This week we read one of Jesus’ most puzzling parables, and the other texts do not make it any clearer on first glance. Amos rebukes his audience for economic injustice, while Jesus seems to commend a sketchy bookkeeper. Let’s assume that Jesus is consistent with Amos—not to mention his own teaching elsewhere. There must be something else here.
According to one traditional reading of this parable, Jesus is ironically urging his audience to seek the kingdom of God with the same kind of single-mindedness and creativity that “the children of this age” employ in matters of money. “Maybe we should learn a lesson from this opportunistic fellow about how urgent things are," he says.
For me, such a reading is somewhat satisfying, if it weren’t for Amos' much darker and more direct warnings still hanging heavy in the air. They don’t dissipate as easily. Additionally, it would irresponsible simply to spiritualize or sentimentalize the prophet’s agrarian images. He is talking about economics.
According to Torah, interest on debts was forbidden for Jews as protection against economic abuse and oppression. They were even instructed to practice Jubilee, a scheduled nation-wide year of debt-forgiveness. First century Roman society, however, had no such regulations. Debt with interest was essential to the economic system (read: the structure of class and power.) Enter our hero(?), an enforcer-middleman between creditor and debtor. When he is found out for his own lax or lavish dealings (we are not told exactly what), in a panic he lowers everyone’s bill to ingratiate himself to them.
This manager, who has thus far been complicit in an unjust system, may have found himself leaning into faithfulness to the law. His reduced rates may have been forgiving interest or refusing his cut of the profit. There may, in fact, be a work of justice hidden in the unjust manager's “shrewdness” in letting others enjoy a mini-Jubilee. When the manager is awoken to the stakes of his situation, his relationships become more than obligations and expectations of debts owed.
Granted, he seems to act out of desperation and self-preservation, but let’s not forget that immediately before this passage is the parable of the prodigal son, who also “squandered" wealth and received forgiveness. His motives for coming home don’t sound altogether noble either. Both characters are seeking food, shelter, and security for themselves.
Regardless of motivation, such a slant on the story gives a new glimpse into what it might mean to be “faithful with what belongs to another.” It may not only be what belongs to the master but what belongs to the debtors with which we are called to be faithful. In the manager’s panic echoes Amos’ message that if we do not act and care for those who are being exploited, we ourselves will end up homeless, doomed, and dead. (Incidentally, our reading spares us Amos’ image of corpses strewn everywhere in a deathly silence.)
Random as it may seem, this parable is then rather elegant literary bridge between the prodigal son and next week’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Each takes on a different combination of the themes of wealth, waste, awakening, forgiveness, hospitality, and economic justice.
Christ’s concluding remarks leave the story open to more expansive interpretations, but we must not use that as an excuse to remember this economic call to recognize and take responsibility for the stakes of our relationship to wealth and to one another.
“Who is like the Lord our God,
who is seated on high,
who looks far down
on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust,
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people.
He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.
Praise the Lord!”