Commentary on Luke 16:1-13
It is far easier to comment on this text than to preach on it. A commentary can wrestle with tension and the confusion it produces, without the resolution or clarity commonly associated with a sermon. Still, focusing on the moments of friction in the text can hopefully create new openings for understanding and engagement.
One possible entry point into this complex text is the question, “To whom is the manager responsible?” The shock value of the text rests on the assumption that the manager has responsibilities to his boss. His dishonesty means the loss of income for the master. This can rightly be seen as dishonesty and betrayal in a just and fair system.
However, many interpreters have questioned whether the system described here is either just or fair. (For a helpful discussion on economics, debt, and lending in the ancient world, see Barbara Rossing’s 2016 commentary on this site for this same text.) If, in fact, the manager is participating in an exploitative system that benefits only the wealthy at the expense of the rest, perhaps ancient hearers of this story would not have viewed the manager’s choice and master’s loss with pity or solidarity. Where ought contemporary hearers place our focus and sympathy? What kind of system do we know? To whom are we responsible?
In addition, the manager knows that his job has ended. He recognizes that he needs to do something drastic to secure his future. In a world where there is no financial security except “social” security, it is his relationships that will matter and that drive his next choice. Interpreters differ in whether the manager should be understood to be an enslaved person or a free person. Both interpretations are possible, and have implications the preacher should consider. (For an essential perspective on the implications of understanding the manager as an enslaved person, see Mitzi J. Smith’s 2019 commentary on this site for this same text.)
In either case, when the manager assesses his options, he knows they are limited. Deciding that he is in no shape for manual labor and has too much pride to beg, he moves ahead quickly with a plan to ingratiate himself. He might have used his position to gain more wealth for his boss in an attempt to reclaim his position or mitigate the damage to his reputation or employment status. But instead, he changes his orientation to his boss’s clients as avenues for his future. His self-preservatory choice to be dishonest benefited not the master but his neighbors.
One of the problematic but interesting moments in the text comes after the master discovers this action and compliments the manager for it. He calls the manager “shrewd” (other options are wise or prudent). This word is picked up by Jesus, who, contrary to expectation, compliments the children of this age, rather than those who strive to follow him, as having more capacity for shrewdness.
This surprising perspective has implications for people of faith living in complex times. At times, people of faith are encouraged to disengage from the messiness of this world, staying above the fray to maintain righteousness or purity. And yet, if people of faith withdraw from the public sphere, then important voices for justice, equity, and peace are often missing. Clergy are often criticized for not understanding “how the real world works” because they are insulated in the Church. And yet, even the healthiest local worshiping community is not immune to divisiveness, insecurity, power plays, and tough decisions. It is tempting to think that our only options for living within complex and troubling systems are accommodation or resistance. But the reality for most people, whether in the Roman Empire or the United States in the twenty-first century, is more akin to negotiation, weighing options and choosing who or what to prioritize in the next decision with less-than-ideal options. Perhaps Jesus’ admiration for the shrewdness of this generation has this kind of orientation in view.
The final verses of this text give a series of admonitions from Jesus. A thread that ties them together is faithfulness or devotion. Questions remain about what it means to be faithful with dishonest wealth (verse 11), or how being faithful with what belongs to another relates to the manager in this story (verse 12). But the final verse is clear, even if the intricacies of life’s choices are not. Devotion to God, faithfulness in stewarding God’s gifts, is the priority for a follower of Jesus. But it is never easy in a world full of negotiation where wealth demands our loyalty. Recognition of this challenge drives us again to our need for Christ to reconcile us to God and to one another, and the response of mercy and forgiveness at the heart of the Gospel.
So many biblical texts have been tamed by time and repetition. Perhaps this one is still an exception. A sermon on this text may not have the resolution or clarity common to others. Instead, however, it may capture the attention of otherwise disengaged hearers and prompt new energy of discernment.
September 18, 2022