Jesus and the Trickster Parable
Luke 16: 1-13
I have so many questions about this parable. Don’t you?
Maybe you’ve heard this one too many times or you’re tired today, so your brain went onto autopilot while it was being read. Or maybe, like me, you like to focus on that end part – “You cannot serve God and wealth” (v. 13) – and so you sort of breeze past the other parts.
Listen again to verse 8. After the manager reduces everyone’s debts, the rich man commends him and remarks that “the dishonest manager had acted shrewdly.” The dishonest manager is being praised for his “shrewd” behavior? If, like me, you haven’t really paused there before, skimming on autopilot or waiting to hear the verse you like better, then hear it tonight.
This verse is like that little scratchy something sticking out of your sweater. Every time you move there it is, presenting itself again, making you deal with it. Go ahead, try to smooth this one over into some “nice,” manageable, easy to deal with saying. Trust me, I tried to find a way this week and that darn sweater just kept scratching me.
Let’s think through this story again. There’s a rich man who hears tell that one of his managers has been “squandering his property” (v.1). So the rich man calls him in, demands “an accounting,” and fires him (v.2). Immediately the manager sizes up his situation, self-aware enough to know that he can’t do physical labor for a living and that he won’t beg. He mulls it over and comes to the conclusion that he’s going to need friends who will welcome him into their homes when needed (vv. 3-4).
So he makes the rounds to everyone who owes money to his former boss. Only they don’t know yet that he’s been fired. The manager – they still think he’s the manager – asks each one how much they owe the rich man. We’re told about two people he deals with. The first one owes the rich man 100 jugs of olive oil. On the spot, the manager reduces his debt by half. The next one owes 100 containers of wheat and the manager adjusts his bill to 80 containers (vv. 5-7).
Then, Jesus says, “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 the light.” And Jesus keeps going. He says, “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” (vv. 8-9).
The parable is over but there are a few more verses from Jesus. “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” (v. 10). Jesus asks how we expect to be entrusted with “true riches” if we aren’t “faithful with dishonest wealth” (v. 11). He asks how we expect to be given anything of our own if we don’t know how to manage someone else’s belongings (v. 12). And he ends with “No slave can serve two masters….You cannot serve God and wealth” (v. 13).
It doesn’t get much better on the second go round, does it?
When I first read this parable I wondered why the manager thought this would endear him to the debtors. I figured that as soon as they found out he was fired everyone would be annoyed with him and that the rich man eventually collects everything owed him. But this isn’t the way Biblical scholars see this. Apparently, there would be no way for the rich man to save face in the community if he tried to reinstate the missing amounts later; the debtors had participated in their deals in good faith that they were dealing with the rich man’s employee so he would have to live with the deals made in his name (The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. IX, p. 308).
So what’s going on here? Some people have suggested that the manager is simply cheating his former boss by telling the unsuspecting debtors that they don’t have to pay the full amount. The debtors will be happy and welcome him to their homes and he’s already fired with nothing to lose, while the rich man can’t renege on the deals. Some have suggested that maybe the manager is simply omitting the interest on the debt and reducing what’s owed by that amount. Some have even suggested that the manager reduces the debt by the amount of his own commission. (The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. IX, p. 308).
We’ve been told from the beginning that the manager is accused of squandering his boss’s property. He doesn’t dispute this and, when called to account for himself, simply hatches his plan. There is no information in the parable to indicate that the manager is selflessly leaving out his commission or righteously lopping off the interest on the debt. The interest rates between the oil debt and the wheat debt aren’t uniform and if he were forgoing his commission that would be completely legal and unobjectionable. The only reading that makes sense is the most straightforward and simplest: he cheated the rich man out of a portion of what he was owed (The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. IX, p. 308).
Jesus is praising the man and telling a parable about him – for cheating his boss out of money. Seriously, what are we supposed to do with that?
Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much, whoever is dishonest in the little things is dishonest in the big things. I get that. You can’t serve two masters because at some point you will have to choose and then it will be revealed who your true master was all along – so don’t kid yourself that you can serve both God and wealth (or God and anything or anyone else). I get that, too. These things, though sometimes hard to live out in all the big and small details of life, make sense. But how do they relate to the parable and the manager’s actions?
One commentary I read this week claimed that the point of the parable is in verse 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 eternal homes” (www.gbod/worship.org). The point, they say, is that if business people can use money to make friends and influence people, then surely Christians can use money even more so to serve God. There is truth in this but does it sound like the point of this parable?
In our New Testament study this week we talked about how our biblical interpretations can “tame the challenge [of scripture] and render it comfortably irrelevant” (Invitation to the New Testament, A Short-Term Disciple Bible Study, p. 27).
This parable is a real challenge to our tendency towards comfortable irrelevance.
I usually love parables and, even when Jesus asks something nearly impossible of us, I appreciate the hard and unexpected edge in many parables and the surprising way he gets to his point. But from my point of view this parable is imperfect. If we try not to tame it, try to read it as written, and try to listen to what it’s saying, how do we get from a dishonest manager to a shrewd and praiseworthy manager to the “moral of the story” verses at the end?
As I worked with this text this week, I started to wonder if its imperfection might be part of the point. The manager’s circumstances are not ideal, not perfect. We don’t know if he’s dishonest but we know he’s been accused and he’s worried about his future and how he’ll take care of himself. So he comes up with a plan that makes the best of the situation he’s in – maybe not the best situation to find oneself in but that’s where he is and where our parable starts.
Several commentaries mentioned the role of “trickster tales” and pointed out biblical examples like Jacob tricking his father out of Esau’s birthright (Genesis 27), along with cultural examples like Brer Rabbit and the figure of the Coyote for Native Americans. Now this started to sound like the parable I was reading. I found a good description of the trickster on Wikipedia: “[T]he trickster is a multi-dimensional character. While he can be a hero, his amoral nature and lack of any positive restraint can make him a villain as well…the animal trickster represents an extreme form of behavior which people may be forced to emulate in extreme circumstances in order to survive. The trickster is not to be admired in every situation; he is an example of what to do, but also an example of what not to do” (www.wikipedia.org, “Br’er Rabbit” entry, cited on 9/16/10).
A hero that is also an antihero, who is at the same time a role model and the opposite of a role model. That sounds a lot like our ancestor Jacob – and quite a few others in our religious family tree. Maybe this dishonest and shrewd manager is not so foreign to us after all.
I was also reminded of Dietrich Bonheoffer as I struggled with this text. Bonheoffer was the German pastor and theologian-writer who was one of a scarce few Christians who spoke out against the Nazis at that time. He formed and met with the Confessing Church and ran an underground seminary during World War II. He’s a huge figure in 20th century Christianity and one who deserves to be read and remembered.
But he also did something he was not proud of and did not write about. Seeing no other way to stop Hitler, he eventually began organizing a plot to kill him. This was not a daydream to ease the pressure while he waited out the war. This was a specific, detailed plot that he intended to carry out. But he very purposefully never wrote about this plot because, while he was certain that this was what had to happen in the circumstances of the time, he did not want to be an example or an excuse for others to attempt similar things in the future. He knew he absolutely had to try this and he also knew it was wrong. He was arrested and eventually killed in a concentration camp just three days before the Nazis surrendered the war.
A role model who is at the same time the opposite of a role model.
That itchy sweater feeling evoked by this parable sticks with me. And I think it’s meant to. This isn’t an excuse for moral relativism or for acting in whatever way we feel like acting and then saying Oh well, it’s an imperfect world. Look at the Bible!
Maybe it’s a sign of hope. That when we find ourselves in the most trying or despicable or imperfect of places in life, God is there too and understands what it’s like. Maybe God blesses the trying, despicable, imperfect ways we extract ourselves from those situations, maybe not. One thing is certain: even then, even there, even after we’ve done the worst thing imaginable – even then God does bless us.
Thanks be to God!
© 2010 Deborah E. Lewis