The Gambler

Luke 16:1-8

A story out of its context, especially a story that includes morally questionable or outright immoral behaviors, leads the most reverent amongst us to make up all kinds of excuses for the seemingly out-of-line notions conveyed. After all, only good people and good behaviors lead to truth. So we are prone to believe.

Yet, there are stories of Jesus doing morally and culturally questionable things, and telling stories where our sense of politeness and decency becomes unsettled. And that is the point! Jesus is unsettling us so that we might see differently, believe differently, live differently! After all, are we not ‘new creations’ who are being ‘transformed’ rather than ‘conformed’ patterns of life we often fall into?

We looked at one unsettling story last Gathering, the story of the Canaanite women and Jesus’ apparent apathetic, condescending, and prejudicial interaction with her. A story, when we sat down in it and understood a little more of what was going on around it, discerned that Jesus was doing something to disturb the bias (even bigotry) of his disciples—exposing their hearts in order to heal them. At the same time, in his brilliance and aligned with how his Father has worked throughout history, Jesus raises the woman to a place of honor by testing her faith through difficulty. Thus a story that is often avoided because it is uncomfortable proved to be a most transformative story for Matthew, the gospel’s author, for the early church family, and even you and I still today.

Our story this afternoon is similarly unsettling, in part because it has been taken out of context—both within the narrative that we find it and also through our reasonable lack of familiarity with the people and place in which the story was told. My prayer this afternoon, is that as we set the story in its natural context, the story through the Spirit might transform us, having our minds (the way we  see the world, God and our place in it) renewed, able to see in a new light. So, let us get to it then!

Read Luke 16:1-8.

At first reading, doesn’t it sound like Jesus is condoning unethical if not illegal behavior—defrauding or stealing from the Master by the manger when he says in verse 8, “The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light”?

Surely that is not what is happening, right? If your moral compass is spinning a bit, you are not alone. Many pastors, scholars, theologians, and the like have been just as confused. Maybe you, like me, have heard some their explanations of this passage. I am curious, what have you been taught or understood the story to be focused on? How have you or those whom you know, tried to explain the apparent compliment of immoral behavior in verse 8?

For many, the modern and common understanding is either that the manager is correcting an unjust price set by the Master—that is to say, the master was unjust and taking advantage of his position of wealth by charging and exorbitant amount to use his land—or that the manager is simply removing his own commission from the payment—removing the portion of the rental price that he would receive for his work. In other words, what the manger is actually doing is not immoral at all, but actually just. He acts with righteousness to save himself—either by correcting a wrong of another (even if he were complicit in the wrong having established the details of rent) or through sacrifice of his short-term future. In either case, the manager is assuring his own long term salvation, and thus he did the wise, shrewd, thing in correcting an injustice of overcharging.

Sounds good, right? We are thus encouraged in this story to act justly be generous with our money…right? Such explanations make sense to our non-ancient near eastern, non-agricultural, modern moral sensibilities; especially if were are looking at the scripture for direct behavioral application, some sort of exhortation towards moral actions.

But, what would a Middle Eastern Jew, in a primarily agricultural setting discern from the story? And, does acting righteous to save oneself sound like something aligned with Jesus’ proclamation of a kingdom in which God does all the saving and that righteousness is a gift bestowed because of generous mercy, not earned through even good behaviors?

Okay, so what might we be misunderstanding? To begin with, we often read this story out of its natural context in Luke’s gospel. And we do so by missing this story’s connection with the parables that precede it—the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost (or prodigal) son (15:1-32).

Luke 16:1-8 is a parable told to the tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, scribes and disciples (see 15:1) who had been listing to Jesus tell the previous parables. Jesus is continuing the conversation, parables told to show both sinners and saints the nature and character of God and his Kingdom.

The point of the previous parables were to demonstrate the genuineness, resolve (think of searching for and celebrating the finding of the lost sheep and lost coin in 15:1-10) and delight (think of the Father’s response to the lost and found son in 15:11-32) of God’s saving pursuit and secure a relationship with his created image bearers.  

In these parables we learn of God’s tenacity for salvation and we also find ourselves as sinners—prodigals like the tax collectors who have squandered or wasted our inheritance as image bears on pursuing every desire of our stomachs—or saints—older brothers who too have squandered or wasted our inheritance through stingy belief that we are earning something rather than realizing we are always with the Father, and all that is his is already ours (15:31).    

The chapter break after the prodigal son parable is unfortunate for it causes our minds to disassociate the story of the dishonest manager from the other parables. Yet, and not to get too technical, the real break from one set of ideas on kingdom to another actually occurs at 16:9[1], where Luke uses the term “And I tell you”. The same phrase used to differentiate topics in chapters 6, 11 and 12 respectively.

We see this clearly when we compare the characters and themes of the prodigal and the dishonest manger side-by-side[2].

  • Both the son and the manager betray the trust of those who had provided for them. The father’s trust and relationship in the first parable and the Master’s in the second.
  • In the prodigal, the son recognizes his offense and offers no excuse. The silence of the manager conveys that he too recognizes his offense and he too offers no excuse. Which means it is probably an important detail to consider, the no excuse in the face of squandered trust/relationship.
  • The son throws himself on the mercy of the Father, the manager does the same with the master (more on that in a moment).
  • Both the son and the manager experience extraordinary mercy and generosity. A party in one and a compliment and implied allowance to remain on the land in the second.
  • Most importantly, both the son and the manager “squander” or “waste” that which they had been given to steward. The same words are used in 15:13 and 16:1 to describe what the lost son and dishonest manager do with what they have been given. And that is the key!

One commentator notes that the story of the dishonest manger, “may be regarded as an appendix to the parable of the Prodigal Son.”[3] I would suggest, that it is more than an appendix it is actually the same story told for the benefit of the older brother. In other words, having invited the tax collectors and sinners to consider the lavish grace of the Father’s invitation back home, Jesus now extends the invitation to the older brother who has squandered his place of honor in the expansive kingdom of God.

If this is true, that the story of the dishonest manager is a continuation of the parables before it, then we know it has little to do with moral behavior and more to do with recognizing the nature and character of God’s Kingdom. And, if that is the purpose, then the story is not—as we will see momentarily—exhorting us to immoral behavior, nor self-salvation; but rather, encouraging us to see the world, God’s world, differently—and thus an invitation to live differently.

Which leads us to the second reason we might misunderstand this parable, that we do not appreciate the cultural nuances of the story—which should be expected! After all we do not live in an agricultural context and the roles of master and manger are different than what we experience as employers and employees today. So, let’s see what insights can be gained from some of the cultural hints that the first listeners would have picked up on without need of explanation.

  1. First, the rich man or master is not cheating anyone, but rather is respected by the community. He is not a distant land owner, but one whose livelihood and friendships are tied to the community. We know this because someone comes to him to let him know that his wealth (money, property, and reputation) are being abused, misused, wasted by the one he has given responsibility to steward such things. If he was a foreign owner or a greedy owner, no one would report that a local was taking advantage of him. In fact that person would be celebrated. So, we know right away that the master is a respected man and considered a good man—a man who does good for the community.  

    Perhaps here are minds would drift back to creation. Where God creates all things good and gives charge to women and men to steward, cultivate that good. Or perhaps, God’s giving Israel the promise land to bless them and so that they might be a blessing to the surrounding nations. In turn, our memories of the stories of Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden, as well as, the stories of the people of Israel before the exile are awakened at the squandering of those opportunities. Stewards, given charge in the kingdom but reckless in their responsibilities to cultivate and make good the world in which they were meant to flourish.
  2. Second, there is an expectation that the manger would fight back against such accusation of poor stewardship. No one would relinquish such responsibility without pleading the longevity of the relationship—“My family has served your family for generations…”, or to the falsity of the accusations—“I would never…”, or to call the accusers liars and demand to confront them, or even to have his influential friends come plead his case. As one long-time resident and Middle East expert has noted, “I have both observed and questioned [people] in positions of authority and have never seen or heard of a case of an underling, when dismissed, walking out of the room without pleading to be reinstated. Such behavior is unimaginable.”[4] So, what the listeners would hear in the silence of the manger is a confession of guilt. Like the prodigal, the manger recognizes that he has indeed squandered, wasted what he has been given. And, “To offer an excuse is to destroy all hope”[5] for mercy.

    Again, our minds might be drawn back to the story of Moses and the golden calf in Exodus. As Moses pleads with God he does so without excuse for the actions of Israel. Not seeking mercy because of mitigating circumstances, but mercy solely on the character and promises of God himself.
  3. Third, the law of the day, even the expectation of the day, was for the master to not merely dismiss the manager but to press charges. The manager’s position was lofty and carried weight in both privilege and consequences. The mangers role made him liable for losses from not doing his job properly. Therefore the master had the right to require payment for those losses. Assuming the manger could not repay, the master could have him put into debtor’s prison, or the manager and his family could be relegated to indentured servants/slaves until the debt is repaid. So, there are grave consequences to his wastefulness, all of which he would have expected to be leveled upon him. Instead, the manger discovers something amazing, “two aspects of the master’s nature. He is a master who expects obedience and acts in judgment on the disobedient servant [he is dismissed after all]. [Yet] He is also a master who shows unusual mercy and generosity even to a dishonest steward.”[6]

    Again, the old stories of how God has worked throughout Israel’s history should come to mind, most specifically the Exodus story and God’s response to the golden calf incident. God’s response to Israel betrayal of relationship and trust is to say,  “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty…” (Ex. 34:6-7). The manger receives both judgment and mercy.

    Realizing his guilt, experiencing mercy and grace, the manger is left with the choice, how does he remain on the land, in the kingdom? He doesn’t even consider going somewhere else—fleeing a relationship to the mater. We know this because he considers—to his credit—doing laborious work, work that is not beneath him but which he is unfit for based on age and build. He also considers begging, but has a sense of dignity since he is not qualified to beg—which was an accepted form of labor for those who had chronic infirmities or disabilities like blindness or a lame limb. He knew he had value and no excuse for not contributing that value. So, he uses what he does have at his disposal, his wit—his ingenuity—and takes a risk. His plan is to bet everything—including his own and his family’s freedom— “on the quality of mercy he has already experienced from his master.”[7] We’d hope he’d find a better way to repay mercy and generosity rather than taking advantage of it, but none-the-less, his first and wisest action is to assume that the master is generous and merciful to a squanderer and will thus continue to be so. He gambles on the master’s character!

His plan then is to change the books, to bring in the renters—the farmers who are working the land—and though his authority to change the deals has been revoked, no one knows that so he will—because the master is generous—act generously on behalf of the master while letting the renters assume that he—the manger—was the one who convinced the master to take this action. And…he is really generous! The amounts removed from the debt are identical in monetary value, 500 denarii or the equivalent of a year and half’s salary!  The amount is also an easy change on ledger. Like turning an F into an A on a report card, which meant he could make the change quickly—no wasting time.

The manger gambles everything on the mercy and generosity of his master, and is rewarded. One author notes that the manager’s “only option was to entrust everything to the unfailing mercy of his generous master who, he can be confident, will accept to pay the price [of the manager’s] salvation. This clever rascal was wise enough to place his total trust in the quality of mercy experienced at the beginning of the story. That trust was vindicated. Disciples need the same kind of wisdom.”[8]

Which brings us to the ever unsettling verse 8. In light of what we have seen, the manager is complimented not on his dishonesty—in fact he is called dishonest, there is no glorifying of his actions—rather he is complimented on his wisdom of knowing where his salvation would come—the generosity and mercy of the master—the one who possessed all things. In Jesus’ time and culture, the people would have thought the manager would be the hero having outwitted his master, so they would have been surprised to hear him called dishonest. They too would have been unsettled to hear that wisdom is knowing who to trust for salvation not wittingly securing salvation for yourself. Though Proverbs 1 should have cleared that up for they and us alike!

One pastor notes, “This story has been worked over endlessly by men and women trying desperately to find some edifying moral lesson here, in order to save Jesus from commending a crook for being a clever crook, [yet, this story ] becomes a story of embracing salvation, the kind of story that is at the very core of Jesus’ good news.”[9]

So stewards—that’s you and me—who possess in our persons and in our faith all that the Father owns, where are we squandering our inheritance, our responsibilities and privileges? Are we willing to gamble on the character of the master, on generosity and mercy, and thus live wisely, even if such shrewdness seems like living foolishly, in our faith?

[1] In turn, confusion exists because we connect 16:9-13 with the parable as if Jesus was commenting on the parable rather than taking the conversation in a different, if not somewhat similar, direction. Time does not allow us to dive into this side of the misunderstood context, but it is no less important to grasping the beauty and meaning of the story if 16:1-8.

[2] The following is taken from Kenneth E. Bailey’s, Poet & Peasant: a literary-cultural approach to the parables of Luke, p. 109.

[3] T.W. Mason quoted in Bailey, n97, 109.

[4] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: cultural studies in the gospel, 336.

[5] Bailey, Poet & Peasant, n91, 107.

[6] Bailey, Poet & Peasant, 98.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. 108.

[9] Eugene Peterson, Tell it Slant: a conversation on the language of Jesus in his stories and prayers, 105.