By William M. Cwirla
Of all the parables of Jesus, the Parable of the Dishonest Manager (Luke 16:1-8) is one of the most difficult. Preachers avoid it and readers don’t get it. We like our heroes to act heroically. We want them to be winners not losers. The hero in this parable is a disreputable, incompetent manager who has mismanaged his master’s wealth and is about to be fired. Hardly hero material, especially in respectable religious circles.
LET’S TAKE A CLOSER LOOK
The manager has been mishandling his master’s accounts for a long time, possibly decades. The accountants figured out that the books have been cooked and word gets back to the master. He calls this faithless manager to his office. “You’re fired! Turn in your books!”
He has a big problem. He’s out of a job. He’s too weak to dig ditches and too proud to beg. Where will he live? How will he eat? What’s he going to do?
He has an idea. He’s the only one who knows he’s been fired, at least for the next few hours. The word hasn’t leaked out into the community yet. He quickly grabs his master’s books and hurriedly summons his master’s debtors one by one and writes off debts so quickly there’s no time to do the math. One hundred measures of olive oil become fifty. with a swift stroke of the pen. A hundred measures of wheat quickly become eighty.
It’s a win, win, win situation. The debtor is happy with his discounted loan, the manager is making much-needed friends, and the master is getting some deadbeat loans off the books! The key to the whole scheme is that the manager is cashing in on the good name of his master. If the master says, “No, he doesn’t have the authority to do that. Pay me in full,” he would lose face in the community. It’s bold, clever, gutsy. Even the master had to commend his master’s shrewdness. In Yiddish it would be called “chutzpah.”
How can such a dishonest and scheming scoundrel be the hero of a parable, and commended, no less?
LET ME OFFER THIS INTERPRETATION
The dishonest manager is each of us under the Law. We have been faithless and lazy stewards of God’s grace and gifts. Our backs are against the wall. There is nothing we can do to justify ourselves or to save ourselves. But the one thing we can do, which is the one thing that faith does, is to cash in on the good name of another, namely our Lord Jesus. Rather than dealing with our sins by the books of the Law with its sharp-penciled accounting, faith uses Christ and His righteousness against the Law and our sin. Faith is as shrewd and opportunistic as a crooked manager who feathers his own nest at his master’s expense. And God is okay with that.
“Outrageous,” you say! Not fair! That’s how the world sees faith in Christ. “You mean to say that you can sin and dare to believe that God forgives you because of Jesus? That’s how you wipe out your debt, by cashing in on Jesus’ good name? That’s all there is to it?”
Yup. That’s all there is to it. We are justified by grace through faith apart from our works (Romans 3:28).
SPEAKING OF WORKS…
Did you notice at what point the dishonest manager actually does his job? When does he begin collecting the debts due his master? After he’s been fired, when he has nothing to lose, when he is literally “dead” to the world. He has nothing to save him but his master’s name and reputation, and in his deadness he winds up doing his master’s business.
Only as we recognize that in Christ we are free from the Law’s condemnation, “Christ is the end of the Law for all who believe” (Romans 10:4), are we truly free to do what the Law asks of us. God has closed the books on your sin. He has written “paid in full” on your debt under the Law with the blood of Jesus shed on the Cross. You are free to serve God and others in love, not worrying about success or failure, profit or loss, reward or punishment. You are as free as that dishonest manager who just got fired. Getting fired was the best thing that could have happened to him.
Your Baptism entitles you to a “sweet swap” of your sin for Christ’s righteousness. More than simply discounting the debt, God has wiped the books clean with the cleansing blood of Jesus. Though you are guilty of the whole Law, God permits you to cash in on His good Name and reputation as One who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
YOU’RE FIRED TO BE FREE
God “fired” you as a servant of the Law so that you could be free to be a servant of Christ. Baptized into Jesus’ death and life, you are as free to deal with the world as that crooked manager who was fired from his job but shrewdly cashed in on his master’s name and reputation.
That is shrewdness faith in the outrageous grace of God in Christ, who calls sinners saints by virtue of His good Name.
Rev. William M. Cwirla is a “pastor emeritus” in the LCMS, having retired from congregational ministry after 30 years of service in one congregation. He has also served as president of Higher Things. He continues to pray, study, and write in retirement, and also speak, when coaxed out of the woods of Port Angeles, WA on the beautiful Olympic Peninsula where he resides with his wife, Karen. He is also an artisanal bread maker, gourmet cook, master of the grill, maker of fine wood craft, and musician.