In the previous part dedicated to prudence, one of the parables I analyzed was “the Assassin” from the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas. The question of why this parable is not in the biblical canon is an intriguing one. It may simply have been invented by the authors of Thomas, but it does not sound unlike Jesus to me. Now, as well as it being the only noncanonical parable of the three we looked at, it is also the only Kingdom parable. Kingdom parables, those which purport to give us a glimpse of what “the Kingdom of God”1 (whatever that is) is like, make up so many of the parables that it is often thought that they all have this aim.2 Either way, it may be that the persecuted early Church censored it because they were worried that it made Christians look more seditious, or would even encourage some Christians to violent retaliation, which may have led to the Church being wiped out.
Another alternative is that its violent imagery was too shocking to be accepted as an image the Kingdom of God, but this seems unlikely because there are canonical Kingdom parables which are at least as shocking in their imagery as the Assassin. To begin with, Gerald O’Collins SJ reminds us how surprising it is that Jesus “encourages us to think that” the Kingdom is “like a woman doing ordinary things (such as baking bread) or coping with an emergency (such as a woman searching for lost property).”i It may not break the internet, but more shocking is the parable of the Dishonest Manager (Luke 16:1-7).
Here we are presented with a financial manager who works for a rich man. First century peasants probably weren’t particularly fond of financial managers—and we are less fond of them today. So when the rich man tells his manager they need to talk, you can imagine the audience thinking, “Oooo he’s in trouble. Good!” The boss says something to the effect of “What’s all this I hear about you wasting my money?! I’m finding a replacement for you.” The manager doesn’t reply, but he has no idea what he’s going to do now. That implies he’s surprised, so it’s likely that the boss was just acting on hearsay, and the manager is actually innocent. So now we feel a bit sorry for him. But he is a comic figure as well as a tragic one; he moans “To dig I am not able, to beg I am ashamed”, which should confirm the audience’s negative stereotype of bureaucrats.ii
Even if the manager could get a new job, who is going to employ someone about to be replaced because he wasted his boss’s money? Perhaps (we aren’t told this in the original) the manager was asking himself that same question, because all of a sudden it hits him: “Seeing as everyone will think I’ve wasted my boss’s money,” he thinks to himself, “I will waste it.” We might suspect he will embezzle some money. What he does is call each of the rich man’s biggest debtors to come and talk to him. So our suspicions appear to be confirmed—it looks like he’s going to call in their debts and keep some for himself. What he does do is check how much they owe to his boss, and cancels a significant amount of each of their debts. He changes the records so they now owe less, but he doesn’t take any money.
In a final irony, his boss returns and commends him on acting so shrewdly. So there you have it, that is what the Kingdom of God is like according to Jesus: a man who makes dishonest use of his boss’s money. But it is not just this image that is shocking; the audience are also surprised that the manager does not steal, and perhaps even more so, that despite their stereotypes, they come to sympathize with this immoral character.iii Shock and surprise is clearly a narrative device Jesus uses to attract people and encourage them to think for themselves, but perhaps it is his decision not to limit his images of the Kingdom to popular and moral characters that says more about his own views.iv
Given the polyvalence of parables as a medium, I believe that Kingdom parables can also belong to categories of different parable functions at the same time. As we saw with my interpretation of the Assassin, this includes the function of moral teaching (those Crossan calls exemplar parables). Indeed, if at least part of the meaning of the Kingdom is a new community Jesus wanted to found based on ideal relationships and behavior, then we might expect all Kingdom parables to contain moral messages. But in order to read a message from the parable of the Dishonest Manager we will have to do a bit more interpretation.
This is one of the parables where we are left to think about an ending that is somewhat open. We do not know whether or not the manager had actually been wasting his boss’s money before the story began, but we also do not know whether after impressing the rich man, he will be retained in his service. A more fundamental question we need to ask, then, is why was the rich man impressed by the manager’s actions? Well, after the parable has finished, the text continues saying that
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 16:8b-9)
These statements are as indefinite as the parable itself, so offer little by way of clarification. The first sentence implies that “the children of the light”—presumably those who follow Jesus or behave as he would—should learn from the “street smarts” of more worldly people. But that is only a guess. The second sentence does not seem to follow on directly, and appears to commend the dishonest use of money in order to be welcomed into heaven. Such a message sounds utilitarian, and unlike Jesus. The theologian Norman Perrin cited the New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias in saying that these and the following verses represent “a series of sermon notes by early Christian preachers almost desperately trying to make a wholly reprehensible character into a moral parable.”v This may be the case, but I still think that it is a moral parable. O’Collins suggests another way that this could be. Perhaps the proportion of the debts that the manager wiped out were precisely those which he himself had previously—and in the view of 1st century Jews, immorally—added as interest. Because the interest would only ever have gone to the rich man, this would not be self-sacrifice on the part of the manager, but it would still have been shrewd of him to take this chance to correct his misdeeds.vi But while O’Collins’s idea is a possible facet to the parable’s meaning, there is simply no evidence for it, and hence it cannot be the basis for any inferences about Jesus’s philosophy.
Edward F. Beutner, despite being more skeptical of the historicity of the gospels, thinks that the words of explanation following the parable are indeed from Jesus, but that the two sentences were meant in a disjunctive sense. That is, Jesus was asking his audience whether they thought the story was commending worldly shrewdness or the dishonest use of money for spiritual gain.vii I contend that it was the former Jesus was endorsing, as a component of prudence. (Shrewdness does not cover the listening or forming one’s conscience aspects of prudence, but taking decisive, rational action.)
The most salient part of the explanation in the text is the clue it gives us to the meaning of the story when it says “make friends of yourselves.” The manager has made “friends” of the debtors by reducing their debts, and so they should be willing to look after him and maybe find him a new job. It would have not been much good for him to simply take the money, because however much he took, without a secure place to live or a job he would run out of money before long.3 So that is why the rich man was impressed by his shrewdness. Like other figures in Jesus’s parables, the manager makes the best of a crisis situation. He does this by staying positive, active, and decisive.
1 “The Kingdom of God” is a concept that is hard to translate. I personally think it means something like “where the divine within/amongst us comes first,” but the Jesus Seminar thought a more literal translation would be “God’s imperial rule.” The idea with the meaning of the latter is that Jesus was making an ironic contrast between the Roman Empire whose rule he lived under, and the “Empire” of God, which would be nothing like it or any imperial system. It may also contain a reference back to the old Kingdom of Israel, with Jesus presenting a “New Jerusalem.” I have chosen to retain “Kingdom” because of this ironic function in addition to it being the most familiar translation.
2 Here is a brief historical overview of parable interpretation. While Early and Medieval Christian scholarship tended to view parables as spiritual or apocalyptic allegories, 19th– to early 20th– century historical-critical scholarship (e.g., D. F. Strauss and Albert Schweitzer) generally took them to all be variants of a shared (and mistaken) eschatological message: that the world would end soon and people needed to be prepared so that they would be saved. It is only since the mid-20th century that they have been generally considered as stories with multifaceted metaphors and a diversity of functions.
From the 1970s and the mid-’80s especially, scholars of the historical Jesus emphasized Jesus’s Jewishness (e.g., Geza Vermes, E. P. Saunders, and J. P. Meier) and downplayed the role of the parables because they were not a traditional Jewish device (at least not until after Jesus). Some more recent scholarship, including but not limited to the members of the Jesus Seminar (one such exception is Amy-Jill Levine), however, has maintained appreciation for Jesus’s Jewishness while also emphasizing the centrality of the parables to his teaching.
3 The idea is reminiscent of the “Teach a man to fish…” aphorism.
i O’Collins, (1999), p. 59, citing Luke 13:20-21 and 15:8-10 respectively. Note that female images for God are found in the Old Testament in Isaiah, Hosea, and the Psalms.
ii Beutner, (2007), p. 62.
iii Beutner, (2007), p. 62. This shift of perspective is even more dramatic than with the Good Samaritan, because he was unambiguously moral.
iv O’Collins, (1999), p. 74. The topic of Jesus’s radical inclusiveness will be discussed in a further part.
v Perrin, (1976), p. 102.
vi O’Collins, (1999), p. 75.
vii Beutner, (2007), p. 60.
The Bible: New Revised Standard Version, (1993), Geoffrey Chapman, London
Beutner, Edward F. (ed.), (2007), Listening To the Parables of Jesus, Polebridge Press, Santa Rosa (CA)
Crossan, John Dominic, (2012), The Power of the Parable: How Fiction By Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus, HarperOne, New York
O’Collins, Gerald, (1999), Following the Way: Jesus Our Spiritual Director, Harper Collins, London
Perrin, Norman, (1976), Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom, Fortress Press, Philadelphia