Commentators routinely remark that the parable of the Dishonest (Corrupt) Manager stands among the most challenging texts in the New Testament, often regarding it as the most perplexing of Jesus' parables.
C. H. Dodd observed that even Luke seems clueless as to what to do with the parable, providing at least three interpretations at the parable's conclusion: (1) that the children of light should learn from the prudence of their corrupt neighbors; (2) to make friends by means of dishonest wealth; and (3) that if one wishes to be entrusted with true riches, one must demonstrate honesty with ordinary wealth. Dodd famously concludes: "We can almost see here notes for three separate sermons on the parable as text."1
The heart of the problem lies in verse 8: "And the lord [kyrios] commended the dishonest steward for his sagacity." This verse pulls together several aspects of the story, but it creates more confusion than it provides answers.
*Readers have heard of the charges against the manager in 16:1-2; however, this is the first time when those charges are confirmed. The manager is indeed corrupt. Does it affect our interpretation to imagine a reader who has not yet passed judgment upon the manager until he is both simultaneously convicted and commended?
*The verse would seem to pronounce a verdict on the manager's actions, but who pronounces the verdict? It is possible that the parable proper concludes with verse 7, in which case the "Lord" speaking in verse 8 represents Jesus' assessment of the parable. However, verse 3 identifies the "rich man" in the story as "my lord" (or master), suggesting that verse 8 concludes the parable with the rich man's pronouncement. Most interpreters, myself included, regard verse 8 in that way.
*Finally, and most importantly, what are we to do with a parable that praises a scoundrel like this manager? Not only has the guy "wasted" property that was not his, he comes across even worse in his own speech: "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. . ." (16:3). The vast diversity among interpretations testifies to our frustrated attempts to justify how this character might be praiseworthy. Preachers should consider taking the time to help their congregations experience this dilemma.
Several socio-cultural factors complicate the parable, and some preachers will choose to avoid them. Particularly difficult questions involve the status of the manager and the debtors. Some have regarded the manager as a slave, but his plight rather suggests that he is a free person. When he loses his position, he is both free and compelled to find a new situation. The debtors' obligations are quite significant, suggesting a manager of relatively high status and debtors who are not indigent. (Thus the manager can hope to be included in their households.)2
The parable contributes to several Lukan literary patterns. First, only Luke's parables feature dynamic characters like the manager. Characters in the parables of Matthew and Mark are rather one-dimensional, but Luke provides characters who have mixed motives. Moreover, only Luke provides inside views of characters' thoughts through interior monologue. The effect of the manager's speech to himself demonstrates both the severity of his plight and the brilliance of his resolution.
Second, the parable of the Manager follows Luke's series of parables devoted to Jesus' companionship with sinners (all of chapter 15) and inaugurates a series of passages concerned with money (chapter 16). Immediately following the parable stands Jesus' response to Pharisees "who were lovers of money" (16:14) and the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The parable of the Manager effectively bridges the two sections, as the manager is a sinner ("corrupt") whose affairs involve money. That this sinful manager embodies the parable's teaching edge is highly suggestive.
Finally, this parable stands among several Lukan parables of crisis. To be more specific, Luke features several parables in which characters of relatively high status encounter a crisis. In every instance their help lies below them on the social ladder. The anonymous Jew on the road to Jericho would seem to be superior to a Samaritan, but lying half-dead in the ditch he will accept any neighbor who passes by (10:25-37). The prodigal finds himself desperate enough to join the hired hands; his superior older brother cannot join the party until he reconciles himself to his scoundrel sibling (15:11-32). In this age the rich man ignores lowly Lazarus, but in the next world he would beg for Lazarus' help (16:19-31). These parables suggest a world in which status is fleeting, even dangerous. The manager, who once controlled the accounts of his master's debtors, must now hope for their hospitality.
Perhaps this is why the lord praises the corrupt manager. The manager's sagacity lies in his ability to discern his own situation. He may be "ashamed to beg" (16:3), but he is prudent enough to recognize when his status has evaporated and to reach down the social ladder for help. We inhabit a cultural moment at which some people, Christians just as much as anyone else, regard themselves as more deserving of society's benefits than some of their less worthy neighbors. How does the gospel speak to such superiority and status? Moreover, we inhabit a church that desperately clings to a status long gone, but cannot acknowledge the crisis that will require us to change. What would the "children of this age" do, were they in our place?
1Parables of the Kingdom (rev. ed.; London: Nisbet & Co., 1936), 29-30.
2For a thoughtful assessment of these matters, see Klyne R. Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 406.