A sermon given during the 10:30am Choral Eucharist, by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO, on the 18th of September 2022.


[Luke 16:1-13]

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Our gospel reading this morning is referred to as the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, a story where it seems Jesus praises dishonest behaviour. These words perplex us:

I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. [v9]

Little wonder then that even theologians over the years have scratched their heads about this parable. Kenneth Bailey has noted that, writing half a millennium apart, leading Catholic theologian of the late Middle Ages, Tomas de Vio Cajetan [1469-1534] and C20 Lutheran theologian, Rudolph Bultman [1884-1976], both declared the parable to be ‘insoluble’. 

Our reading this morning is unyielding. A rich man had a manager who has squandered his property, so he sacked him. The sacked manager then went to clients of the rich man and discounted all their debts they owed to that rich man. The rich man was, very strangely it would seem, delighted and praised the former manager, who had already admitted that he would do anything to avoid a decent day’s work preferring instead to want similar opportunities to do malfeasance in the employ of someone else. Completing the story, Jesus then gave the perplexing verse I read a moment ago; and concluded with an odd homily on faithfulness and service:

If then you have not been faithful with dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? [vv 10-12]

Kenneth Bailey sums it up this way:

The seeming incongruity of the story that praises a scoundrel has been an embarrassment to the Church at least since (the Roman emperor) Julian the Apostate (361-3 CE) used the parable to assert the inferiority of the Christian faith and its founder.[1]

So, in the ten minutes or so remaining, let me deal with that incongruity and try to solve the insoluble. But first, I need to make some comments on how the modern presentation of the Bible may clutter and fog the clarity of our reading of it.

Glenn Paauw of the Biblica Institute for Bible Reading, has noted that chapter divisions in the Bible were introduced by Steven Langdon in the C13, while verse numbers only came in the C16, introduced by Robert Essien, a French printer. Section headings are of much more recent vintage.[2]  So, when we open the Gospel of Luke and see the headline ‘Parable of the Dishonest Manager’ we are reading the work of sub-editors, done centuries after Jesus had told the story. There is absolutely no evidence that Jesus himself had introduced the parable with such a prejudicing title – ‘Parable of the dishonest manager’. Translation too has played its part in setting us up to a certain mindset. In the text, words such as ‘shrewd’ and ‘dishonest’ [v8] decidedly nudge us into a predetermined mindset, unless we go back to the original Greek text. First let me deal with the word ‘shrewd’, if we encounter someone who deals with us shrewdly, we may feel we should count our fingers after shaking their hands. Yet the Greek word in the original was φρονίμος [phronimos] which translates as ‘prudently’ or ‘wisely’; meanings with decidedly less baggage than ‘shrewd’. As to the original Greek word for which we read ‘dishonest’ this morning, it was ἀδικίας [adikias] which literally translates as ‘unrighteous’ – a negative word, I grant you, but I want to suggest later that its import can take us in a different direction than that to where ‘dishonest’ might have led us.

In summary so far, I am suggesting that, nearly two millenia later, we are reading a parable which has been editorialised with bias both through presentation and translation, inclining us to certain reactions. Let me go one step further and look at changes in the socio-economic context between the time of Jesus and today. In his time, the collection of taxes and commissions was done very differently to our systems today. Instead of transparent mechanisms of bureaucracy or commercial agency, in those days, agents were freelance intermediaries who, operating opaquely, were simply charged with delivering revenue by means of collecting monies from clients or taxpayers; how they did that was not prescribed, other than that sufficient revenues must be the result. These agents then earned their money by charging such commissions as the market could bear. The result being that, in Biblical times, such revenue collectors were held in very low regard; recall these words from Luke 18:11:

The Pharisee … prayed: ‘I thank you that I am not like other people … (such as) this tax collector.’

Understanding such different revenue collection processes, we can reread verses 5-7 where the sacked manager told the debtors to write-down the amount owed, as being just as probably that he was asking them to write-off his own commission rather than the substantive debt due to the rich man. An additional possibility is that, by such write-downs, the manager was making the debts more capable of being paid by the debtors – hence the rich man might actually have received more under the new arrangements than he had been likely to have received under what had been happening previously. Verse 1, where we hear the accusation of the manager ‘squandering’ the rich man’s property, can be taken to suggest that revenues had previously been down on expectation.

The net effect then of the manager’s actions might well have seemed to the rich man as ‘prudent’ and ‘wise’ – ‘shrewd’ as our reading would have it; and therefore, the rich man would have every reason to feel happy about the outcome as his income had increased through the manager’s actions.   

All of this is a plausible reinterpretation of the parable. However, it still lacks the easily accessible messaging of all Jesus’ other parables. This brings me to a consideration of when this particular parable had been given. Importantly, though it appears in its own chapter in Luke, it had not been said as a stand-alone story; it had been said in a single session where other parables had also been shared. Luke’s reporting of that session started with the opening verse in the previous chapter, where we read that ‘tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus’; significantly, however, they weren’t the only people listening to Jesus that day, for verse 2 of that chapter also reported that:

The Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘this man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

During this time where he talked first and foremost to tax collectors, sinners and his own disciples, but aware that Pharisees and teachers of the law were also listening in, Jesus related not only the Parable of the Dishonest Manager but also these other parables:

  • The Parable of the Lost Sheep
  • The Parable of the Lost Coin
  • The Parable of the Lost Son (the Prodigal Son)

In other words, those listening to Jesus that day heard a rich and extended ministry which, via four stories, would have left his audience deep in reflection. Obvious themes of any one of the four parables would have been woven in their mind with those of the other three. The first three of the parables indeed had a shared key theme. From the Parable of the Lost Sheep we have this:

… in the same way, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents that over ninety-nine who do not need to repent. [15:7]

From the Parable of the Lost Coin:

In the same way … there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. [15:10]

While from the Parable of the Lost Son, the final words of the father to his ‘upright’ son echo the developing message:

We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was lost and is alive again; he was lost and is found. [15:32]

Then, and only then, came the Parable of the Dishonest Manager. The sinners, tax collectors and disciples would then listen to this parable through the powerful recurring thought of the first three parables – the lost being found and the rejoicing that resulted. They, unrighteous sinners and tax collectors, would have felt comfort in now hearing that one like them had been able to find favour; indeed, had done so through the only way he had known how – by using his dubious skills in order to seek favour; in other words, to repent as best he could.

But those sinners and tax collectors had not been alone in listening through all this; verse 14, which was not part of our reading today, tells us how the Pharisees, who had also been listening, reacted to these parables of Jesus:

The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all of this and were sneering at Jesus. [v14]

We today may feel troubled by words where Jesus might have seemed to have extolled the making of wealth by such words as these:

Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. [v9]

The Pharisees, however, by their sneering, understood the profound irony of these words by which Jesus had been ‘dog whistling’ to them; saying something which they would hear differently to that which was heard by the sinners and taxpayers sitting in the front rows that day. Jesus, while reassuring those who felt lost in life, had been attacking those who felt so sure of themselves, challenging them to be honest as to where the faith lay – money or God. They must have particularly rankled at Jesus’ closing words that day:

You cannot serve God and wealth. [v13]

Luke’s gospel is unclear whether the very next parable of Jesus – the Rich Man and Lazarus – had been said at the same time as these other four. Whether or not it had been, its proximity in Luke’s account is telling. In today’s parable, Jesus had said:

Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. [v9]

In the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, we find that the Rich Man did indeed find an eternal home, an eternal home where he would remain eternally lost.

Let me now return to the use of the word ‘dishonest’ in translation of the Greek original descriptor of the manager – ἀδικίας [adikias] which literally translated as ‘unrighteous’. Jesus had called the manager ‘unrighteous’ not ‘dishonest’. And the point, you might ask?

The self-proclaimed ‘righteous’ had been listening and sneering as Jesus spoke about the lost being found. In Peter’s first epistle we hear just what Jesus offered to the unrighteous:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God. [1 Peter 3:18]

Or to return to the way Luke reported Jesus’ mission in a later chapter:

The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. [Luke 19:10]

That day, through the power of four parables taken together, not singly, Jesus had reassured the lost – reassured them that they may be found. The Parable of the Unrighteous Manager had given complex depth to that message – but it did not contradict it for his audience that day; it gave them more to reflect upon in relation to their own lives.

So might it be for us.

[1] Bailey, Kenneth E, Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: a literary-cultural approach to the parables in Luke, Wm Eerdmans, Mich, 1997, p 86.

[2] www.desiringgod.org/interviews/a-short-history-of-bible-clutter