operates, this is yet no reason to stop loving one’s neighbour as God requires, to cease from seeking God’s righteousness, or trying to serve both God and mammon.
Luke here tells us that even when Jesus’ teaching to his disciples came to the attention of the Pharisees and their merciless ridicule he did not engage in a game of pay-back.
It’s an amazing account. Jesus. Earlier on (Luke 12:1-12), Jesus had taught his disciples to expect repentance from sinners, even sinners who have spoken out against this Son of Man! Presumably they are not to spend time taking their enemies to court for saying such hurtful things. They have more important work to do than parading the fact that they have been offended by someone’s intemperate speech. And here again Luke shows us just how forgiveness on the “seventy-times seven” paradigm is to be lived. Jesus kept on teaching and thereby refused to opt out of his share of responsibility for these malcontents.