This is a tough passage. Read it. Read it again. Then read it one more time slowly and wonder what you think it might be about. What is it saying to you? Considering the Gospel of Luke up until now, what might Jesus be getting at? I will be honest: I struggle with this one. Here’s what I’m thinking…
First of all, I think Jesus is intentionally being weird. I think he’s trying to confuse his listeners a bit, in particular the Pharisees. 16:14 says, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this…”. Not only were they lovers of money, they were also people who prided themselves in being right, in being smart, and in debating well. I think Jesus is intentionally throwing them (and us!) a curveball. I thought I was getting a fastball down the middle, so I swung hard, and then this thing suddenly tailed off to the outside. This is a tough parable.
So now that I’ve picked myself up off the dirt from swinging so hard and whiffing, here’s what I think might be going on. Actually, first, what I don’t think is going on: I don’t think Jesus is giving us reason to be dishonest in our business or personal finances. That simply wouldn’t match up with the rest of the Gospel of Luke, with other Gospel accounts, and even with what immediately follows this parable. I think what Jesus is getting at here may be that when it comes to equality (which is a big theme in Luke- remember Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55), sometimes you have to fudge the books. Remember these Pharisees were experts in the law. They new it to the letter, and they used it control and manipulate others in order to raise themselves up to power and wealth. And in their ongoing discourse with Jesus, especially lately, there have been arguments about Jesus healing on the sabbath and breaking other such rules and traditions for the purposes of (among other things) equality.
Here in this parable, knowing the Pharisees are listening, Jesus commends this shrewd manager for fudging the books. Or, perhaps better stated, using his position of authority to amend the books. It seems odd because the manager does it merely to protect himself. But in doing so, he does also lower the debt of those who are likely being exploited by a corrupt economic system. I think Jesus wants the Pharisees to see themselves in the place of the manager. They are the keepers of the books. And they could, if they wanted, reduce the debt or burden. They could do that, but it would also require them lowering themselves to a place of equality with those over whom they had previously held power.
This is not a nice, neat clean parable. It’s messy, just as a parable should be.
To sum up, the Pharisees used the law (or in the context of this parable, the ledger) to squash others down in order to build themselves up with power and wealth. Jesus tells a parable in which the hero (which anyone hearing the parable would want to be) has to lower himself to those over whom he had power. Then he follows it up with words about not being able to “serve two masters… you cannot serve God and wealth” (16:13). The Pharisees, in the context of this parable, are not in as good standing with the boss as they think, and, since they are so consumed with their own well being, they have an out, but that out will force them to make themselves equal to those over whom they currently hold power.
There are other valid and opposing interpretations, but I think an argument can be made that Jesus is saying here that to step into the mission of Jesus of “bringing good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18) that we are going to have to let go of our power and wealth and recognize that we are no different than those over whom we may currently hold power and wealth. In other words, hold your power and wealth loosely, because though it may be here today, it may also be gone tomorrow. Be shrewd, be savvy, and use what you have for equality for one day you may find yourself on the other side.