Jesus is well known, even among people who do not follow him, as a great teacher. Those who know a little more, also know that his principal teaching method was to make up short stories to make a point. “A little story which communicates a big truth” as one writer puts it, or “a story that entertains your mind at the front door while the truth sneaks in through the window” as another said. Unlike dogmatic statements, parables need to be thought about, discussed, questioned and returned to after a time of doing something else. They do not yield up their truth to the brute force of critical analysis, like an equation to be solved, but rather deliver a challenging and charming truth to those who come to savour them. More importantly the stories in Jesus’ parables are usually straightforward stories of the life of the common people. In the parables of Jesus, people plant seeds, tidy their houses, leave home, build a barn – all pretty understandable stuff, even if we are no longer in a primitive peasant society.
In one parable of Jesus there’s a guy who seems to have been pretty rubbish at his job, his role is something like a Trust Company Director. He’s been wasting the firm’s money. It’s easy to imagine what he might have been up to. Some of his colleagues or co-workers rat him out to the owner of the business. This waster finds out that the main shareholder is going to commission a special audit investigation and he knows that he’s in trouble.
He’s going to get fired.
But he comes up with a clever plan. It’s dishonest, but it’s clever. The plan is going to make the business lose even more money, but it might just win him a few friends. Because he figures that when he’s out of work he’ll need a few friends who’ll help him out in return. He certainly isn’t going to get a good reference after the mess he’s made. He works his plan, and by some fluke the boss realises that although this Director is a bit of a waster and loose with the costs of the business, he can be a smart cookie when he needs to. So the boss decides not to fire him after all.
Now the thing that’s got the theologians and the Biblical scholars in a state about this parable, which can be found at Luke 16:1-9, is what Jesus says next about the story. Jesus, who at the very least is regarded as a great moral teacher, even among those who do not know he is God incarnate, would be expected to be pretty clear about who’s right and wrong in this story. But when he tells this story, Jesus seems to look at this waste-of-space who ripped off his boss twice and got away with it twice and says to the audience something like “you know what, I think you should learn from this guy.”
On the face of it Jesus appears to be commending some business practices that would at the very least send us running to our Compliance Officers if we came across a similar incident today. We certainly would want to hesitate before seeking to use this passage as our manual for good employee relations practice for an underperformance dismissal – I know the regulators would call for a more structured response!
The editors of the Bible have similarly struggled with what to call this section, with for example, the NIV going for “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager”, while the NASB, following the KJV, prefers “The Parable of the Unrighteous Steward”. I set out below the NASB version.
The Unrighteous Steward
Luke 16 1 Now He was also saying to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and this manager was reported to him as squandering his possessions. 2 And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an accounting of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ 3 The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg. 4 I know what I shall do, so that when I am removed from the management people will welcome me into their homes.’ 5 And he summoned each one of his master’s debtors, and he began saying to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 And he said, ‘A hundred measures [batous] of oil.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ And he said, ‘A hundredmeasures [korous] of wheat.’ He *said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ 8 And his master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. 9 And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings’.
In the next post I’m going to look at how the parable had been interpreted in the past…