Don’t you just love it when Jesus praises dishonest behaviour?
I particularly like the way that many Bibles, choose to spin this as the ‘parable of the shrewd manager’. Yeah, ok, the guy acted shrewdly, but I wonder what you would call a man who, afraid he was going to be sacked for squandering resources, used his final day at work to abuse his position, and rip off his boss in order to buy himself friends for the future? Shrewd? Maybe. Dishonest crook, more likely.
So what’s this story doing in a series about the characteristics of the Kingdom of God? Where does this parable fit into that? Where in ethics of the Kingdom does this story of creative larceny fit in?
And yet at the end of the story, even his boss praised
him for what he had done. Because, ethically challenged though his behaviour
was, it did show a strange sort of practical wisdom. For this manager saw two
things, understood two things more clearly than most of us ever do: he
understood his situation, and he understood what mattered.
His situation, on one level, was dire. He was about to lose his job; he knew he would never get another white collar job once he’d been sacked for incompetence or worse, and having pushed a pen (or a stylus, or whatever it was they used in those days) for however many years he was in no shape for manual work. With no welfare state to cushion the fall, the only future he could see for himself was the humiliation of begging.
And yet, there remained to him a small window of opportunity. For perhaps one more day he had influence over the very considerable resources belonging to his employer. He had no wealth of his own, but he still had access to the tools of his trade: he still had the password to his bosses accounts receivable system.
He recognized his situation – both the very real threat to his current life, and the opportunity that his boss’ lax performance management processes had left him.
And perhaps more important still – he had an instinct
for what was really important. He knew what would help him in the future.
Contacts. Friends. Favours that he could call in. And he used – or rather,
abused – his final hours of influence to make as many people like him as
Up to here it’s a quirky story about wisdom and priorities. But Jesus gives it a punchline, a sting in the tail. Be like that manager, he says. I tell you, make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth.
Not ‘by means of dishonesty’, nor ‘by acting shrewdly’, not even ‘by knowing what matters’. Jesus says ‘make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth’. Use your dishonest wealth to purchase the things that really matter.
Use your dishonest wealth… what’s that all about? We don’t have dishonest wealth – most of us – do we?
Well – no, we don’t.
But then again, maybe yes. Maybe we do. Maybe our
situation is more like that of the manager than it seems at first glance. Look
again at his situation. He had wealth at his hands; it just wasn’t his. He had
power over it, he could use it, well or badly, for good or ill; but in the end
it didn’t belong to him; it belonged to his master.
And that is us. That is our situation. Each of us has wealth at our hands, resources over which we have control – but which, do not, ultimately, belong to us. There is something fundamentally dishonest about wealth, about claims of ownership. It’s not often I get to quote a French anarchist approvingly, but as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon famously said: “property is theft”. To claim that we own something – anything – ultimately stands against the Biblical motif: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it”.
The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. Any claim to have the final rights over anything, any claim to ultimate ownership of our stuff, is a denial of the truth that it is God from whom everything came, and to whom everything belongs.
And in that sense, yes, all our wealth is dishonest. Not dishonestly come upon, nor dishonestly used; but to the extent we claim it for our exclusive use, and by doing so deny God’s ultimate claim on it, us, and everything else: that is dishonest wealth.
All of our wealth is dishonest in the same way
as that of the manager in the parable: he acted as if he had the final
authority over the wealth in his control, effectively denying the truth that it
belonged to his master.
But I’m not a French anarchist nor, despite any impression I might occasionally give, am I an unreformed Marxist (I’m at least partially reformed). I see no mandate in the gospel for the overthrow of economic systems based on private property. Jesus’ approach in this parable seems much more practical: your wealth, your stuff, your cash, your car, your home, your iPhone; they aren’t yours. Not really, not at the end of the day. But, like the manager in the story, you’ve been given control over them, for at least the time being. So the question is: what are you going to do with this wealth while you – dishonestly in a sense – get to treat it as if it were really yours?
What are you going to do with this wealth that you hold in trust for the Kingdom of God?
Jesus’ advice? Make friends for yourself. And there’s
another slightly surprising twist. Jesus doesn’t say “work for the good of the
Kingdom” or “feed the poor” (at least, not directly). He says “make friends for
yourselves by means of dishonest wealth”
The manager in the parable knew what really mattered. He knew that his current, comfortable life was coming to an end, and that what he really needed was something that would keep its value. What he had temporary control over – the wealth of his master – was about to become meaningless. And so what he invested in, basically, was people. He used the influence he had to do things that would make other people remember him kindly.
He invested the resources he had in things which would last longer than the wealth he had at hand. Things with eternal value. Elsewhere Jesus refers to ‘storing up for yourself treasure in heaven’ – I think that’s getting at the same thing.
Because what might have eternal value? What will still be treasure when no-one is in need, no-one is sick, no-one is hungry, no-one wants for anything? What might actually constitute treasure, in heaven?
The answer, surely, in part at least, must be people.
People who remember you with a smile, with gratitude. People who speak of the way that you always made yourself available, of the way that you were always there to help a friend, or the friend of a friend, or even a stranger, in need. People who remember your willingness to share, the choices you made that used what God had given you in ways that enriched their lives.
And not just people who knew you personally, but people greeting you and saying “Because of you, my children were able to go to school. Because of you I had warm clothes and a hot meal when I was sleeping rough. Because of you I and my family found a community of faith that we could worship with. Because of you I had friends when I was a stranger. Because of you, I had an advocate when I was a refugee. Because of you I was able to keep the family farm going.”
“Because of you I was not alone when I was old and
dying. Because of you I had access to clean water, nutritious food, medical
care. Because of you I had a Bible. Because of you, I heard the good news of
Jesus. Because of you I was able to forgive my family, I was able to forgive
Because in the end this parable isn’t praise for dishonest, but for wisdom, for knowing what matters; that is, knowing that people, and our relationships with others (whether we know them or not), are ultimately the things that will last, the things that will have meaning, the things that matter.
And it’s about the fact that we are not the owners of all that we have, that we are not the master who has the final authority over our wealth, but that we are the managers, the stewards of that wealth: and that, only for a time; for each one of us will come to the point where we can no longer manage our master’s affairs.
But if we have heard the words of Jesus, and taken them to heart; if we have used our time as stewards of God’s wealth for the things that matter; if we have prioritised the values of the kingdom, of faith, of relationships, of people, of others, then we will find a great welcome in our eternal homes.
Because we used our dishonest wealth to buy the things that matter.