Then Jesus said to the disciples, "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, 'What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.'It is quite difficult to teach the Parable of the Shrewd Servant in bible school class. The tag ending, or moral to the story, advises us to use worldly wealth to gain friends in this world. ("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." Lk 16:9.) This instruction contains echoes of Luke 12:33 ("Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys"); however, the context of the Shrewd Manager's story has him selling his master's possessions, not his own, to give alms not really for the benefit of the poor but for his own benefit. This is a clear breach of his fiduciary duty, and it presents an implausible scenario whereby a kind of Robin Hood is finally commended by the Sheriff of Nottingham for all his thefts.
Then the manager said to himself, 'What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as their manager, people may welcome me into their homes.' So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?' He answered, 'A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.' Then he asked another, 'And how much do you owe?' He replied, 'A hundred containers of wheat.' He said to him, 'Take your bill and make it eighty.'
And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly . . .." [Luke 16:1-8a. NRSV]
The debtors are people who owe; although we are not told whether the debtors could or could not pay their debts, we are told that the manager had been "squandering" the rich man's property, which might imply that the loans arranged by the manager were uncollectible. Who "owes" in the Realm of God? We all do. Humankind. We all owe in the sense that we all sin, so we owe on account of our sin. We pray: "Forgive us our debts . . .," which I take to mean forgive us our sins. These sins are a debt we repay by our death, "For the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). Therefore, in our allegorical reading of the parable, the debtors may represent humankind generally, and sinners in particular.
The central character of the story is the manager. The manager is an intermediary between the Rich Man/Master and the debtors. He has the power to deal with the Rich Man/Master's property. He cancels the debt that the debtor owes to the Rich Man/Master, which benefits the debtors and, by building goodwill, also benefits the manager. Who has the power to forgive our sins? Jesus (see, e.g., Luke 5:17-26), who cancels the debt we owe to God. The people were bound by the law as an obligation to God, yet could not follow the law so completely as to be entitled to enter the Realm of Heaven (see Romans 3:9-20). Jesus said that not one letter of the law would pass (Luke 16:16-17), but Paul observed that we can enter the Realm of Heaven anyway by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 5:12-21). The debt to God is real, but it is canceled through Jesus' intercession. Therefore, the character of the manager may represent Jesus himself.
The character of the Rich Man, later referred to as the Master, is somewhat contradictory. At the beginning of the story, the Rich Man is the source of the funds and the ultimate creditor for the debt which cannot be repaid. Yet, by the end of the story, the Master is the one approving the cancellation of the debt. In the same way, God gave the Law to the people, and by the law sins were multiplied (Romans 5:20); this same God sent his son, Jesus, into the world to forgive and atone for the sins of the world. Note that it is the "Rich Man" who threatens to dismiss the manager; it is the "Master" who commends the manager. This dichotomy need be no more troublesome than the common understanding of God as both righteous judge and loving father. (See Romans 3:21-26 for a good reconciliation of this paradox.) Therefore, the character of the Rich Man/Master may represent God.
So, God sends Jesus to earth with the power to forgive sins; and Jesus in fact exercises this authority to forgive the debtors' sins. Now God the Rich Man cannot collect, but God the Master is content. "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." By this analysis, God the Lawgiver (i.e., God the Rich Man) created debts through the Law, which is how sins (i.e., debts) were multiplied in the world. The impossible demands of the Law, represented by the uncollectible debts, ensured that no one would enter the Realm of Heaven, which would amount to a squandering of the Rich Man's property. Jesus the Manager entered the world with the power to forgive sins and grant entrance to the Realm of Heaven despite the debt imposed by the Law. The people (i.e.,the Debtors), through no deserving actions of their own, are given the opportunity to have their debts canceled and their sins forgiven by the grace of Jesus the Manager.
The manager is taking these actions to win friends for his future need. Why? Well, a similar question might be asked why Jesus performed a series of individual healings that benefited a few lepers and paralytics without measurably improving the human condition (e.g., Jn 12:1-8); yet by these demonstrations he laid the foundations of the Church. In a sense, the Church comprises a cadre of "people [who] will welcome [Jesus] into their homes." Is there a future event, a future time, when Jesus will need friends on earth? Perhaps when he returns. (If we view the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as the event for which Jesus was preparing, then plainly the "friends" that Jesus has won by his actions on earth are the apostles and disciples gathered on that day, who would go forth to continue Jesus' work, inspired by the Holy Spirit.)
Viewed in this light, the Parable of the Shrewd Manager is not an instruction on stewardship, but an allegory of the Realm of God. Christ came with the power to deal with God's property, which is humanity and its transgressions against the law; Christ fulfilled the law and forgave sins, and he thereby established the Church to prepare for his return by seeding a community of friends who would welcome him upon his return (or upon the advent of the Holy Spirit); and for these actions, God commended Jesus. In this light, the commendation makes perfect sense to me.
Of course, the gospel's epilogue to the parable (Lk 16:8b-9) does not seem the least bit allegorical; rather, it seems to state that the parable is, indeed, a straightforward instruction on how to deal with worldly wealth, and it comes amid other instructional passages. Consequently, this allegorical interpretation only fits the text if one is willing to stop at verse 8a and ignore the subsequent textual explanation.
Great Neck, New York
April 19, 1997