In Praise of the Dishonest Manager

By Elizabeth Palmberg 05-06-2008

One of Jesus' most in-your-face stories, and a personal favorite of mine, is the Parable of the Dishonest Manager in Luke 16. I would loosely paraphrase its central insight as follows: "If you have the sense God gave a dog, you will realize that you can't hold onto money very long anyway, but you can keep the friends you make by giving it to those in need. You do the math." The passage doesn't say anything about burning sulfur, just about priorities and how to take the long view.

An attractive feature of this parable is that it sets a really low bar for divine commendation. The manager doesn't have sense enough to stay out of trouble to begin with. What's more, even after he has his "friends are friends forever" epiphany, he starts backsliding almost at once: He quickly gives his master's first debtor a 50% markdown, but for debtor number two the manager gets pointlessly stingy and only takes off 20%. He still gets praise for knowing what side his bread is buttered on.

And, because the kingdom of God is so often about taking things way over the top, the final verses go on to radically redefine what honesty and faithfulness are. Good stewardship is supposed to be about accurate accounting and careful saving, right? Not here. Money is inherently "dishonest," and impromptu unauthorized debt forgiveness is "faithfulness." (In fact, the master fires the manager before even seeing his accounting - the grounds for dismissal appear to have been less fiscal irresponsibility and more that he made enemies willing to accuse him).

The Protestant Work Ethic is not invited to this party, and you can virtually hear the groans of the prodigal son's responsible brother if he happens to look ahead from his seat in chapter 15.

Despite this parable, other parts of the Bible suggest to me that it's reasonable to save something for retirement. But I want to combine this conventional form of stewardship with long-view social accounting, which is why I'm excited about the special Web extra to our May issue about faith and finances. In it, my colleague Julie has accumulated a heaping helping of Web sites that can help you figure out how and where to invest retirement savings for the common good (and also where to free your mind with Bible study, teach your teenage kids about money, and plan - and pray over - your household budget).

Check it out

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