As for us in a modern Western consumerist society, two thousand years later, can we identify with the system of injustice described in the story of the unjust owner of assets and his unjust investment manager? I think we can. The transactions today may well be more complicated, and global in scope, but the essential aspects of a system in which money begets money, the middle men take their cut and the global poor remain on the hook of insupportable debt remain present. The shrewd manager’s reactions of first fear then cunning when he finds his position within the system of injustice in jeopardy are completely understandable. Can we understand Jesus’ challenge to divest ourselves of any of the proceeds of crucifixion economics, and to do so in a way which restores us to the hospitality of the poor? I think we can understand the words in red in our Bibles, but we find it a hard command to obey. I know I certainly do.
This is just one teaching, on one parable. It is not a whole theology of business or of investment or of money, although some of the directions in which that should be mapped out are clear from the exegesis of this puzzling little story. Nor is this a fully scoped out critique of the modern heresy of “prosperity theology”, although again the clues are there. Finally this is not saying that Christians should not be shrewd or sensible in their use of money, within an overall kingdom mind-set, far from it. They should be far more canny about where their money comes from, not just what they do with it.
Some readers might, inspired by the critique of the way debt functions in a society read in the parable a call to political moves to end usury, such as a prohibition on the predatory practice of pay-day loans. Others, seeing that this might drive the poor into the hands of even less regulated lenders might call for a quite different stance of setting up microfinance initiatives. Some readers might in the passage see a prophetic critique of vulture funds and international development loans and in response act in a campaign to bring an end to such instruments. Still others may read the passage as a call to Christian disengagement in finance. It is important not to build a whole theological or political position on one tricky passage, but similarly we should be careful not to run from any difficult interpretations on the basis that they are going to be personally uncomfortable.
Do we worry that we, like the rich young man of Luke 18:18, will “become very sad, because he was a man of great wealth”? (Luke 18:23) Certainly those present thought it was a tough challenge, saying “who then can be saved?” (Luke 18:26). Jesus’ answer gives hope to us; “what is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:27). As we reflect on this passage, we, as much as any generation before us, desperately need the transforming power of God’s Spirit, we need to die to this world’s system of injustice, and we need to be born again to God’s Kingdom of Heaven which is characterised by justice and peace for all. And that is good news. Good news for us, good news for the world and a gospel worth sharing with the people of this beautiful world.