Room for Practical Wisdom to Cultivate Goodwill
Rev. Charles Westby, Pastor
Luke 16:1-15
September 22, 2019

In the Gospel reading today, Jesus speaks a parable. It may seem an odd parable, but we’ll come back to that.

The parable involves a rich man and a manager. The parable portrays the rich man as a landowner of an estate. The disciples were probably quite familiar with estates owned by rich men who retained managers to manage their affairs for them. These estates probably involved farmland that was farmed by tenant farmers. You probably would have found olive trees, fields of grain, vineyards, maybe grazing land for sheep and cattle, grown and operated by such tenants. You may have also found the operations to turn olives into olive oil and grapes into wine on these estates. One may have also found operations to produce the containers for the olive oil and wine. As a result, there were many business considerations involved in managing these estates.

The rich man may or may not have lived on the estate. It was often the case that the rich man lived somewhere else.

This manager was not just any old servant. He served as an agent of the rich man. In addition, the manager was trained in the knowledge and skills required to manage such an estate. As the rich man’s agent, the manager was able to enter into commercial transactions on behalf of the rich man using the rich man’s assets. There is a master/agent or principal/agent relationship going on here between the rich man and the manager.

As the rich man’s agent, the manager owed the rich man fiduciary duties, such as, loyalty, honesty, advocating for or pursuing the rich man’s interests, and accounting for the manager’s use of the rich man’s money and property. The manager’s job was to enhance and increase the rich man’s assets, not waste, squander, and neglect them, and certainly not to steal them. As a fiduciary, the manager also had the obligation to get his master’s permission to do certain things, such as, negotiate or settle a claim. The first verse of this parable assumes all these things.

Now it turns out that the rich man began to hear some things about the manager’s conduct of his business affairs. What he was hearing was not good. The manager was breaching his fiduciary duties. He was wasting the rich man’s assets.

He calls a meeting with his manager. “What is this I am hearing about you? It comes from credible sources. You are wasting my money and property. Give me an accounting of your management of my affairs, because it looks like I am going to have to fire you from being manager.”

The manager was being dishonest.

Oh, oh. The manager realizes that he is found out, whatever he was doing or not doing, he realizes that he is about to get fired.

The manager begins to think to himself. “What am I going to do? I am not physically able to engage in manual labor. I am not about to go begging. What I need to do is negotiate with other people who are engaged in commercial dealings with my master in order to be on good terms with them. Then, when I am fired, I will have options available to me” (Luke 16:4)

The manager calls a meeting with the rich man’s debtors. He says to the first one, “How much do you owe my master?” She says, “100 barrels of olive oil.” The manager says, “Take your bill, cross out 100, and write 50 instead.”

Then the manager says to another debtor, “How much do you owe my master?” He says, “100 bushels of wheat.” The manager says, “Take your bill, cross out 100, and write 80 instead.”

This procedure undoubtedly made the rich man’s debtors happy. This is what the manager was trying to do.  

Then Jesus says that the rich man praised the “dishonest” manager for doing this. He calls the manager’s action “shrewd,” as the ESV translates it. He then goes on to say that the sons of this world are more shrewd than the sons of the light in this generation in the conduct of affairs in this world.

Let’s take the word “shrewd” to mean a sort of smarts that is a sort of practical wisdom. Jesus praises what the manager did in the context of the parable and calls it a sort of practical smarts that we could call practical wisdom.

We need to explain what the manager did with the rich man’s debtors to make sense of this. At first blush, it looks like the manager reduced the amount the debtors owed his master without consulting with his master in order to generate goodwill with his master’s debtors. Wouldn’t that be wasting the rich man’s assets and not pursuing the master’s interests? Wouldn’t that be being disloyal to his master and usurping his authority to settle his master’s claim without his consent? How then could Jesus have the master praising the manager for doing this? The parable ceases to be coherent if what the manager did was negotiate down the amount the debtors owed the rich man. For then it looks like the manager went from bad to worse, and it is hard to see how Jesus could be using the manager’s action as an illustration of something he would want us to do.

 In trying to understand this, we need to keep in mind that Jesus drew this parable from the commercial context and practices of His day. Research into those ancient practices has shown important things about those practices. Let’s unpack this.

Let’s start with the English word “bill.” This is the English word the ESV uses when the manager inquired about how much the debtors owed the rich man. The Greek word here just literally means “a writing.” This writing, however, would have been the kind of writing that memorialized the commercial transaction involved, which was a loan.

Our English word “invoice” would be better for this. Our English word “promissory note” would be better still, because the writing was intended to show how much the debtor owed the rich man.

In addition, research has shown that in such commercial dealings, the manager was permitted to negotiate the amount owed to the rich man so that the amount owed included not only the principal amount, but also a commission for the manager. When the Notes in the parable referred to 100 barrels of oil or 100 bushels of grain, therefore, that amount included both principal and the manager’s commission. As far as the debtor was concerned, the full amount owed to the rich man was the amount indicated on the Note. When the manager told the debtors to change the amounts owed on the Notes to 50 and 80, he was discounting the Notes by the amount of his own commission.

This makes sense in the context of the parable. For then the manager did not actually reduce any amount owed to his master in any further violation of his fiduciary duties, for which he was getting fired in the first place. This also explains at the same time how Jesus could have the rich man praising the manager for being shrewd. In order to be on good terms with others, the manager negotiated away what he could have otherwise been entitled to as a matter of rights.

Now someone might object to this explanation as unlikely because of the exorbitantly high rates of the commission, in the one case 50%. There is evidence, however, of such exorbitant rates in the ancient world. Of course, this is a parable, and Jesus could have been exaggerating to drive home a point. He could have also been using a little humor and having some fun with us.

Aside from this, we need to understand what the manager really did. He negotiated away amounts of money that he had coming to him as a matter of right. He did so to establish good relations with other people, because he was going to need a job. In doing this, he did not make something absolute out of money and his rights. Cultivating good will with people out there in the world, even if they were not Christian, was more important. Jesus calls this wise.

More importantly, Jesus uses this parable to teach us that it is wise to cultivate such good will. Conversely, it is foolish at times to absolutize rights to money and property. When I practiced law, I witnessed this first hand, either with parties on the other side of a case or with my own clients. They would stand on “principle” and demand their rights in some absolute sense in commercial dealings. In so doing, they were only “shooting themselves in the foot.” Jesus praises how the manager gave up his rights to money to establish good relations with what would be presumably unbelievers, i.e., the sons of this age (Luke 16:8)

What is the point? What should we get from this parable? The first thing to do with this is to try to “locate” it. What relationship and what part of our lives is Jesus talking about here? This is where the parable may seem “odd,” because Jesus appears not to be talking to us about the usual things when talking to us about our relationship with God, i.e., redemption, faith, God’s grace, ultimate loyalty to Jesus, etc. Rather, this parable appears to involve a Christian’s relationship to unbelievers “out there in the world,” where Christians live and work. Jesus tells His followers to “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth” (Luke 16:9). And the parable seems to be concerned about teaching us some practical wisdom in such relations.

As such, this parable shows that Jesus is concerned about how it goes for us Christians “out there.” It is the grace and mercy of Christ that He is concerned about this. And it looks like he is giving us “room” to put such practical wisdom into practice out there and be on good terms with unbelievers. After all, it is not a perfect world out there. And we must work with people of different beliefs and value systems than our own. Jesus gives us room to exercise a practical wisdom out there to be on good relations with people who believe and live differently and not necessarily according to God’s Word. And Jesus knows that we need to have income so we can eat, have a roof over our heads, and take care of our families and ourselves.

This reminds me of a fellow associate attorney I once worked with. Let’s call him George. He was not a Christian, as far as I could tell, and did not share the same values with me. At times, his conversation was morally offensive.

Yet, I respected him as a colleague, and I think he respected me too. I did not preach to him. When it came to the work, he and I got along well and had mutual respect.

A couple of years down the road he left the firm I was working at and got a different job. A couple of years after that, I was looking around for different employment. I had heard about where George had gotten a job with a government agency. I thought that I might want to explore getting a job there as well. So, I called George up and asked him if he could put in a good word for me, if appropriate, and be a reference on my resume. He said he would. I think this was the fruit of my establishing a good relationship with him at the law firm, even though he and I had very different beliefs and value systems.

A Christian just never knows when he or she will need the good will of non-Christians out there in the world. Jesus teaches us practical wisdom about this and gives us “room” to cultivate such good will, because it is wise to do so.

Amen.



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