So here we have two guys, one a rich landowner with a productive estate, and the other his manager who runs the estate on his behalf. Charges are brought to this landowner informing him that his manager is wasting his possessions. The word for ‘wasting’ here is the same one used a few verses earlier of the prodigal son, who “squandered his wealth in wild living.” (Luke 15:13) It speaks of the manager’s selfish, careless use of these possessions, which did not even belong to him. Clearly he is guilty since when his master accuses him, he offers no defence, and the upshot is that he is fired.
However, he is not immediately dismissed from his position and kicked out into the gutter, but the master gives him time to put together the account of his management. And in doing so he leaves a brief window of opportunity for this manager.
It is important to consider the predicament this manager is in at this point. There was no state welfare in first century Judea. He could not claim job-seekers’ allowance or go on the housing register. Once he left his master’s employ, he would be on the streets with no hope of getting another job since no one would employ him as a manager again, and he accepts he can neither do manual labour, having led such a soft life, nor beg, since the shame would be too much for him. His future is filled with misery, poverty, hunger, cold and ultimately death.
Yet he has this small window of opportunity – for a short time he is still the manager in charge of the estate. And so he comes up with a plan: “I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.” (Luke 16:4)
Springing into action, he calls in the people who were in debt to his master’s estate. The phrase, in verse 5, “each one” suggests there are quite a large number of debtors – this is obviously a very productive estate. Jesus only tells us about two of the many debtors, and both owe large sums. The first owes eight hundred gallons of oil, and the second owes a thousand bushels of wheat. Actually the Greek word here is ‘cor’, and since one ‘cor’ was as much as the average donkey could carry, this places the debt at around sixteen tonnes of wheat!
The manager works swiftly, cutting these two debts by fifty and twenty percent respectively. When you think about how much these customers owe, the cuts are enormous: four-hundred and fifty gallons of oil and three tonnes of wheat written off just like that – a total of roughly two years’ salary.
Now, thanks to the way the world worked back then, these beneficiaries of the manager’s cunning plan are now indebted to him, obligated to take care of him, to welcome him as one of their own, providing for him and offering him hospitality with everything that entailed. And this is only two of the debtors. Who knows how many others became indebted to this manager as he seized the opportunity to provide for his future? He would certainly never have had to work again or want for anything. Where before his future was short and bleak, now he is guaranteed a long and luxurious life.
Jesus rounds off the parable by bringing the master and manager back together, saying, “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” (Luke 16:8) It is important to note that the master does not commend the manager for ripping him off. Jesus calls him ‘the dishonest manager’, ensuring we do not forget that what he has done is underhand and wicked. Rather the master commends him for his shrewdness.
This term ‘shrewdness’ means ‘wise’ or ‘sensible’, even ‘clever’. It is the word Jesus uses when talking about the ‘wise’ man who built his house upon the rock, contrasted with the foolish man who did not – with disastrous consequences. The master appreciates the fact that the manager has been clever in providing for his future.
I remember an occasion back at boarding school when I and the three other boys in my class decided to steal some chocolate fingers from the school larder – a daring manoeuvre which involved one of us prizing the door ajar, it being chained shut, while another boy sat on the shoulders of a third trying to reach in to the top shelf and grab the item in question. My role was to stand at the food hatch and keep the cook distracted so she would stay in the kitchen instead of venturing out and to see what was we were up to.
Unfortunately my distraction technique consisted of looking decidedly shifty while saying ‘um’ a lot and constantly glancing over at the other boys. While this did distract the cook, it was only from her cooking, which she stopped to come and see what was going on. Needless to say, we were caught immediately.
When our class master was summoned, however, he told us he was impressed with our ingenuity and teamwork and actually gave us the chocolate fingers. He then also gave us two weeks in detention, but that’s not the point.
The point is that it is possible to appreciate the cleverness behind a crime, without actually condoning it, and that is what we see the master doing in this parable. He still hoofed the manager out onto the street and left him to the mercy of his new, ill-gotten friends!