Luke 16 verses 1-13
I remember a few years ago, the furore caused by Social Services when they adopted a scheme of sending persistent young offenders on expensive holidays, often abroad. At least, the public saw these outings as holidays. Social Services described them as ways of helping the young people get to know themselves better, because in unfamiliar surroundings and often under considerable physical, mental and emotional demands (such as trekking through the desert), they were forced back onto their own resources in a new kind of way.
But public indignation was considerable, since the public, represented by the media, could only see the outings in terms of rewards for bad behaviour. The government finally stepped in to stop the practice after a persistent young offender was taken to one of the Center Parcs sites, and proceeded to do what he knew best. He systematically burgled every chalet on the site, coming away with a large hoard of wallets, credit cards, and cash.
Although Jesus told many stories about unsavoury characters, there’s something in the human psyche which revolts at seeing sin or badness rewarded. Which is perhaps why today’s story of the dishonest steward or manager is so difficult to comprehend. It appears at first sight to be about praising someone for cheating, and suggesting that followers of Jesus should likewise cheat.
Let’s look at it more closely:
What happened in Jesus’ time was often this: a manager would often receive a gratuity – a tip – or a gift of some sort, especially at festivals, just as company executives in our time expect to receive some sort of gift or bonus at Christmas. But the actual tenancy contracts were always drawn up with the agreement of both the tenant and the master, and the tenant had to pay the fee.
Of course, the gratuities never appeared on the contract. What was recorded on the bill was public information openly discussed in the community. If the manager tried to doctor the bills, the tenants would appeal to the master. And if the manager had added vast amounts to the costs at any time, the community would hate him, so that nothing would ever induce them to take him into their homes if he was sacked.
The master in this parable was clearly a valued part of the community, for some members of the community cared enough about him and his welfare to report the actions of the incompetent steward. So the master summoned the manager and said, “What’s this I hear about you?” Since the manager had no idea how much his master knew, he wisely kept silent, whereupon the master immediately sacked him, and ordered him to turn in the books.
Now at this point, the manager discovered something unexpected about his master. The manager would normally be expected to pay for any loss of goods for which he was responsible, and he would be tried and jailed. But although he was sacked, he wasn’t even scolded for his mismanagement. So although the master acted in judgement on his manager, he showed unusual mercy and generosity towards him.
Even so, the manager had a big problem, and began to seek for a solution. He considered other forms of work, but for various reasons they were impossible. He knew no-one else would employ him as a manager, for he’d just been sacked for wasting his master’s property. Somehow, he needed to create a much better public image.
At this point, nobody yet knew he’d been fired, so he had to act quickly, before he turned in the account books. And he worked out a plan which would certainly send him to jail if he failed, but which would make him something of a public hero if he succeeded.
Just as though he was still in authority and was acting on his master’s orders, he summoned the tenants. He called them in one by one because he didn’t want them talking to each other and asking too many questions. If the tenants knew he was acting without the master’s permission, they’d certainly refuse to co-operate. They’d lose their farms if they knowingly connived in a plot like this, so it was important that the tenants assumed the entire bill-changing event to be legitimate.
He made sure the tenants altered the bills in their own handwriting, and each one got a 50% reduction in their bill. They must have thought Christmas had come early! And they may well have been led to believe that this extraordinary generosity on behalf of the master was because the manager had talked him into it.
Finally, the steward gathered up the freshly altered accounts, and took them to the master. And the master found himself in a cleft stick. He only had two choices. He would know that the celebrations in the village had already started, and that his great generosity was even now being toasted. So he could approach the village and tell the tenants it was all a mistake, in which case he’d instantly change from being the talk of the town into being the subject of great anger and resentment. Or he could keep silent, and allow the manager to rise high on a wave of local popularity.
He was a generous master, and chose to allow the manager to rise high. He even complimented the manager on his cleverness. And in a way, the manager’s actions complimented the master, for the manager risked everything on his belief that the master was generous and merciful. And he won. Because the master chose to pay the full price for his manager’s salvation.
Jesus praised the manager not for his dishonesty, but because of his skill at self-preservation. The manager may have been an unsavoury character, but he knew where his salvation lay, and he was prepared to risk everything to gain that salvation.
Sometimes, says Jesus, unsavoury characters have much more idea about their self-preservation than those with their heads in the heavenly clouds.