Watermelon Rugby with The Shrewd Manager
Lectionary Reflection for September 19, 2010
When I was a youth pastor we used to play a game called “Watermelon Rugby.” You rubbed crisco over a watermelon and played touch football with it. You never caught it. You just grabbed at it while it slipped out of your grasp. That’s how I feel about this parable. C.H. Dodd in 1935 offered a definition of a parable that is still the best one out there: “A parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about tis precise application to tease it into active thought.” (C.H. Dodd, Parables of the Kingdom, 1935, p. 5)
This parable definitely teases the mind into active thought. That, by the way, is one of the things that irritated people most about Jesus’ parables- they didn’t want their minds teased into active thought. A lot of people still don’t. Commentators are all over the map in their opinions of what we should make of this parable. One scholar insists that the focus is on the radical mercy of the rich man to his steward, comparing it to the actions of the father in the parable of the prodigal son that precedes it. Another scholar believes that the parable illustrates the need for radical decision in light of the coming kingdom. Still another commentator sees as the focus that shrewd, dishonest preparation is better than none at all.
If we skim this parable quickly, we assume that the steward is dishonest because he lowers the amount each debtor owed his master (16:5-7). But the parable doesn’t tell us that the steward is dishonest because of what he does in Luke 16: 5-7. What it does say is that charges were brought to the rich man against his manager, that he was squandering his employer’s property(16:1). Was he? Or did somebody or group want the rich man to think he was?
In ancient Palestine, the steward was the middle man between the landholder and the merchants and tenants in the exchange of goods and services such as buying and selling grain, oil, and crops and collecting rents. If he was able to get an additional take for himself in these transactions, the master didn’t mind; in fact he expected it. As long as the master’s profits kept rolling in and the steward did not get too conspicuous in his consumption, the master was fine with the steward’s benefiting from each deal. The merchants and tenants were in a relatively powerless position, unable to directly confront the master. Their target, when they were disgruntled or felt put upon, was the steward, the master’s retainer.
The steward’s position in this complex social network was both privileged and vulnerable. He had a relatively high standard of living, a benefit of his being able to read and write and his training by the master, but he was completely dependent on the goodwill of the master. He himself states it in verse 16:3. “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.” We might assume that he is whining here, selfishly unwilling to engage in honest labor. He is actually just stating the fact that he is not prepared by physical training or by the habit of hardship, to compete with the peasant labor pool for the hardest, most menial of jobs: digging. His strength gone, he would be reduced to begging, and, in short order, would die because of the malnutrition and disease that came with poverty. His situation is dire. Something must be done to prevent this future. No one can do it but him.
The parables does not directly state that the manager was squandering the rich man’s property or acting dishonestly. It says that charges were brought to the master to this effect. Parable scholar William Herzog points out that the motivation for the charges, probably from a group of tenants and merchants, may have been a desire to undermine the steward. That being said, it may be that he had contributed to their ill feeling toward him by flaunting his higher standard of living. Then again, he may have been guilty of squandering the rich man’s resources. Some commentators make an analogy between him and us, making the point that we, like the shrewd manager, are guilty of squandering the master’s wealth (the sacraments, the Church, our own gifts, talents and resources) and need to begin to use them more wisely lest we forfeit our future in the kingdom of God.
The two references to “dishonesty” (16:8; 9) are probably to the charges brought against the steward at the beginning of the parable, rather than a reference to his dealings reported in verses 5-7. Those dealings, while shrewd, were not, strictly speaking, dishonest. The Torah prohibited charging interest, (Exod. 22:25-27; Lev. 25:36-38; Deut. 15:7-11; 23:19-20) because it viewed it as oppressive.(William Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech, 246). But the wealthy found ways to charge interest under other guises. One way was to add the interest into the total amount of a debt, presented as part of the total, not in a separate line item. A contemporary analogy would be a restaurant check in which, for dining groups over a certain number of people, a gratuity is simply figured into the total, not left to the discretion of the diners.
The steward is not randomly making up percentages in verses 5-7. He has already done the math behind the reductions he cites to each debtor… In first century Palestine, the more risky the commodity, the higher the interest. The interest on oil was 50% because it could easily be spilled or spoil. The interest on wheat was 20% because it was a more stable commodity.
He’s desperate, but still acts shrewdly. He calls the debtors in one by one, not giving them the chance to compare notes and collaborate against him ahead of time. He knows that his reduction of what they owe will not ensure their permanent goodwill and hospitality toward him. At best it may postpone his poverty for a short time as they invite him to a couple of meals. He may be hoping his actions could make it possible for him to secure another position as a steward for another member of the landowning elite, thereby saving him from a life of hard labor.
A better outcome still is the one that actually occurs, according to the parable. The actions of the steward please the debtors who now owe the master less. His actions please the master who takes pride in the shrewdness of the steward and who, besides, is now on the receiving end of goodwill from the debtors. With this proof of his shrewdness, the master can now retain him, enjoy the goodwill of his debtors, and, eventually, no doubt, find a way to recoup his temporary losses.
Luke, with his characteristic concern for the prudent use of money, places after this parable a group of sayings that narrows its focus to the responsible use of wealth. (16:10-13).
But is this parable only or specifically about the use of wealth? Or is it, more broadly, about the need to take shrewd, decisive action to prepare for the coming judgment?
Every text is a sandwich, whose filling is made more flavorful by knowing what comes before and after it. This text is an urgency sandwich. The passages that precede this one in chapter 13-15 have the theme of the need to respond to a limited time offer (fig tree, banquet, lost sheep, lost coin, lost sons). So does the parable of the rich man and Lazarus that directly follows it.
What is the message for us in this parable that, in the context of the urgent need for response, counsels shrewdness in managing the master’s resources rather than squandering them?
Could it be that the kind of self-centered storing up treasures for ourselves that we tend to do is actually squandering? And that using the gifts God has given us shrewdly (material resources, talent, time, gifts, the earth) is commendable in God’s eyes? Whether or not we’re guilty of squandering, now is the time to start acting shrewdly.
This parable depicts the kingdom of God as a reality into which we enter by shrewd calculation of what is ultimately best for us and by decisive action to secure that outcome. The parable disrupts the conventional definition of what is in our best interest, as well as the patterns of actions toward that goal.
It is not shrewd for someone with wealth and power to be indifferent to those who are poor or on society’s margins, much less to oppress them for one’s own continued gain. While such actions may be undertaken to secure one’s material future, in reality, such a state of living precipitates a crisis in one’s condition in light of the kingdom to come. It leads to figurative and literal poverty and death. (William R. Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech, 233-258).
On the flip side, it is shrewd for one who is being taken advantage of to seek justice by opposing the unfair practices of those in power. It is shrewd for someone with resources and influence to advocate for the disadvantaged. Whatever rung we are on in the social, economic ladder, we need to take immediate, decisive, shrewd action to secure our future, which, in kingdom context, can’t be separated from the future of the whole community.
What shape will that shrewd, decisive plan take in our lives? That’s a question guaranteed to “tease our minds into active thought.”
Alyce M. McKenzie is Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas.