Get Ready to Cheer for the Bad Guy

 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Luke 16:1-13

Watch tv, go see a movie, read a book and you will discover the characters we are drawn to are often those that are less than perfect. They are antiheros who are deeply flawed. Often the characters acting in their own self-interest are those who save the day for everyone else: Gunfighters, crooked cops, mobsters, or a conman with a heart of gold. We love stories where a character with feet of clay do something good.

There is an old Mel Gibson movie, which I don’t think I ever saw, and if I did, I forgot everything about it except the preview. The movie was called Payback and preview began with a voiceover, “Get ready to cheer for the bad guy.”

Payback (1999)

When we turn to the parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-13) it is as though Jesus does the same voice over: “Get ready to cheer for the bad guy.”

This was a servant in charge of a master’s estate. He is was charged by someone with being wasteful and squandering his boss’s riches. Evidently the charges were serious enough or easy enough to establish that his master fires him without investigation. But they weren’t so serious that he had security accompany him to immediately clear out his desk and escort him from the building. He is given time to put a report in order.

The manager knows that he doesn’t have the strength to dig ditches, back breaking labor usually reserved for foreign slaves captured in war (the way America used to use slaves for such work, and now use prison work crews). He is too proud to sit by the side of the highway with a carboard sign which reads:

MIDDLE MANAGER OUT OF WORK.

ANYTHING HELPS

So, he devises a plan. He calls in all the people he knows who are in debt to his master. One man owes 100 jugs of olive oil to him, likely about 850 gallons of olive oil. No small sum. “Quick take your bill and make it 50.” Another debtor owed his master 100 containers of wheat. This was the amount yield you would get from 100 acres. “Take your bill and make it 80. The percentages that the manager reduced their bills, 50% and 20% were different, but in both cases, it came to about 500 denarii, roughly about 2 years’ pay for a day laborer.

When the master gets word about what his wasteful manager did, you would think he would be upset. The manager was aleady in trouble for squandering the master’s estate and  here he just cut him out of an additional 1000 denarii. But we are told the master praises “the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly. “

If this strikes us a strange reaction from the master, Jesus seems to add his own condemnation, “for the children of this age are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

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This is called the most difficult of Jesus’ parables. While some critical Bible scholars argue about which of Jesus’ words in the gospel he really said, almost no one can imagine anyone else saying this. No moralizing bishop from the second century would praise such an unsavory character.

As I have studied the parable. I have discovered there is wide disagreement  from one commentator to the next on how we should interpret it. There are no fewer than 16 different interpretations of the parable.[1] Some scholars absolve the shrewd manager of any wrongdoing. They say, the master of the house was the one who was in the wrong and the debts that the manager forgave were really the interest rates that Deuteronomy 23:20 stated shouldn’t be charged a fellow Israelite. Others argue that the manager forgave the portion of the debt that was his own share. There is a paucity of details in Jesus’ parable and there is no internal evidence that the master was bad. The manager on the other hand is described first as wasteful, and then as dishonest.

One creative take, is that the shrewd manager is really Jesus, accused of being wasteful by the religious elites, he then acts to forgive our debt to the Master. I don’t think so, Tim. There is too much moral ambiguity about the manager’s actions for me to think that this is a really Christological parable. Though the forgiving of debts does connect to the larger theme of Jubilee in Luke’s gospel.[2]

Most of this wrangling is unnecessary. In the passage Jesus never praises the manager for his alleged wastefulness or his dishonesty. He praises him for being shrewd.  And in verses 10-13 he praises faithfulness over dishonesty:

If you are faithful in little, you will be faithful with much, and if you are dishonest with little you will be dishonest with much,”

and commends faithfulness with ‘dishonest wealth’ as requisite for being entrusted true riches:

If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust you with true riches?” And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own.”

And then Jesus says that you can’t serve both God and mammon (vs 13). None of this seems like a glowing endorsement of the manager’s wastefulness and dishonest dealings[3] The manager was a bad guy. Nevertheless, Jesus cheers on the bad guy, because this bad guy was so shrewd.

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Christine Pohl says:

Jesus does not commend the manager’s practices, but rather his insight into the connection between resources and relationships. When we consider our wealth and economic practices—even the means we employ to accomplish good ends—as peripheral to the kingdom, we are ignoring Jesus’ warning that it is impossible to serve God and mammon.[4]

So, the question for us is this: Each of us has money and resources at our disposal, how can we use the things we have to serve God? In what ways can we, like the shrewd manager, make friends who will care for us long after our money is gone? How can we use our resources to build relationships?

And if we are bold enough to ask: Are there ways I serve wealth more than God?

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I am not a big fan of giving to charities, unless I know something about their work. We know we ought to be generous and we give to issues we think matter. But sometimes, giving to charity is an inoculation against really caring for people. It is easy to be kind to those we don’t know a lot harder to be a friend to someone who is struggling.

I came across a quote this week from the Peruvian, Liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, ““You say you care about the poor? Then tell me, what are their names?”[5]

The lesson Jesus gleans from the shrewd manager is “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into eternal homes.”

What of instead of giving money to a homeless mission we befriended that homeless person in our neighborhood? Instead of serving a meal at a shelter to someone we’ve never met, we bought dinner for the person with the cardboard sign and we sat down and ate with them and listened to their story? What if we stop using our money to keep those people away but instead used our money and resources to care for them in tangible ways? And yes, we should direct some of our resources to organizations doing good work in the world, but our giving should never be an inoculation for caring for the poor, the widowed and the vulnerable that God places in our midst.

Jesus teaches us that what we do with the money and resources we are entrusted with today, is related to our experience of the riches God has in store for us. Therefore, use money to make friends!   The one who is faithful with little will be faithful with much. We can’t serve both God and mammon.

We live in a consumer culture and everything tells us to invest in our own enjoyment and security. Drive a nice car, have a comfortable home, buy more toys, have a nice nest egg for your future. And to some extent, we buy in.  But when even a bad guy uses his resources for the good of others and to make friends, we cheer him on. We cheer for the bad guy. Sometimes the bad guy who does good, is us.


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[1] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 406-409.

[2] See Luke 4:16-22.

[3] I am aware that many scholars see verse 10-13 as only tangentially related to the parable (i.e. Jesus sayings that were placed by Luke here, but not necessarily commenting on the story).

[4] Christine Pohl, “Profit and Loss,” Christian Century, August 29–September 5, 2001, 13.[4]

[5] Cagle, Ryan. Twitter Post. Sept 19, 10:18 PM. https://twitter.com/_ryancagle/status/1174915706527174657

see also Greenfield , Craig, “You say you care about the poor? Then tell me, what are their names?” CraigGreenfield.com, January 8, 2016, www.craiggreenfield.com/blog/2016/philanthropy