This is a difficult parable to understand. A manager (or steward) is either incompetent or dishonest and has created a shortfall in the funds under his management. Before being fired he runs around reducing the debts of people who owe his master money. It’s his hope that by doing this one of these people will be grateful enough to find him another job, or at least keep him off the street.
The problem with this parable is that while the manager may be looking out for his own skin, he seems to be giving away (stealing?) his master’s money. Yet in v8 he’s commended, “the master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” This hardly seems like behaviour Christians should imitate.
In his huge, two volume, commentary on Luke, Bock suggests 3 possible ways to view the canceling of debts:
- The steward acted dishonestly; (but why would Jesus then praise him?)
- In Jewish law, Jews were prohibited to charge interest on loans to other Jews. Apparently, it was the ancient custom to get around this by demanding repayment of the loan in commodities that were the equivalent of interest. If this is the case, then it may be that the steward simply canceled the interest portion of the debt. This would create happy debtors, and leave the master without recourse, since charging interest was illegal anyway.
- In a twist on the second option, the interest may have been the steward’s commission, so canceling it prior to losing his job created a clever pretense of personal sacrifice.
Further demonstrating its complexity, Bock also survey six proposed meanings of the parable, which I won’t list here. I understand the parable to encourage Christians to use our money wisely for God’s purposes. Unlike the steward who pretended to be generous by giving away someone else’s money to protect his earthly future, Christians should be generous with our wealth and in so doing imitate a generous God and protect our eternal future.
This connection between generosity and eternal life may seem a little strained, but it seems to be the thrust of v10-12. Our attitude toward, and stewardship of, money demonstrates our priorities and influences the degree to which God will bless us and give us responsibilities. We’re then reminded in v13 of the temptations that accompany wealth.
None of these teachings say that Christians cannot be wealthy, but that we are to use our wealth wisely, for God’s kingdom, remembering that we are only stewards (managers) of the possessions God’s blessed us with. I believe we can use Jesus’ teachings in this passage to define greed as wealth without generosity. When we’re more interested in accumulating wealth for our purposes, than using it to bless others and glorify God, we’ve crossed the line.
- Do any of these interpretations of the manager’s behaviour make sense to you? How do you understand the message of this parable? Given the difficulties this parable contains, I expect there’s quite a few different view out there, so please leave your comments.
- In my experience, people get uncomfortable when churches start talking about personal finances. Given how much Jesus discusses the topic, why do you think we’re so reluctant to discuss it?
- “Greed” is a difficult thing to define. There’s no magic number that delineates wealth and greed. What do you think of my definition above?
BONUS: In a 2008 survey by the Pew Research Center, 53% or Americans described themselves as “middle-class”. That sounds like a very “middle” number and not very surprising. What’s interesting is that 40% of respondents making less than $20,000 defined themselves as middle-class, while at the same time 33% of those with an income over $150,000 also thought of themselves as middle-class. That’s a variance of over $120,000.
- Why do you think people, whether rich or poor, want to think of themselves as middle-class?
- Does this have any implications for Christians?