It is my contention that Jesus is always talking about himself in his parables, yet without any need to massage his ego, allowing him to cast himself as the weak and humiliated character through whom conventional wisdom is subverted.
I have already argued elsewhere that in Luke 15 Jesus casts himself as the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the younger son who ‘was dead and now is alive’ and now I would contend that, in the following chapter, he casts himself in the role of the dishonest manager (Luke 16:1-13).
Jesus is here speaking to his disciples, in the hearing of a group of Pharisees; but the backdrop is that the Pharisees are increasingly distancing themselves from Jesus, as the tax collectors and sinners are drawing near to him.
In this parable, I would suggest, the rich man stands for the nation, or ‘household,’ of Israel; with an additional layer of meaning, in keeping with the earlier prophets, connecting the public leaders of the people with the wealth of injustice.
In the parable, Jesus takes upon himself the role of the servant who oversees the life of the household of Israel (a role his disciples would see as divinely appointed in the case of Jesus, as opposed to a character in a parable). And an accusation has been brought against him, that he is mis-managing that role.
Knowing that he is to be rejected from the position he holds, the manager sets in motion a plan to be welcomed into another home. Not as a friend, or guest, but as overseer. In keeping with his plan, he writes-off considerable amounts of debt to his master.
Now, why would anyone go on to appoint as manager over their affairs someone whom you knew first-hand would operate by writing-off those debts owed to you? You would only do so if you knew that the debt owed to you was considerably less than the debt you owed...
And this is where it gets really interesting, because the nation was in debt to the tax collectors. That is, the nation funded public works by auctioning the rights to collect certain taxes to the highest bidder—usually a ‘society’ of tax collectors, rather than an unlimited personal liability—who, at the end of the contract would expect to earn interest on their loan, plus—as pure profit—any tax they raised in addition to the amount they had anticipated on raising when making their bid (there was, of course, the risk of making less than anticipated).
So, if anyone would not welcome the debt owed to them being written-off—if any households would be unlikely to rehome the rejected manager—it would be the societies of tax collectors. And yet, these were the very groups drawing near to Jesus. Why? Because debt, here, is an analogy for forgiveness and empathy. And the tax collectors, despite providing the means of funding public work, were widely despised.
Jesus goes on to instruct his disciples to use ‘the wealth of injustice’ to make friends, so that, when the money runs out, they may be welcomed into ‘the age-long tabernacle.’
All money is dirty money. We are all complicit in injustice, in our financial dealings. Moreover, all money that can be made can also be lost, will run out. The same is true of social capital. We gain social capital by loaning our social standing to others, in hope of a good return; or by demanding a high interest-rate from those who would seek to gain from association with us. We seek to have our sins forgiven—our debts written-off—while withholding forgiveness from others. Yet, if forgiveness is the true currency of maturity, Jesus instructs us to squander what we steward for our household, to forgive and forgive and forgive others until we have nothing left to our name.
What happens then? Here, Jesus switches from the language of the settled household, with its place in relative economic stability, to the language of tent-dwelling, from the time Israel wandered in the wilderness, knowing themselves to be dependent on God.
(Moreover, when, in AD 70, the nation loses the temple, the ultimate symbol of both its wealth and—according to Jesus in Luke 19—its injustice, in robbing the gentiles of a house of prayer, all that remains for them is a tabernacle...if I may be permitted a little intertextuality between Luke and John.)
Only once we have lost our name, as the manager in the parable lost his name, as Jesus lost his reputation among the scribes and the Pharisees, will we discover what it means to know the age-long provision of God-in-our-midst: that we are forgiven our debts, endlessly and without measure.
“And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us...”
Jesus, Luke 11:4.
Jesus, Luke 11:4.
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