“Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behaviour.” Luke 16, 1-13
I have taken the Gospel passage above from a contemporary English translation because I believe it captures the central message of today’s gospel reading. The parable of the dishonest manager is found only in Luke and it is the fourth parable in succession dealing with the kingdom of heaven. I want to suggest that it is linked to the previous parable through the use of the word “squandering”. Remember that the younger son had squandered his father’s property in dissolute living. The steward of today’s parable set about publicly dispersing his master’s property as a way of building social capital for himself. His cunning was so clever that his master stood back, knowing that he himself had been tricked, and congratulated him: “I have to give it to you. You’ve outsmarted me completely.” Moreover, not wanting to carry the embarrassment of being outwitted by his finance manager, he probably said nothing to those with whom he did business.
The Greek word that Luke uses for “squandering” is diaskorpizo. It also has the meaning of “broadcasting” or “spreading around”. From Luke’s perspective, the master congratulates the dishonest manager for keeping the money moving. The steward’s behaviour led the master to the realisation that money and property are valuable resources only when they are shared and spent, especially in making provision for others in need and releasing people from the burdens of debt. In that way, money and property contribute to the building of the kingdom of God. By contrast, private accumulation of wealth that is protected from dispersal and sharing is an obstacle to reaching out in service to the needy and building the kind of relationships that enrich the givers as well as those who receive.
The dishonest manager seems to come to a new-found realisation, gained only when he finds himself in a tight situation, that generosity is really the best investment. And he gets himself out of difficulty by building social capital. Seemingly, at least to the story-teller, it is irrelevant that he ends up giving away money that doesn’t belong to him. At least, the God figure (the master) in the story doesn’t seem to mind. Moreover, I suggest that we can conclude that the wealthy master learned from the manager he intended to fire that the true secret of wealth is to be found in sharing it generously.
Another Greek word oikonomia helps me to fill out the meaning of this parable. While it gives us the modern word “economics”, its basic meaning is “household management” or “putting one’s house in order”. The squanderer of the parable is on the verge of losing everything - his security, his job and even the shirt on his back. Like the prodigal in the previous parable he “comes to his senses”. He takes the practical step of planning for what he will face when he is sacked. He makes sure that he will be welcomed into the homes of those with whom he did business for his boss. He does it by spreading around what his boss had squirrelled away. The money and property of the parable are symbols of God’s grace and generosity. The steward spreads around his master’s property and money in order to make friends of people and set them free. Isn’t that what God’s grace does?
The steward of the parable is no more a hero than the younger son of last week’s parable. Yet Jesus is prepared to use stories of flawed and broken people to teach a lesson. The steward came to the realisation that money is only a commodity, while friends and relationships are our greatest treasure. Our greatest investments are in the people to whom we are prepared to give our time, energy, talents and possessions. As the Chinese say, a crisis is a moment of decision. If the difficulties we face in life end up bringing us close to people, they will surely bring us close to God. This parable reminded me of a short story entitled How Much Land Does A Man Need?, and written by Tolstoy back in 1886. It is worthy of reflection. In the meantime, a brief summary follows:
The central character of the story is a peasant named Pahom, who overhears his wife and sister-in-law arguing over the merits of town and peasant farm life. He thinks to himself "If I had plenty of land, I wouldn't fear the Devil himself!". Unknown to him, Satan was present sitting behind the kitchen stove and listening. A short time later, a landlady in the village decided to sell her estate, and the peasants of the village bought as much of that land as they could. Pahom himself purchased some of it, and by working on the extra land was able to repay his debts and live a more comfortable life.
However, Pahom then became very possessive of his land, and this led to arguments with his neighbours. There were threats to burn his farm buildings, but they came to nothing. Later, he moved to a larger piece of land in another commune. Here, he grew even more crops and amassed a small fortune, but he had to grow his crops on rented land, which irritated him immensely. Finally, after buying and selling a lot of different plots of farm land, he was introduced to the Bashkirs, and told that they were simple-minded people, who owned a huge area of farm land. Their offer for transferring ownership was very unusual: for a sum of one thousand rubles, Pahom could walk around as large an area as he wanted, starting at daybreak, marking his route with a spade as he went along . If he returned to his starting point by sunset that day, all the land his route enclosed would be his, but if he did not reach his starting point, he would lose his money and receive no land at all. He was delighted, as he believed that he could cover a great distance and had chanced upon the bargain of a lifetime. That night Pahom had a dream in which he saw himself lying dead at the feet of the Devil, who stood laughing at him.
Not fearing his dream, he started out early next morning and stayed as late as possible, marking out land until just before the sun set. Suddenly, he realised he was far from his starting point and ran back as fast as he could to the waiting Bashkirs. He finally arrived at his starting point just as the sun sank below the horizon. The Bashkirs stood cheering him on his good fortune, but, exhausted from the run, he dropped dead. His servant buried him in an ordinary grave only six feet long, thereby answering the question posed in the title of the story.