(Amos 8, 4-7  http://tinyurl.com/25r8ntx; Luke 16, 1-13 http://tinyurl.com/2cfp6p9)


Don’t let anyone ever tell you that the Bible is an easy book to understand. It isn’t! It was written over thousands of years, by people who lived in cultures with very different social systems, legal values and life-styles from us, and  put together almost two millennia ago. If you are going to hear God speaking through it, you have to work very hard to understand what it is saying.

Look at today’s readings. The passage from the prophet Amos, who lived in the 8th Century BC, is a warning to the people of the Northern Kingdom, Israel. This was a time of great prosperity. One of the major powers in the region, Assyria, was distracted by power struggles at home, so the little countries were able to grow rich on trade. This wealth however, benefited only a proportion of the nation, and was maintained at the expense of others, by dishonest trade practices and a corrupt judicial system, taking people into bonded labour for debt, and ignoring the demands of the needs of widows, orphans and aliens. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)

Amos demands a return to God’s standards of economic and social justice, and warns the Israelites of the disaster to come if they carry on in their blind confidence in being the Chosen People, while ignoring those standards which were set out in the Sinai covenant.

But if Amos is setting out God’s standards for financial dealings in the Old Testament reading, how come in the Gospel reading we have Jesus telling a parable about a man whose financial dealings were obviously somewhat sleazy, and telling his disciples to take this man as an example to follow? Then we get several sayings, some of which again seem to be hinting we should use ill-gotten gains for good purposes, and other bits saying that we cannot serve both God and money. We need a lot of help to understand this.

The parable known, as the Unjust Steward or The Shrewd Manager, comes in the section of Luke known as a Jerusalem Document or the Travel Narrative (Chs. 9, 51-19.48). Jesus is travelling up to Jerusalem for the last time with his disciples, accompanied by enthusiastic crowds, and critical Pharisees and scribes. Along to the way, Jesus explains to his disciples in particular, and to the crowd as well, what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, and what they need to do to be part of it. Some of this material appears in other Gospels, but some of it, including this parable, occurs only in Luke.

All modern commentators agree that the parable goes back to Jesus, if only because the ‘hero’ is such an offensive example to be asked to follow; but commentators since the first century have remarked just how difficult it is to understand. There are questions about the parable itself. Where does it end? If it ends at verse 7 then the parable is simply about a cunning man who secure his future by cooking the books; but then ‘the master’ in verse 8 must be Jesus.  Why is Jesus praising him? If it ends at the first half of verse 8, then the master who commends him is his employer – but then did the comment about the children of this age being wiser than the sons of light come from Jesus (which is problematic)  or the early church? And did the sayings about the use of wealth and honesty originally belong with the parable or not?

There are questions also about how we understand the story in the parable. Is the master honest and just man, or a partner in crime with his steward? (Since the master in parables is usually taken to represent God, this is a big question). Was he an absentee landlord who was being defrauded by his agent?  Has the steward forced the debtors to sign bigger bills than justified, and does the rewriting of the bills merely represent him foregoing his ‘cut’? Are the payments in olive oil and wheat merely a fiction to cover up interest payments on money, which were forbidden by Jewish law? Was the ‘steward’ a manager of a large estate, or an agent for a moneylender?

These are all questions that people of succeeding generations have asked; but they would not have been asked by the people who first heard the parable. Jesus’ parables depended on using situations which would be instantly recognised by his hearers. They were pithy and effective because he did not have to waste time filling in background details. Their impact came when one of the characters did something unexpected – something which prompted his hearers to think again and revise their assumptions or their prejudices. We have somehow to cross the cultural divide of centuries and attitudes in order to regain that impact for ourselves.

In his book ‘Poet and Peasant’ (Eerdmans. 1983) Kenneth E Bailey uses both ancient eastern literature and contemporary Middle Eastern peasant customs, together with literary analysis, to try to solve the problems of the cultural divide. This is his interpretation of the parable, which makes sense of it for me.

The master is a large landowner, who rented out arable land and olive groves to tenants. He is not an absentee landlord, but concerned about his land, and his tenants, who come to him with their concerns about the manager’s wasteful administration of the estate.

The manager is a paid official, housed on the property. His job is to negotiate the rents at the beginning of the year (for which he was entitled to a fee), keep the accounts, keep an eye on conditions on the estate and renegotiate rents if it was a bad year, then collect in the rent, which was paid in kind, at harvest time. He might have received extra payments ‘under the table’ but these were regarded as normal and not dishonourable. Neither his fee nor his ‘cut’ would have appeared in the bills, which would have been written by the tenant and countersigned by him. The tenants were men of substance, judging by the size of the rents.

The manager was happy to take his salary and fee, but wasn’t doing the work to ensure the estate produced the maximum crops. The estate owner finally decided to sack him, called him in, gave him his notice and demanded he handed over the accounts for his successor. The master was merciful though: he didn’t sue the manager for his loss, put him in jail, beat him or even harangue him.

Unusually, the manager didn’t argue or make excuses or blame others. (Jesus’ audience would be really surprised at this). He knew he had a just and merciful master,whom argument wouldn’t sway, but getting the sack meant he would lose his job, his home and his reputation. He would be doomed as soon as the news got out, so if he was to salvage anything he had to act quickly. He acted as if he was still employed, called the tenants individually, so there was no chance for gossip, and gave them each a reduction in the rent they owed. The tenants assumed he was at last taking his job seriously and was reducing the rents because of bad conditions, with the master’s agreement.

When they left him, the news would have gone round the village like wildfire, and there would have been great celebrations. Both the steward and his master would have been praised for their fairness and generosity. If the sacking stood, the manager would be in a good position to get a job in another household.

Then comes the twist in the tail. When the owner of the estate got the accounts, he knew what the manager had done. He could have told everyone that the manager had been sacked, no longer acted on his authority, and the rents would stay the same; but then the villagers’ joy would have turned to anger against him. But he was a merciful man, so he decided to let it stand, and commended the manager for acting swiftly and with wisdom to ensure a future for himself. Again, this course of action would have astounded Jesus’ original audience. What sort of master was it who was prepared to take the cost of his employee’s unrighteousness on himself?

The manager faced a crisis, relied on the mercy of the landowner, and won a future for himself. If the unrighteous know their need of mercy, says Jesus at the end of the parable, and act decisively to ensure their position on earth, how much more should the ‘children of light’ know their need to act swiftly and throw themselves on God’s mercy to ensure a place in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus’ original audience would have understood all this. But later generations, including Luke’s readers, would not. To them it would have looked as if Jesus was recommending a person who failed to do his duty and cheated his master as an example for Christians to follow. So Luke appended verses 9  to 13, (which Bailey is sure was originally a memorable poem, composed in Aramaic by Jesus, about the use of worldly wealth, and trust and the need to put service to God before any worldly concerns), just to reduce that impression.

But as we have seen, the parable is not about the use of money at all. It is about God, and his mercy, and his willingness to pay the cost of sin. It is about sinners, who more than the righteous, recognise their need for God’s mercy and trust in it, and are justified. It is a warning for the ‘children of light’ (the Pharisees then and the members of the Christian community afterwards) that they too must recognise that the Kingdom of Heaven is here now, and make decisions and take action to manage this crisis in a way that ensures their future within it.

Sometimes, the New Testament is no easier to understand than the Old. Just as God called shady characters to lead his people (men like Jacob, the trickster; Moses, the murderer; and David, the adulterer), so Jesus uses unsavoury characters, like the man who bought a field and pocketed someone else’s treasure, the judge who wouldn’t listen to the poor widow, and the shrewd manager, as the lead characters in his parables to teach us about the Kingdom of Heaven. When we understand the background, that becomes plain. The parable of the Shrewd Manager follows that of the Prodigal Son in Luke’s Gospel. In both, someone wastes the resources that are given to him, but throws himself on the mercy of his father/master, and is restored.

That’s what God is like, says Jesus, and that’s what you should be like. That’s how you manage any crisis in the Kingdom. Go, and do likewise.