Which way off the bridge?

Gospel: Luke 16:1-13

Luke 15:13, the younger son: 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property [διεσκόρπισεν τὴν οὐσίαν αὐτοῦ] in dissolute living...

16:1 Then he said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man [Ἄνθρωπός τις ἦν πλούσιος] who had a manager, and charges [διεβλήθη1] were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. [διασκορπίζων τὰ ὑπάρχοντα αὐτοῦ] 2So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” 3Then 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. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” 6He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” 7Then 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.” 8And his master commended the dishonest [unjust] manager [τὸν οἰκονόμον τῆς ἀδικίας] because he had acted shrewdly [φρονίμως]; for the children of this age [οἱ υἱοὶ τοῦ αἰῶνος] are more shrewd [φρονιμώτεροι] in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light [οὺς υἱοὺς τοῦ φωτὸς.  John 1:5 is φως]. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest [ἀδικίας ] wealth [mammon] so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. [σκηνάς; tents]

10 ‘Whoever is faithful [πιστὸς] in a very little [ἐλαχίστῳ] is faithful [πιστός]  also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little [ἐλαχίστῳ (perhaps least thing) ἄδικος] is dishonest [ἄδικός] also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful [πιστοὶ] with the dishonest [ἀδίκῳ] wealth, [mammon] who will entrust [πιστεύσει] to you the true riches? [riches is understood, but see Davis: the context says the translation should be mammon. He is right.] 12And if you have not been faithful [πιστοὶ] with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’ [μαμωνᾷ  mammon]

14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. 15So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.

16 ‘The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force. 17But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.

18 ‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.

19 ‘There was a rich man [Ἄνθρωπος δέ τις ἦν πλούσιος] who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man...


Footnote: In referring to the charges, Davis says

My online resources are in disagreement over the stem of διεβλήθη. Greekbible.org says it is διαβλέπω, the root of which is βλέπω, “to see.” Thebible.org says it is διαβάλλω, the root of which is βάλλω, “to throw.” The first has the sense of making something clear for someone to see. The second has the sense of slandering someone, even by a false charge, by throwing them overboard.


Which way off the bridge?

This story of the manager begins with the words "There was a rich man..." The next parable (Luke 16:19ff) also begins with: "There was a rich man..." Back in Chapter 15, the Parable of the Loving and Faithful Father ends very well for the younger son, but the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, ends very badly for the rich man.  In that parable, a "poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham," but the rich man ends up in Hades.  

Lois Malcom suggests that the middle parable of the manager

serves as a bridge between the stories of the [Loving and Faithful Father] (15:11-32) and the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31).

What happens in the middle? What is the bridge doing?

This is where things become difficult. We are dealing with a story set in a complex social and economic system which we barely understand.  It's like those tribal meetings where I would sit with a rudimentary knowledge of what was going on, but blind to subtleties which were blatantly obvious to local folk and which, I later realised, were 'the main game.' In other words, despite having some idea of the social realities, I was often misconstruing, and quite badly, what was going on! Since the commentators are "all over the map in their opinions" of what is going on, despite the machinations of the rich man and his manager almost certainly being quite clear to people of Jesus' time, we could waste an enormous amount of time guessing at what they are. 

Nonetheless, the point of the story and the sayings that go with it are made clear; Jesus leaves nothing to chance! In the middle of the bridge we are being told:  Be shrewd (while you can.) "You cannot serve God and mammon." Ask yourself whose side are you on: kingdom or empire? There is no middle ground here. In Luke's thinking, we go off the bridge either as 'a younger son' or as 'a rich man.'

Some background:

Were the charges true or false?
This is a socio-economic situation where the rich man operates with a light touch on the business; he is not a micromanager. But some things have been brought to his attention.

Rich landowners frequently employed estate managers (though often a slave born in the household), who had the authority to rent property, to make loans, and to liquidate debts in the name of the master. Such agents were usually paid in the form of a commission or fee on each transaction they arranged." (Malina Textual Notes: Luke 16:1-15)

The translation of Greek word διεβλήθη (dieblēthē ) is ambiguous. Mark D Davis sums this up well. Depending on which authority one follows it can be translated as "and it was shown clearly" or "falsely charged". But whatever the truth of the charges, the manager has enemies. He needs to act for his survival. Hint from Jesus: so, too, do the children of light.

When does the manager become dishonest?
It is not clear at the beginning that the manager is dishonest. He is simply "a manager" in verse 1 and in verse 3. He is not called dishonest until verse 8. Is he dishonest because the manager thinks the charges are true, or is he dishonest because of what he does in marking down the invoices? Who is applying the label to him: Jesus, or the rich man?

What's this about dishonest?
The Greek word is ἀδικίας which, according to Strongs (adikia) is injustice, or unrighteousness. NRSV has made a difficult translation call here. True, to be dishonest is to be unjust, but is one word more fundamental than the other?

To be labeled "rich" was therefore a social and moral statement as much as an economic one. It meant having the power or capacity to take from someone weaker what was rightfully his. Being rich was synonymous with being greedy.  (Malina and Rohrbaugh, Reading Scenarios: Matt. 5:1-12) The ancient Mediterranean attitude was that every rich person is either unjust or the heir of an unjust person. (Rich, Poor, and Limited Good, 5:3)

This quotation from Malina and Rohrbaugh will also appear below, but the point I take from it here, is this.  The dishonesty we are talking about here is not the nicking of a supermarket trolley by the young woman sleeping rough, and used to carry her few possessions, and as a drying rack for her quilt these winter mornings; yes, taking the trolley is dishonest, but it is a tiny desperate attempt to survive in a fundamentally unjust social system. The manager of the rich man is the go between, the grease in the machine, in a fundamentally unjust social system. Both he and the owner are among the rich. He is unjust, rather than merely dishonest. There is certainly nothing 'Robin Hood' about him.

"The size of the debts involved is extraordinary."

Though such measures are difficult to pin down, they are probably equivalent to 900 gallons of oil and 150 bushels of wheat. Storytelling hyperbole may be involved, or, as recent investigations have suggested, the debts are large enough that they may be the tax debts of an entire village. (Malina: Textual Notes: Luke 16:1-15)

This also pints to a systemic level of injustice rather than petty dishonesty.

What is the manager actually doing in altering the invoices?
Malina says that managers

had the authority to rent property, to make loans, and to liquidate debts in the name of the master. Such agents were usually paid in the form of a commission or fee on each transaction they arranged. While token under-the-table additions to loan contracts were common, all principal and interest had to be in a publicly written contract approved by both parties (m. Baba Batra 10:4). There is no warrant for the frequent assumption here that an agent could exact as much as 50 percent above a contract as his fee. If that had been done, the rage of the peasants would have immediately been made known to the landowner who would have been implicated in the extortion if he acquiesced. [And it] would have prevented any subsequent relationship between agent and debtors such as the agent [the manager] tries to construct. (Malina: Textual Notes: Luke 16:1-15. I have shifted a phrase for clarity of reading.)

Alyce McKenzie says

In such a complex system of profit and self-preservation, the line between honest and dishonest was blurred, as it often is today. Parable scholar William Herzog points out that the motivation for the charges, probably from a group of tenants and merchants, may have been a desire to undermine the steward. It may be that he had contributed to their ill feeling toward him by flaunting his higher standard of living.

Joseph Fitzmeyer says the invoices are "without interest." As with so-called interest free loans today, the interest is built into the bottom line (to pay lip service to the law against charging interest; cf Exodus 22:25-27, Leviticus 25:36-38) and he suggests that what is being written off is not half the debt of oil, for example, but the inbuilt interest. He notes that in the case of the oil this is 100% interest; I note that this can be well less than the cost of a payday loan. It is a matter of argument whether this is 'parabolic hyperbole' or reflects the reality. Fitzmeyer notes that Duncan Derrett claimed that in India 100% loans were not unknown. (Luke X-XX1V,  pp1101)

Whatever the details here, there are some likely results in our story.  If the manager is simply repaying his own cut of the deals, (unlikely given Malina's comment above) he cannot be charged with stealing from the owner, and he will ingratiate himself with the debtors.  More likely is that he is exposing the built-in interest. The owner can say and do little about this without shaming himself as one who charges interest. He may make the best of things by adding the good will of his clients onto his own account for future dealings, and this might in fact mean he would keep the steward on; to sack him would be to expose everything!

In this, the rich man's praise of the manager is of the "he's a sharp operator and knows how to make money, but I wouldn't trust the b...... as far as I could kick him," variety. And the labelling of the manager as unjust is of the "we've been caught out, so we'll blame middle management" kind.  The situation is rather like the banking shareholders and senior management who were quite happy to ignore blatant dishonesty and injustice until they were caught, and then started using such words somewhat selectively in order to rescue the situation as much as possible. Malina and Rohrbaugh expose the scheming nature of business 'honesty' by pointing up the kind of thing which goes on when business does its own policing under the table for the sake of PR.

Having discovered the mercy of the landowner in not putting him in prison or demanding repayment the manager depends on a similar reaction in the scheme he cooks up. It is a scheme that places the landowner in a peculiar bind. If he retracts the actions of the manager, he risks serious alienation in the village, where they would have already been celebrating his astonishing generosity. If he allows the reductions to stand, he will be praised far and wide (as will the manager for having "arranged" them) as a noble and generous man. It is the latter reaction on which the manager counts.  (Malina, Textual Notes: Luke 16:1-15)

The Rich Owner is not God
To be clear here: In Jesus' thinking, the owner in no way represents God. The owner and his manager represent shrewd attitudes in life which the "children of light" often seem to lack in their own living. Indeed, for Jesus' audience of the poor and disenfranchised,

To be labeled "rich" was ... a social and moral statement as much as an economic one. It meant having the power or capacity to take from someone weaker what was rightfully his. Being rich was synonymous with being greedy.    (Malina and Rohrbaugh, Reading Scenarios: Matt. 5:1-12) The ancient Mediterranean attitude was that every rich person is either unjust or the heir of an unjust person. (Rich, Poor, and Limited Good, 5:3)

There is no way Luke's audience would have thought Jesus was teaching us something about God. He was making a point about his readers, the children of light, learning something from the machinations of the rich and the powerful. To make things clear, Jesus includes the manager, who may have been seen as a Robin Hood figure, among the dishonest. And Luke highlights that the Pharisees are very clearly on the side of money: "The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him."

In some translations φρονίμως is "shrewd." In others it is "prudent." In my part of the world, prudent has overtones of caution and an element of conservatism. Shrewd is much more decisive and strategic.

So what is Jesus seeking to teach people? Alyce McKenzie says "I'm not convinced the parable is only or specifically about the use of wealth. I think it is more broadly about the need to take shrewd, decisive action to prepare for the coming judgment." I agree with this assessment. However, it is mammon which Jesus uses to make the point. The reading is difficult because we have a lot of difficulty with money; we are rich. If we were not so bound up with money, I suspect the reading would be much more obvious to us. Mammon is our key problem.

We base ourselves in wealth, or we base ourselves in trusting God for our future. I noticed Malina and Rohrbaugh saying in their "Reading Scenarios" for Luke 6:20-49 that

In a society in which power brought wealth (in our society it is the opposite: wealth brings power), being powerless meant being vulnerable to the greedy who preyed on the weak.

I am not as confident in the difference between the two societies with respect to wealth and power,  but the link between wealth and power is fundamental. To restate my comment above, we base ourselves in, that is, we establish our being and our survival in, our own power and its alliances, or we establish our being and survival in the trust of God's power.  There is no middle ground. "You cannot serve God and mammon."

Jesus says the reality is:
"You cannot serve God and mammon."

Jesus' wise wise word is:
"make friends for yourselves by means of unjust wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes." (Repeating the point above: "Dishonest" wealth is τοῦ μαμωνᾶ τῆς ἀδικίας; literally, of the mammon unjust... (Strongs: adikia: injustice, unrighteousness) )

I like the use of mammon. It highlights for me that we are talking about something basic about our being; an archon (a power) which is not incidental. Mammon is a way of being; it is the power of the self which, finally, is an idolatry. Wealth, technically, could be an accident such as an inheritance from a distant, unknown uncle. What we do with it determines if it becomes mammon. Wealth should be labelled "Poison S10," for its tendency to spontaneously mutate into mammon.

To make friends would be to do as the manager did: use the mammon we have to establish new relationships. But not by buying into the good offices of the rich. Give it to the poor, for the poor inherit the kingdom. (Luke 6:20) Begin living in the kingdom already rather than with the rich. This is the spiritual sense of being shrewd. It begins to change everything about us; the way we see and feel the world.

Jesus' warning:
Our behaviour is symptomatic and formative. That is, dishonesty grows dishonesty; injustice grows injustice.  These are not much minor character traits; they are the way of our being. Jesus and Luke link them to mammon. They signify an attachment to, and a worship of, wealth. Wealth is rarely 'just money.' Wealth is mammon, a way of being, an underpinning of the sort of person we are. Mammon will make us unjust; the two cannot be separated. They are an addiction to power. And like any addiction, they begin to blind us.

He is clear on this: "it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped." There is no middle ground.

And the reverse is true. Being faith-full— trusting God, is symptomatic and formative and formative of who we are. That is, trustworthy grows and forms trustworthy. It is a way of being and an attachment to God. If we are not faithful, if we do not trust God in our use of unjust wealth— which is most of the wealth we have— how can we be trusted with real wealth? Does serving mammon mean we will not even see how to be faithful, let alone be trustful?

The Shrewd Manager
The minister was in a sharp argument with one of the men from Parish Council. The man looked at her with sudden horror, "Is that how people see me!?" She nodded sadly. He paled, gaped, and then, "It was as though the shutters came down," she said, "and he willed himself not to see what he had seen."

She went home shocked, wondering how often she did the same. Wondering how often she had walked past poor people in the street and not even realised she had willed herself not to see them. In the days that followed, she signed off almost half her stipend to a group of charities, and when her time in that parish was over, she took up a fractional placement. She made herself poor so that she could see, and be free. Everything about her living and buying and making friends had to change.

On a visit down from the farm, her father looked up from his five day old bread and said, "Girl, you'll end up living in the wilderness in a tent."  Perhaps that was her idea; the eternal tents of Luke 16:9 are the same σκηνάς or tent that Peter wanted to build when he realised he was in the presence of God upon the mountain top. (Luke 9:33) And when we are in a wilderness, God is all we have to follow and trust. How shrewd can we bear to be?

Andrew Prior (2019)

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Also on One Man's Web
Luke 16 (esp 1-13) - Stop digging yourself a hole (2013)
Luke 16:1-26 Cold Hard Cash (2013)
Luke 16:1-13 - The Money Manager (2010)

Worth Reading Online this week
 Commentary Prof Lois Malcolm
The Dishonest Steward: Reflections on Luke 16:2-8a Prof Alyce McKenzie




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