This parable is a story about a rich man who owns an estate. The owner's rarely there, so he's retained a manager to look out for his interests. This manager's responsible for running the estate -- especially for collecting the rents that are owed by the tenant farmers.
The whole arrangement is a lot like a plantation of the Old South, in the sharecropper days following the Civil War. Enthroned at the top of the economic pyramid is the absentee landlord, who rakes in enormous profits by doing absolutely nothing. At the bottom of the pyramid are the field workers -- supposedly free people, but in reality little more than slaves. They labor long hours for very little profit (once the landowner's rent is deducted).
As in the coal miners' blues song of the 1930s, "they owe their soul to the company store." Just how much they do owe is obvious from the figures Jesus cites: one farmer owes a hundred jugs of olive oil, another a hundred containers of wheat. That ain't small change.
Right in the middle of the whole shameful enterprise sits the estate manager. This man lives in luxury in his master's vacant house. The laborers can see him there, of an evening, as they return from the fields. They glimpse him through the window, bathed in golden light. He's decked himself out in the finest of clothes. His feet are propped on the table, as he savors an after-dinner glass of fine wine.
The manager, in short, is behaving in every way as though he's the master -- when, as all the field-workers know, he's no better than any of them.
There's a further wrinkle to this sordid tale. The estate manager has been robbing the landowner blind -- and everybody knows it. He's been squandering the cash reserves of the estate on high living. Finally, word reaches the master of what's been going on: and an answer from him is not long in coming.
A certified letter arrives on the manager's desk. In meticulously crafted legal prose, it says the master's on his way over, with a team of accountants in tow. They intend to reckon out exactly how much cash the manager has skimmed off the top.
Now, most people, confronted with ominous news like that, would head for the hills straightaway -- and maybe that's what the landowner secretly hopes will happen. But this estate manager is made of sterner stuff. He's a grifter from way back. He knows he's got to think fast.
An idea emerges. What if, rather than running away, he stays right where he is and keeps the con going? What if he turns the tables on his master, making himself so indispensable he can't be fired?
The manager calls in each one of the tenant farmers in turn, and asks them how much they reckon they owe his boss. "A hundred jugs of olive oil," says one, hanging his head in shame. The manager extracts his Mont Blanc fountain pen from his vest pocket, and with a triumphant flourish, draws a line through that figure in the ledger-book. "Make it fifty," he says, flashing a beneficent smile.
The next farmer admits he owes a hundred measures of wheat. "Did I hear you say a hundred?" asks the manager, with a wink. "The book here says you only owe eighty." On and on he goes, reducing the debt of each tenant in turn. Each one assumes it's the landowner who has ordered the reductions.
When the lord of the manor finally does show up, he's confronted with a scene of riotous jubilation: a whole village of happy tenant farmers, who've just taken up a collection for a statue in his honor. How can the owner possibly fire his manager now?
Instead, he does the next best thing -- and here's the surprising twist to this parable. The estate owner congratulates his manager for his shrewdness! "You're a promising young businessman," he says, clapping him on the back. "Have a cigar (it's a Cuban.). I need bold risk-takers like you in my organization. Take my Lear Jet and fly to the Cayman Islands; I'm making you executive vice-president of my offshore holding company!"
There's not a lot we can find, in these despicable characters, that's worthy of imitation. Both the landowner and his manager are shady, self-centered individuals. Yet, Jesus isn't telling the story in order to say, "Go thou and do likewise." He's using it as a kind of negative example.
As Jesus explains, "the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the children of light....if then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?"
Translation: "Look at the shrewdness, the enthusiasm, with which the sleazy shysters and charlatans of this world acquire riches for themselves. If you, the children of light, could marshal just a fraction of that cleverness for God's work, for serving others, what good could be accomplished!"
In Jesus' parable, the dishonest manager ends up doing a lot of good in spite of himself -- at the end of the day, he does lift the crushing debt load from the shoulders of the tenant farmers. He does it, of course, for all the wrong reasons: and even the very money he uses in doing it is not his own, but is stolen from his master. As evil and as larcenous as he is, the manager still knows that, in order to hang onto his ill-gotten gains, he's got to convert the wealth into such a form that his master's accountants can't get their hands on it. And so, he converts it into good will.
- Carl Wilton, from "The Sure Thing," a sermon delivered at the Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church, September 24, 1995