The Gospel lesson for Sunday is a challenging one. It is one where there has been significant interpretive disagreement. (There, I said it. Most preaching helps say that we have to acknowledge the disagreement in interpretation.)
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. 10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
The most common interpretive pieces have focused around the way the “dishonest manager” had debtors change the “bill” and why. Three common interpretations include:
- The manager was cheating the master by changing the size of the debts. (Most don’t like this possibility because later Jesus commends the dishonest manager’s actions … thereby making Jesus praise dishonesty.)
- The manager was writing off the interest that was being charged against Jewish law. (I think this is really stretching the point, to make the manager look as religiously favorable as possible. I don’t think it fits the context well at all.)
- The manager reduced the debt by the amount of his commission that had already been figured into the debt. (Some very well-known and respected Biblical scholars suggest this … and my response is, “You gotta be kidding!”)
There really are more, but these are the most common. I subscribe to the first one, although many will claim that the action of the master toward the manager precludes this possibility. I might add a 4th here. 4. The manager reduced the debt to the amount that he thought the debtor could pay immediately, thereby bringing immediate income to the master, and settling all outstanding accounts. A “bird in the hand” as it were. There is no evidence in the text about this, but likewise, there is no evidence of commission or interest in the text either!
I think that the focus on the manager and the why of the debt reduction can be interesting, but it is not central to this part of the Gospel. The most helpful clues to interpretation come in the part of Luke’s Gospel that come between this week and next week’s lessons.
14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. 15 So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God. 16 “The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force. 17 But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped. 18 “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery. (Then, the story that follows is Lazarus and Abraham.)
Why are not verses 14-15 part of the selected scripture for this Sunday? I find them to be very interpretive of what has just been said!Imagine Jesus in this controversy. He is in conflict with the religious leaders. He is has just talked about the lost sheep, coin, and son/father. He continues the challenge with a typical Jewish folklore type tale where a scoundrel is vindicated because of his shrewdness and single-minded focus. I find verse 9 above to be a rhetorical device to accentuate the dishonesty of the religious leaders, and verse 10 to be the key teaching of the whole passage … and beyond. I think it is key to why verse 18 is included in this part of Luke.
How to teach about faithfulness by using a story about dishonesty.