There are some passages from the Gospels which are referred to as the “Hard Sayings of Jesus”; sometimes because they are hard to put into practice, as in the case of his admonition “If your eye offends you, pluck it out” or his remark about camels and needles; sometimes because they’re hard to understand and run counter to what we think we know.
The last is the case with a story Jesus told in Luke chapter 16, sometimes called The Dishonest Steward, but which I am going to call the Parable of the Sleazy Embezzler.
A certain rich man has learned that his steward, the servant hired to manage his business affairs, has been doing a crappy job of it. The way Jesus puts it is that the guy “was accused of wasting [the Boss’s] possessions”, so he might not have actually been dipping into the till. He might have just made some really bad decisions with the Boss’s money. The Boss tells him that he’s going to audit the books to find out exactly what he’s been up to.
“The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg…” (Luke 16:3 NIV)
Fortunately, our embezzler comes up with a Cunning Plan. One by one, he calls in everyone who owes something and restructures their debt.
“So he called in each one of his masters debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ “’Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.’ (v.5-6)
He hasn’t been fired yet; he still has the authority to conduct business in his master’s name; and so he uses that authority to forgive a portion of the debt each man owes his boss. That way, he figures, when he does lose his job, he’ll have plenty of people grateful to him who will be happy to help him out.
The Boss sees exactly what he’s done. Since the debts were restructured in his name, he can’t very well go back and demand the full payment without looking like a jerk. The most he can do is fire the dishonest steward – which he was going to do anyway – and it will look to the manager’s new friends that he was fired because he had done each of them a favor.
Some men might be pissed at the way the steward had outwitted him. This boss seems to have had a sense of humor. At least he was capable of recognizing the servant’s cleverness. Jesus says, “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” (v.8)
Commentators have puzzled over this parable for centuries. Why is Jesus holding up this cheater, this crook, this embezzler up as an example?
Some interpreters have made excuses for him, saying that Jesus only said that the guy was accused of malfeasance, not of actually guilty of it. Others have speculated that maybe his master had been overcharging his debtors in order to get around the Mosaic prohibition against charging interest, and that the steward was only converting the balance to what it should have been.
Both views are over-thinking things and missing the point. If the manager had been innocent of wrongdoing, the audit would have exonerated him. He knew it wouldn’t. He knew he was toast. And Jesus repeatedly calls him “dishonest.” No, the fact that he’s a cheat who got caught and what he had to do to cover his butt is the whole point of the parable.
Another interpretation is that the steward’s reduction of what the debtors owe his master reflects him forgoing what his own commission of the transaction would be, deliberately sacrificing his own cut in order to do the right thing. Once again, I think this is over-thinking the situation. Jesus was telling the story to make a point, and if the point was the manager making amends for his misdeeds, Jesus would have said so.
The master does not commend his soon-to-be-ex manager for his virtue, but for his shrewdness. In effect he’s saying, “You’re still fired, but I gotta admit, you’re a clever scoundrel!”
“For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” (Luke 16:8)
Elsewhere Jesus tells his disciples, “Be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16) Or putting it in D&D terms, just because you’re Lawful Good in alignment doesn’t mean you have to be Lawful Stupid.
This next part gets even more confusing, because it seems to say one thing, and then Jesus does a complete 180 turn. Or does he? I think this is largely a translation issue. The King James Version renders it this way:
“And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.” (Luke 16:9 KJV)
This makes it sound like we’re supposed to suck up to wealthy and ungodly people in order to gain… what? Heaven? This is the exact opposite of what Jesus says elsewhere, and of what he says in the following verses for that matter. Other translations, I think, are a little more clear:
“I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” (Luke 16:9 NIV)
This makes it a little more clear that the “mammon of unrighteousness” referred to in King Jim is simply our own secular, material wealth. As a matter of simple Enlightened Self-Interest, we ought to use our wealth in such a way to “make friends”. Another commentator goes back to the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25 in which the Son of Man judges the people gathered before him based on how well they treated their neighbors, because “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)
Jesus concludes this discourse on money with a more famous remark: “No servant can serve two masters … Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Luke 16:13 KJV) Mammon is a Semitic word for money or riches, and Jesus uses it as a personification of materialism. In the Middle Ages the word was used as a name for a demon of greed.
And if this sounds like a bunch of anti-capitalist hippie crap, the Pharisees thought so too:
The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight. (Luke 16:14-15)
I guess even a sleazy embezzler can be smart enough to keep an eye on the changing exchange rates.