Today’s gospel includes an odd parable that had me confused for years. Why does Jesus seem to praise a scoundrel whose biggest concern is saving his own skin? Perhaps a bit of background about the culture of Jesus’ time may help to explain this parable.
It was common in Jesus’ day for landowners to lease out smaller plots of land to tenant farmers who were often too poor to own the land themselves. If the landowner owned several tracts of land, he might hire a manager (or steward) to negotiate and collect the rent payments from these tenants. He was to ensure that the land was used properly while making as much profit for the owner as possible. The owed rent could be paid in money or the produce of the land. The manager often kept a percentage of these payments for his own income.
In today’s parable, the landowner discovers that his manager has been mishandling his profits and informs the manager that he is to be fired. Before the landowner actually fires him, however, the manager quickly calls in the tenants and much to their delight, greatly reduces the amount they owe. In doing so, the manager hopes to earn the tenant’s good graces which he will then use when he becomes unemployed.
The manager’s quick maneuvering creates an unusual dilemma for the landowner. Thinking that their massive debt reduction is the idea of the owner, the tenants are now more loyal to the owner than ever and grateful for his “benevolent generosity.” If the owner tries to recoup his profits by trying to reclaim the original debt, the tenants will vilify him and think that he is untrustworthy in his business dealings. In a culture where honour and prestige are valued above material wealth, the owner can only shrug his shoulders and cut his losses. He accepts defeat and praises the manager’s wily maneuver and quick thinking.
So, where do we fit into this strange little parable? It is interesting to note that the manager is not fired for his dishonesty. (From the many stories in scripture, it seems to be an accepted way to do business back then.) Instead, he’s fired for “squandering the owner’s property;” wasting what he’d been entrusted with on his own frivolous desires. Jesus seems to acknowledge that business practices of the world are not always honest or honourable – but that doesn’t mean that the profits of such practices should not at least be used for the common good.
God had given each of us talents and resources that may not always seem to be fairly distributed. They gifts aren’t to be hoarded for one’s own use but to be shared and used wisely for the welfare of all. Building up relationships will always carry more credit in the eyes of God, than accumulating wealth or physical comforts for oneself. We need to use the “smarts” God gave us to best deal with the opportunities and problems life delivers, so that no one is left wanting.
Perhaps like the manager philosophy, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade…for everyone who is thirsty!”