Monday, August 18, 2014

Unrighteous Wealth (1) Parable of the Shrewd Manager

The parable of the shrewd manager is hard to interpret, so it is mostly ignored. The translations do not help much, because they dull the meaning of the parable by talking about worldly wealth. However, the parable has a very important message. To understand it, we need some context.

The shrewd manager was asked to give an account for his management. He was accused of not watching his master’s wealth carefully enough. The accusation was probably correct. The rich man was corrupt, so it is not surprising that his manager did not care about his property.

The shrewd manager knew that much of the rich man’s property was unrighteous wealth. He owned land and made his money by renting it out to tenant farmers in return for a share of their production. One tenant had to pay a thousand bushels of wheat each year for his use of the land. Another who rented an olive grove had to give 3000 litres of oil each year.

These deals were stacked in the property owner’s favour. The tenant did all the work and carried all the risk. If the weather was bad and the crops failed, the tenant still had to give the full payment to the landlord. In a really bad year, the entire crop might be enough to meet the claim of the property owner. The landlord would take the crop, and add the deficit onto the payment due from next year’s crop. Tenant farmers were usually poor.

Operating this way was contrary to the Torah. God had distributed that land equally among the people. Every family in Israel was given a share of the land. The allocations are listed in Joshua 13-19. If a family fell into debt, there was a process for restoring their share of the land back to their children (Lev 25). Accumulating land was strictly prohibited, so the prophets condemned it.

Woe to you who add house to house
and join field to field
till no space is left (Is 5:8).
The rich man had probably gained control of his land by cooperating with the Roman invaders.

The rich man’s wealth was unrighteous wealth. Therefore, the shrewd manage believed he was justified in changing the amounts owed by the tenants. The shrewd manager had signed the original agreements, so he knew the rents specified were quite arbitrary. He had pushed them up to as much as he could get. They were arbitrary when they were agreed, so arbitrary changes were justified. He had authority to change the agreements up until the day he was fired. However his objective had changed. He reduced the amounts owed to make friends for himself.

The rich man commended the shrewd manager for being shrewd. He had gained his wealth by being shrewd, and slightly corrupt, so he appreciated shrewd.
Jesus summarises the message of the parable in Luke 16:9.
I tell you, use unrighteous wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
Jesus said that Christians should use their unrighteous wealth or wealth of injustice to make friends for the Kingdom. The only way to do this is to give the unrighteous wealth away.

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