The parable of the dishonest manager has always been challenging for me to interpret. Is there a positive figure in the parable? Is there even a lesson in the narrative portion of the parable or does that only come after 8a when Jesus gives his interpretation? Does the narrative even fit with Jesus' interpretation, or was this explanation possibly a Lukan addition; his attempt to salvage a well-known story attributed to Jesus by the early church? In this analysis I will attempt to answer my own questions about this parable by first, looking for meaning in verses 1-8a as a distinct narrative pericope and second, by attempting to resolve Jesus' interpretation of the narrative with my reading.
The parable begins by introducing a rich man. This being Luke, my divinity school training inclines me to immediately cast the rich man as someone I am not supposed to like. Would the rich man have immediately been disliked by Jesus' original audience? I think it is logical enough to assume that Judean peasants would not have many warm feelings towards someone of great wealth, so I will allow that assumption to stand. The rich man is not the positive figure of this parable.
Continuing on in the parable a manager – or, so RSV, KJV, etc. a steward – is introduced. The rich man has accused his manager of doing his job poorly and wasting resources. The rich man requests the manager to turn in the books of the estate and ends his employment. – At this point in the story, I think it reasonable to assume a Judean peasant audience would already be identifying with the man accused by his boss of underperforming and fired from his job. – Before clearing out his desk and walking out of the office, the soon to be former manager quickly calls in the rich man’s debtors and forgives large portions of their debt. He does this to improve his social standing in the community to improve his chances of receiving charity during his unemployment.
At this point in the narrative my expectation has always been for the rich man to punish the manager for proving himself to be a poor steward and forgiving debts for his own benefit without his boss’s approval. Instead – and this has always been the difficult part for me to reconcile to Jesus' interpretation – the rich man commends the manager for his shrewd dealings! How can this possibly fit with Jesus' message of faithfully serving God instead of being devoted to obtaining money?
In this most recent study of the parable, I think I have finally found the way the narrative is bridged to Jesus. Verse eight is indeed intended by Jesus to be shocking – so completely belong to verses 8b to 15 –, not because of a lack of punishment, but for the recognition that in a crisis the manager could not both please the rich man and those he would need to rely on. At the end of the day, he had to make a decision. This is not a tale by Jesus instructing us how to be good managers – the manager in the parable deserved to be fired. However, it is a parable showing the clear contrast between our allegiances. Crisis will come and in that crisis we will only be able to hold one allegiance. For Jesus, that must always be a movement for and toward God. The ill-gained wealth presumably had by the dishonest manager, would not help his case when he needed the community’s charity.