This parable of the dishonest manager has been vexing Biblical commentators and preachers for years. If you did not pick up on it in the reading, let me summarize. A business man finds out that his accountant has been loose with the books, “squandering” his boss’ resources. The boss calls this accountant in to explain himself. Knowing he is about to get fired, the dishonest accountant goes out and reduces some of the debts that are owed to his boss. In doing so, he hopes to ingratiate himself to the debtors who will then look out for him after he gets fired.
That part is not the vexing part. That part should come as no big surprised based on how we know the world works, based on all the scandals we have witnessed in the news. The surprise comes when the business man finally meets with his accountant and instead of giving him an earful, he leans back in his chair, nods his head, and commends his accountant. “I have to give it to you, that was clever.” Just to be clear, he does not praise the accountant for his dishonesty. But he does praise him for being shrewd. Even more surprising is when Jesus seems to jump right on that train. “I tell you,” Jesus says to his disciples, “use dishonest wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”
Are you confused yet? Because I am. And it gets even more confusing the more Jesus talks. In the very next verse Jesus says that whoever is faithful in the little things will be faithful in the big things, but whoever is dishonest in the small things will also be dishonest in the big things. That sure seems to go against the other advice about making friends through dishonest wealth!
Commentators have made many and varied attempts at making sense of this parable. For me, there are three keys to understanding what a story like this means for readers today. First, I want to clarify the meaning of “dishonest wealth.” It would be natural to assume that dishonest wealth is money that has been gained by lying, cheating, stealing, or taking unfair advantage of someone. But the Greek word adikos does not exactly mean dishonest. A more exact translation is “unrighteous.” While the idea of dishonesty by lying, cheating, or stealing is certainly included in unrighteousness, we must also entertain the possibility that Jesus has something more in mind. Perhaps Jesus is suggesting that all money is “unrighteous,” regardless of whether it is obtained honestly or dishonestly because all money belongs to the kingdom of this world, not to the kingdom of heaven.
We get a little uncomfortable here because we like to think that the wealth, or money, that we earn and save is “righteous.” It certainly seems necessary. I do not think Jesus is saying here that all money is evil, but simply that money is something that belongs to this world, not to the kingdom of God. So to the extent that we need money in this world, fine. But let us not assume that it has any eternal value in and of itself. Unrighteous money is not dishonest money; it is the money of this world.
On one level, that helps clarify things, but it does not really do much to help us make sense of Jesus’ instruction to “use ‘worldly’ wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into the eternal dwellings.” To bring some clarity here, I would like to suggest that maybe Jesus is being a little bit tongue-in-cheek, a little bit sarcastic. Some of you probably love the idea of a sarcastic Jesus. Others find it distasteful. There are a few other examples in the gospels (Matthew 17:24-26) of Jesus using sarcasm or irony to get his point across. He does not do it in the way that we often use sarcasm to jab others, like saying “Nice catch” when someone fumbles the ball. Jesus does not use sarcasm in this way. He uses it to reveal hidden agendas and deeper truths.
I have two reasons to think Jesus might be using a little sarcasm here. The first is simply that the saying in and of itself is not congruent with the rest of Jesus’ message. The second reason is found in the saying itself. In the parable, the manager hopes that his new “friends” will welcome him into their houses (the Greek word is oikous) after he is fired. When Jesus interprets the parable, telling his disciples to make friends by worldly wealth, he suggests that when the wealth runs out, those friends will welcome them into the eternal . . . houses? homes? No, the Greek word is skynas – tent. “Use ‘worldly’ wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into the eternal tent.”
Eternal tent? Have you ever seen an eternal tent? I know that in the Ancient Near East, there were plenty of people who lived in tents much more elaborate and enduring than the two-person backpacking tent that I own. The Ark of the Covenant even lived in a tent before the Temple was constructed by Solomon. But a tent is not made to be eternal. It is an oxymoron. I believe Jesus was being just a little sarcastic here. Sure, use worldly wealth to make friends. It may work well for you, you may find a way out of your current crisis like the dishonest manager did, you may make a few worldly friends. But in the end, what you will be left with are worldly things, which are fleeting and temporary, just like a tent is temporary.
The third tool that further reinforces my interpretation is something that is overlooked by many preachers because it falls outside the assigned lectionary reading which ends at verse 13. At the beginning of the lesson, we are told that Jesus is telling this story to his disciples. But in verse 14, we learn that the Pharisees overheard this strange conversation. Given that Jesus can often discern what the Pharisees are thinking (Lk 7:39-40, Mt 12:25), I assume he also knows that they are listening as he talks to his disciples.
Luke comes right out and tells us that the Pharisees are “lovers of money,” which is immediate cause for suspicion in this context. It makes sense, then, that when they heard Jesus’ sarcastic praise of the dishonest manager that they would start to ridicule Jesus for his teachings. Maybe they even used a bit of that negative, hurtful sarcasm that we are all too familiar with. (Come on Jesus, who made you the Son of God?) And when they ridicule him, Jesus says, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the sight of others.” Is this not exactly what the dishonest manager did, justify himself in the sight of others whom he thought could help and protect him? What Jesus was saying with subtlety and sarcasm before, he is saying plainly now: Jesus is calling the Pharisees dishonest, unrighteous managers of the treasures – both material and human – that God, the Master, has entrusted to their care. The Pharisees have used money and relationships to benefit themselves instead of caring for the Master’s property and people. What’s more, Jesus goes on to call their actions an “abomination.” Jesus is not pulling any punches: to followers of the Torah, “abomination” means “idolatry.” Those who mismanage the gifts of God may get ahead in the world, but in the end, they have worshipped worldly, temporary wealth.
So what is the point for Jesus followers today? I think it is clear by now that Jesus is not teaching us that we can use our worldly wealth to build our eternal homes. Worldly wealth is just that – worldly. It may be relevant while we live on earth, but it has no lasting value. Holding on to that truth, we can be set free from the bondage to money that we so often experience. We can save appropriately for the things we need, but we can also trust that God will provide for us in ways that material possessions never can. We can be generous in ways that do not benefit us at all because we know that our wealth does not go with us to eternity. We can fellowship with people who are of lower economic status because we know that all people are equal in the kingdom of God, and that is the only kingdom that matters. We can stop trying to compete and catch up with people of higher economic status because we know that all people are equal in the kingdom of God. When we have a right relationship with our money and material possessions, we can also have a right relationship with God and right relationships with our neighbors.
The other thing that this parable might speak to the church as whole is a word of caution against focusing too much on protecting our institutions and not enough on sharing the good news. We see this when church leaders enrich themselves on the gifts of members. We see this when we become overprotective of church property, shooing away homeless guests who might leave behind a foul smell. We see it when a congregation is unwelcoming to outsiders or non-believers because they do not know how to fit in to predefined ideas about what a righteous person should look like. Jesus’ indictment to the Pharisees should give pause to religious folk everywhere as we ask ourselves whether we have been unrighteous managers of the Master’s property and people.
There might be a little bit of sarcasm in this story, but it is a serious parable, cause for deep reflection of our stewardship of the resources God has entrusted to our care, both as individuals and as a community of faith.
As confusing and convicting as this parable might be, we also do well to remember that it is situated right after the parable of the prodigal son, which is a reminder to us that when we have squandered the Master’s gifts and have dwelt long enough in the far country our temporary tents, our heavenly Father waits with open arms and eager feet to run and embrace us once again and welcome us into our eternal home. May we endeavor to live there even now. Amen.