The Parable of the Dishonest Manager is about the hardest of Jesus’ parables to understand. Jesus wants us to emulate a man who is shrewd and unprincipled at best, deceitful and swindling at worst.
But that can’t be. Can’t it?
It doesn’t seem so, because pretty soon Jesus is saying
You cannot serve God and wealth.
That’s pretty plain. So where do we go from here?
Let’s look the parable. A manager is in charge of a rich man’s estate. The rich man doesn’t live on site, and the manager has a reputation around town of keeping money back for himself. Word of this gets to the rich man, who calls the manager to give an account of himself.
From the manager’s reaction, it does seem that he’s a crook. He isn’t defending himself, he knows what the verdict will be.
Then he hits on an idea.
(This is where it gets tricky, because there are different ideas about where the story goes here, and what the manager actually did. I’ll give you just one of those ideas.)
The manager knows he’ll need friends, so he goes to his boss’s bad debts. Every business has bad debts; it’s so now, it was so back then. He reduced the amount of money that the people who owed his boss had to pay. One went from a hundred jugs of olive oil to fifty and another from a hundred containers of wheat to eighty.
That way, he made himself some very good friends out of the boss’s dodgier clients. And he recovered something back from the bad debts his boss thought he’d never see a penny of.
So everyone was pleased with him, the debtors and the boss alike.
Now, that just may be the story the parable is telling. What on earth would that mean?
The manager is in a difficult position. There is a judgement coming, and he is going down. Time is very short indeed; how can he turn the situation to his advantage?