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” (Luke 16:1-9).
Every time I’ve heard this parable preached on, or seen it written on, it has been interpreted as being about money, and about managing money wisely. And on the literal surface, that is what it is about. But we don’t generally interpret parables just by their surface meaning. And just because this one has got attached (which I think is what has happened) to a saying about using ‘dishonest’ wealth (and Jesus seems to think all wealth is dishonest) to make friends in the Kingdom, doesn’t actually mean this parable is all about how we spend our money (any more than the parable of the talents is about judicious investment).
In every other parable that talks about debt, the debt referred to is either our debt to God, or our debt of love and generosity to our neighbour (see for example Matthew 18:23ff, the parable of the unforgiving debtor). And in every other parable in which a manager or steward is managing land or money for an employer, the manager stands for the nation of Israel, chosen by God to demonstrate righteousness to the world (see Matthew 20:1ff, the parable of the labourers in the vineyard). So why should this story be any different?
If we start to read it this way, it yields a very different, and I think much more Jesus-style, meaning. If the manager is Israel, managing the debts of righteousness/holiness that the nation owes to God, then this becomes a parable about law versus grace, in which the unpayable debts we owe to God are written off, or at the very least scaled down. Israel, or its religious leaders of the time, thus make friends for themselves among those it has previously regarded as enemies, the ‘sinners’ amongst whom Jesus spent most of his time. So the story now fits in with others about undeserved grace, which we are to show to others because God has first shown it to us. It also fits better in its context, which is immediately after the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost or prodigal son; and it makes sense of Jesus’ following comment that ‘The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed’.
It becomes, too, a story about the role of religious leaders, who are now not there to remind us of how much we fall short of the glory of God, how much we owe to a demanding, holy and jealous God, but rather to dispense to us sinners who would be saints, the lavish, unmerited, unearned grace that God offers in Christ. To do this, of course, those leaders have first to know that grace for themselves. Which also means acknowledging that while they might be placed in a position of authority, they are just as much sinners/would-be saints as the rest of us (incidentally, this reading also has Jesus pretty much directly accusing the religious leaders of the time of using their position to line their own nests — as their immediate negative reaction, described in verse 14 demonstrates) Let the reader, and especially the leader, understand. It might just make you some friends.