This is the hardest parable in the gospels. So, strap yourselves in. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
The rich landowner hears gossip about his farm manager. He goes from accusation to execution in two sentences. The manager doesn’t protest. He worries. Then he schemes. He cooks the books and conspires with debtors to defraud the rich guy. And then – and then – the guy who gets taken to the cleaners praises the crook for being such a sharp operator. Maybe we should cut our losses and just sing the hymn of the day.
Maybe not just yet. Here’s a framework that might help us understand. I grew up on a steady diet of Looney Tunes. Saturday mornings and after school, I spent time with Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Sylvester the Cat, Tweety Bird, Yosemite Sam, the Roadrunner, Wile E. Coyote, Pepe Le Pew, and the Tasmanian Devil.
The most popular cartoons featured Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. I can give you a list of things wrong with those cartoons. They used speech impediments for jokes. They were racist, sexist, ageist, and lots of other “ists.” But they were funny. And they often carried sharp social criticism just under the surface.
What is it about Bugs Bunny? He’s a rascally rabbit. He’s a loveable rogue. He’s always making life difficult for Elmer or Daffy or Porky or Martin the Martian. He makes wise cracks at the expense of others. He can’t read a map to save his life. He’s irreverent and rude and impulsive. And he’s our favorite.
Bugs Bunny is the underdog who comes out on top. Through sheer nerve, wit, and guile, he makes poor old Elmer look foolish time after time. Bugs turns the tables and lives to laugh another day. We can’t get enough of that. Think about the manager in our parable like Bugs Bunny. This is Looney Tunes in a gospel framework.
Assume the manager was an enslaved person. There would be no due process, no court proceedings. The manager was already as good as dead. He’s going to lose not only his job, but perhaps his hands, or his life. The enslaved person always understands the “system” better than the enslaver and has to be “shrewd” in order to survive.
So, the manager uses the one thing he still has – his brain. The rich man was probably charging his debtors loan shark interest rates. The system at the time was designed to squeeze as much production out of the debtors as they could get. At the same time, the landowners gradually increased the debt load until repayment was impossible. If the debtors owned any land, that was folded into the rich man’s property portfolio.
The manager used the system against itself. He knew which debtors were in danger of default. He had the authority, as manager, to write down the debt and cut the rich man’s losses. Word hadn’t gotten around yet that the manager was toast. He worked as quickly as possible to create an exit strategy. The manager wasn’t trying to preserve his 401k. He was trying to escape with his skin intact.
The scheme works! The manager gets the best of the rich man. The rich man, to his credit, knows when he’s licked. “Ok,” he says, “you got me. Pretty sharp operating there, my friend. Well done!” Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd can get us through verse eight. Then things get really hinky.
“And I tell you,” Jesus says in verse nine, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Just when we were having such a good time, Jesus tosses a monkey wrench into the machinery.
Jesus tells this parable to the disciples, even though the Pharisees are listening in to the conversation. Jesus tells his disciples to make friends with unjust mammon in order to have a soft-landing spot among the children of this age. But we disciples have to be careful. We disciples may well be able to use unjust mammon for short term tactics. But we must beware that possessions do not take possession of us.
There’s an interesting twist in this parable. The master praises the steward because everybody wins. The rich man gets some return on his investment. The debtors are freed to farm another year. The manager escapes with his head attached to his shoulders. The manager turns an unjust system upside down and inside out. And everyone is better off.
So, this is a story about subverting unfair and oppressive systems. We may find ourselves captive to unjust systems and structures. How can we work as Jesus followers to subvert those systems and do some good for the oppressed? Most of us can’t confront such systems directly. But with a combination of nerve, wit, and guile, we can make the world better reflect God’s justice.
With that perspective we can understand Jesus’ words that follow the parable. We’re all in positions of some kind of influence and power. We all have some kind of leverage. Whether we’re at home, at work, at school, in business, in government, or at church, Jesus puts us in positions where we can do some good. Many times, doing some good will mean challenging systems that produce winners and losers. Faithful stewards change systems so that everyone wins, and everyone is better off.
I think about where this whole section of Luke ends up – the Zacchaeus story in Luke 19. Jesus comes across Zacchaeus’ path and brings salvation to his house. Zacchaeus realizes that he is in a position to do good in response to having Jesus in his life. He realizes that any other choice is no longer possible if he is to follow Jesus. Zacchaeus chooses wisely, just as the steward in our parable chooses wisely in how to deal with the stuff of this age.
Jesus is in town today. He has come to dine at our house. That means salvation has arrived for me, for you, and for all of us. That happens before we do anything to deserve it. In fact, we’re just like the steward in the parable before Jesus comes along. We’re scheming for any way to survive.
But, as that great philosopher, Hank Williams once said, “I’ll never get out of this world alive.”
The good news is that this world isn’t the last word. Every broken system is a sign that death wants to have each of us and all of us. But that’s not the end of the story. Jesus comes to give us abundant life now and forever. When we know that, we can joyfully love God and faithfully serve our neighbors in hope.
If I am following Jesus, I’m going to be in places where I can do some good. I may have to be a bit rascally to do it. Doing good will likely cost me something. I am unlikely to be the only or prime beneficiary. I may even have to flee for my life on a few occasions, so I better have a good exit strategy in place. I can use unrighteous wealth to serve God. But I cannot use God to serve unrighteous wealth. Which will it be for me?