- Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI (Oblates of Mary Immaculate
Fr. Ron goes on to say, “The great Jewish prophets, the forerunners of Jesus, coined a mantra which ran something like this: The quality of your faith will be judged by the quality of justice in the land and the quality of justice in the land will be judged by how "widows, orphans and strangers" (biblical code for the poor and most vulnerable groups in society) fared while you were alive.”
Amos (ca.750 BCE) issues a similar warning in Amos 8:4-7: ‘“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat." The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely, I will never forget any of their deeds.”’
That is, the rich who control commerce in the land are tipping the scales, cheating farmers and other workers, and using the profits to buy Jimmy Choos and Air Jordans, while even packaging the sweepings off the threshing house floor as the next gourmet treat – that is they are cheating the workers, the farmers and the consumers so they might have a Museum of Shoes such as Imelda Marcos had. No letter of reference for them, says Amos. As Jesus promises elsewhere, the Marcos Shoe Collection is today molding and rotting away in storage. Says Amos, the titans of industry and commerce are not getting a letter of reference! Their so-called “deeds” will never be forgotten. We might think of farmers who have lost the Asian markets for their soy beans due to the recent trade wars, auto workers who are seeing one plant after another closed, and coal miners who see one mine after another closed.
It is difficult, due to poor translation, to see that Jesus is making the same points as Amos Fr. Rolheiser in what first appears to be a parable commending dishonesty in business dealings in Luke 16: 1-9. Nothing could be further from the truth of this story.
To be clear, Luke in the gospel, and in his companion volume The Acts of the Apostles, has a major theme: how money, wealth and possessions are and are not to be used in what some call Kingdom Economics. Wealth is toxic if accumulated and hoarded for oneself as in the story of the man who built barns to house all his wealth and possessions only to find his life taken from him just as he celebrates his achievement – by himself (Luke 12:13-21). He has no friends but himself because he has devoted his life to accumulating wealth. The counter-narrative is to redistribute money, wealth and possessions to assist and support those in need – that is money and wealth need to be kept in circulation for the common good of all people, rich and poor alike. The Common Good is a virtue that has long been in decline in our society. Luke-Acts asserts repeatedly that Jesus stands in the tradition of Amos and others who take caring for the poor widows, orphans and strangers as the measure of a just society.
Succinctly put, the Bible asserts that The Empire (Egypt, Babylon, Rome) accumulates power, access and wealth for a few at the expense of the many; while Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy), The Prophets, The Wisdom Literature and the New Testament Documents all offer the counter-narrative of shared wealth kept in circulation so that it benefits the whole community, not just the few. Luke-Acts advances this Biblical counter-narrative in an atmosphere that has seen the Empire destroy the Jerusalem Temple and all of Israelite culture, accompanied by the severe persecution of the emerging community of Jesus, what would become The Christian Church. The Bible’s strategy concerning wealth is born of faithfulness to the traditions of Scripture, and a strategy for survival against the oppressive, totalitarian machinations of the Empire in any and every era.
Luke 16:1-9 is often referred to as the Parable of the Dishonest Manager/Steward. The first thing one notices in the Greek text is that there is no mention of dishonesty whatsoever. Dishonesty has been added to modern English translations to try to make sense of a strange and offensive sounding parable. The misdirection begins in the opening sentence that says, "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.” Notice how different it sounds when the corrected text reads, “There was a rich man who had a manager who had been slandered for spreading his property around.” Suddenly, those who are represented as calling the manager’s character into question (bringing “charges” against him) are now revealed to be slanderers – that is they are the ones making dishonest claims. The word regarding “spreading his property around” might indicate squandering, but it most often means sowing seed in a field. That could be wasteful scattering, but it could also be making the rich man’s properties more productive. On the basis of the slander, for which there is no evidence provided, we are told the rich man fires the manager, and demands an accounting.
The manager then goes to tenant farmers who work the rich man’s property. These farmers typically, due to bad growing seasons, often ended up further and further in debt to land owners like the rich man in the story. The manager’s primary job is to collect the rent, tithes and other monies and produce owed to the rich man. This system often extracted unjust sums of money and commodities, ensuring that the farmers become further indebted. Unable to imagine himself becoming a beggar or day laborer, the manager goes to the tenant farmers and reduces the unjust amounts to a more manageable amount – reducing one client’s bill by 20% and another by 50%.
Some have suggested that he is merely reducing the bills by the amount of the commission he legitimately could tack on to the bill – yet, we all would like such a job! Commissions of 20% and 50% are virtually unheard of accept among loan sharks, the mob and drug dealers. Grocery stores often work on margins less than 5%, as do real estate agents. He is reducing what was an unjust amount of rent and other monies due hoping that when he is unemployed the people he has helped to retain more of the fruits of their labor will take care of him when he is in need. He will get a good letter of reference from the poor among the rich man’s tenants. The clue that the amount is reduced is not his commission is revealed in yet another questionable translation when he shows his accounting to the rich man. Reducing the rich man’s excessive accumulation of wealth, itself evidence of injustice, the manager redresses the injustice by that redistribution of wealth called “giving alms.”
In English the conclusion reads, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly…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.” It sounds as if the rich man is commending dishonesty. As already noted, the word “dishonest” does not appear in the Greek text. Instead it ought to read, “And his master commended the manager of unjust wealth because he had acted shrewdly…And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unjust wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal dwelling places.”
As Sharon Ringe, in her commentary Luke (Westminster Bible Companion) concludes, “As a good manager, then, he has used the very fruits of injustice in the forging of that new community of accountability based on justice that already participates in God’s project or reign.” (p 214) That is, the manager is getting a letter of reference from the poor, and from the rich man! It does not take much time to ponder why the translators and interpreters try to tame this parable.
Luke’s Jesus telling of this odd tale is not urging dishonesty at all. In fact, the story means to call attention to the dishonesty of those who have a monopoly on power, access and wealth. Instead, he is urging the sort of redistribution of wealth and keeping money in circulation for the benefit of the common good of the whole community. In Luke’s second volume, the Book of Acts, he details how the early Christian community pooled their resources and kept wealth and money in circulation to address human need. It was the practice of this counter-narrative over against life in The Empire that propelled the number of believers to grow as we read in chapter 2: “Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” [Acts 2:43-47]
This story of the “manager of injustice” urges us, like Jesus, to work to end unjust economic practices and begin a modern era of kingdom economics for the common good and survival of the whole community, that is all people. The health and survival of the community, and indeed all of humankind, all creatures great and small, and this ‘fragile Earth our island home,” depends on our hearing and doing what Jesus and the Prophets urge us to do: to strive for justice and peace for all people, especially the poor widows, orphans and strangers in the land. In addition, every church should be able to get a letter of recommendation from the poor in their community.