A Parable of.
A sainted seminary professor of mine in his 1981 Exegetical Notes for this text says it is all law (Buls, 57). Such heavy hitters as Irenaeus, Augustine, Athanasius, and Luther say the text is an exhortation to liberal giving to the poor (Trench, Parables, 441, fn.1). What do you think? I say it's a parable of
Strength and shame. That's where the manager starts out. It's remarkable that the soon to be unemployed manager considers the occupation of ditch digger or begging at all. The former was an occupation for the uneducated, and it's even more remarkable that the only reason he rejected it was that he didn't have the strength to do it (Bailey, Poet and Peasant, 98). You'd expect that he'd reject ditch digging for shame, but he was willing to do that if he had the strength. No, it was begging that he was too ashamed to do.
This is a parable of shame and strength in that it shames our strength. We are shamed by this parable. The 11th century Bernard spoke of the Devil's martyrs who put to shame the saints of God by running towards death with more zeal than the saints of God do towards life (Trench, 438). The unjust manager quickly sees to the things of this life. He wastes no time in using what earthly goods he has control over to secure for himself a place on earth while we do no such thing with an eye on heaven. No we work, we spend, we plan, we save and for what? A few more miserable years as a dying man on a planet that is dying in a universe that is dead.
We don't even exhibit the strength of a dancing girl. This too is a tale Bernard told, and his "dancing girl" is what we politely call an exotic dancer. He tells of an Egyptian monk happening to see a dancing girl and was moved to tears because she used such strength to please men in her sinful vocation "'and we in our holy calling use so little'" to please God (Ibid. fn.1).
I'm reminded of the streetwalker outside the parsonage in Detroit. She was tireless, zealous to ply her trade while I grumbled and complained in mine. She exhibited far more strength in leading men to hell than I did to heaven, and what about you? Where are the eager Isaiah-like hands shooting up to say "Here I am send me!"? To our shame, there are dancers at the Yellow Rose eager to take on extra shifts to please men, when we do as little as possible to please God.
Yes, this is a parable of shame and strength and I am ashamed that I evidence so little strength in serving the God who saved me from an end worse than death, from hell itself. Thankfully this is also a parable of owls and eagles and about sons. It's not people' as the insert interprets. This is a parable about sons of this age and sons of light. Translating correctly sons' you understand that this is a parable about what people are born to. Those born to this age not world are shrewder than the sons of light in this present evil generation.
This is all they know, and they know it very well. They do all things as native born sons. You hunt or fish with someone native to an area, even if you have hunted and fished there for years, and you'll be amazed what he knows that you don't. Read biographies of virtually anyone who has made it big on the world's stage. Only 2 out of the dozens I have read in recent years confessed Christ. The rest did not and were narrowly focused on the things of this age. They worked, they planned, they suffered, they sacrificed in order to succeed in this present darkness, and they did. Big time.
That's because they were owls. They were born to darkness. Flush any daytime bird at night and you'll hear the equivalent of stumbling in the air as the bird tries to find its way through a darkness it's not born to fly in. Not so the owl. It is graceful, gliding, and natural in the darkest of nights. Sons of this age are stronger, shrewder in this present darkness even as owls see better than eagles in the dark because that is their native element (Ibid. 439).
Sons of light are eagles not owls. We were born for soaring during the day not gliding through the night. Our Lord bore us on eagles wings out of the captivity of Sin, Death, and the Devil we were born to. He bore us on eagle's wings to the mount of His Salvation (Exodus 19:4). What are the Old Testament's outstretched wings of the eagle, if not the New Testament outstretched arms of Christ crucified? What is the mountain those arms carried us to if not Calvary where we see all our sins on Jesus laid, all our guilt by Jesus paid, and where our youth is renewed by the forgiveness of our sins so that we rise up with eagle's wings and run through this darkness and not faint?
Yes, this is a parable of shame and strength, of owls and eagles, and of mercy not money laundering. If this parable is really about money as some of the greats in theology thought - then a whole host of Christian money raisers and financial planners are right. Jesus really is the one who talks the most about money. But it's worse than that. If this parable is about money ultimately, then it's about money-laundering.
Money laundering is concealing where illegal money came from so that it appears clean, legal money. The mobster takes his money from drugs, prostitution, illegal gambling, and puts it in a restaurant, so that the dirty money appears to be coming from a clean restaurant. So if you do with money as the unjust manager did, you're using money correctly and will be blessed by God with everlasting life. As the unjust manager used a portion of the money he gained unjustly to secure him a place in this life, so you are to use a portion of the money you gain justly for doing God's work and so secure a place in the next life. You clean up worldly wealth by spending some of it on God's things. And unlike Luther and the fathers, those preaching that today end up with some off your money in their programs, their projects, their ministry.
But this is not a parable of money laundering. This is a parable of mercy. The unjust manager didn't serve mammon, but his master's mercy. He banked on his master wanting to be known as merciful more than he wanted to be known as just. That's in the very beginning of the parable. Notice the master without trial, on accusation alone, says, "You cannot be manager any longer." We never know if the accusations were true or not. What we do know is the master doesn't humiliate the manager. In our day if you're fired for any reason from a big company, immediately you're escorted to your desk by security; they stand by while you clean out your desk, and you do the equivalent of a perp walk out the door.
I can't tell you that first century Palestine did the same, but I can tell you this is the over the topness of this parable. No master fired a manager and left the books in his care. This master did, and the manager takes advantage of it. He summons all his master's debtors. By the way, this proves too that the master didn't want to humiliate the manager. The debtors wouldn't have come if they knew he was no longer the steward, but come they did.
Notice the speed, the directness with which the manager operates. See how he shrewdly pretends he hasn't been fired by asking them how much they owe "my master." Why does he ask each how much they owe when he knows because he holds the paper? He is getting them to reaffirm the debt as legitimate. Then he says, "Take your bill, sit down quickly, and write." What he does in the 2 examples is lower each of their debts by about 500 days' wages (Bailey, 101). A reduction of this size in the case of the wheat would be enough to feed one man for a dozen years.
This wasn't unprecedented in debtor relationships. If the rains weren't timely, if the bugs were bad, or any number of detrimental things happened, a master could reduce the debt. He would still make money, and he wouldn't have to be the hated bill collector. But these are reductions of considerable size. And remember the debtors assumes the manager is acting on behalf of the master.
Once the master's generosity is known in the community, the master has two choices. He can declare all those reductions null because the manager was not in the position to make them. That would be true and just, but that would make the master seem like Scrooge. Or the master could go ahead and let them stand which would make the master appear generous and gracious. The master in turn could not fire his manager as unjust, and so he would be able to find another position in someone else's house.
This is a parable of mercy not of money laundering. The manager so shrewd in the darkness of this present evil age relied on his master wishing to be known as merciful and not just. How much more we who serve a Master who for Jesus' sake cannot forget to be merciful (Ps. 77:9)? How much more are we to bank on, to count on, to rely on the mercy of a heavenly Master who for the sake of Jesus' holy life and guilty death, in wrath remembers mercy (Hab. 3:2)? In Christ, God is not like us who can see red in wrath and forget mercy in a blind rage. No, when God's wrath is about to breakout against our sins, the Son is there with those nail pierced hands saying, "Remember mercy."
If a son of this fallen age of darkness could count on a fellow dweller in the darkness to want to be known as merciful rather than just, how much more can we sons of Light rely on the Father of Lights with whom James says in no fickleness neither shadow nor turning? If there is no turning, shadow, or fickleness with the Father than the One who declares to us for Jesus' sake that His mercy endures forever is to be relied on to be merciful always.
Since 4th century Roman emperor Julian the Apostate, this parable has been used to compare the inferiority of Christianity to pagan religions (Bailey, 86). If it's a parable of how to use money, I can see that, but as a parable of relying on God's mercy in Christ it is incomparable with anything outside of Christ. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20160918); Luke 16:1-13