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This parable has always aroused a certain embarrassment because, apparently, the dishonest administrator is praised and cannot be recommended to Christians to imitate. To understand its significance and to give meaning to all the details, the how and when this administrator fooled his master should be established.
The traditional interpretation supports that the scam happened when, to ingratiate himself to the debtors, he falsified the figures in the bills of exchange. Other biblical scholars sustain instead that he committed some irregularities before being discharged. This second hypothesis seems to us more coherent and logical and we follow it.
More than telling a story, Jesus seems to make reference to a news report of his time. A steward is accused before the big landowner on whom depends his being incompetent, one who devours and squanders his wealth. The master has him called and tells him what he heard about him. The facts are so clear and beyond doubt that the administrator does not try to justify himself or mutter an explanation. He was immediately fired of his responsibility (vv. 1-2). What to do now? He is in trouble, remains without salary and must find as soon as possible a way to guarantee his future.
What to do?—Here is the question that, in the Gospel of Luke and in the Acts of the Apostles, many persons put to themselves. The crowd, the publicans, and the soldiers address John the Baptist asking: “What must we do?” The rich farmer of the parable puts to himself, in his long soliloquy the same question: “What must I do because I do not know where to place my harvest?” (Lk 12:17). The listeners of Peter’s discourse on Pentecost day put it to themselves: “Brothers, what must we do?” It is a question of anyone who finds himself/herself in front of a decisive choice in life.
The dishonest administrator knows of having little time at his disposition. Like what the foolish farmer did, he starts to reflect. He knows only how to supervise; he is neither able to hoe nor to humble himself to beg for alms. “It’s better to die than to beg”—says Sirach (Sir 40:28). Before leaving the job he must put the accounts in order; many debtors have still to deliver the products. He thinks deeply, calculates the pros and cons, and after much thinking, here comes the flash of genius. I understand!—he exclaims happily—I know what I must do (v. 4). He did not ask the opinion of anybody because he already knows all the tricks of the trade. He understood by himself what is the right choice and immediately goes into action.
He calls all the debtors and asks the first one: “How much do you owe my master?” “A hundred barrels of oil”—the person concerned answers. The administrator smiles, taps his shoulders and says: “Scrap the bill, sit down and write immediately, fifty.” The debt that was 4,500 liters of oil (the product of 175 olive trees) is reduced to 2,250. A saving of almost two years of work by a worker! Then the second debtor enters the scene: he has to deliver a hundred measure of grain (550 quintals [1 quintal = 100 kilos], the product of 42 hectares of land). The same scenario! He is made to sit and the discount accorded to is 20 percent. 110 quintals (11,000 kilos) are discounted. Not bad. In the future, these benefitted debtors will certainly not forget the much generosity and they will feel obliged to offer him hospitality in their houses. The story concludes with the master, as well as Jesus, praising the administrator. He acted with cunning. He’ll be imitated!
We are expecting a different conclusion. Jesus should have said to his disciples: “Do not act like this villain; be honest!” Instead he approves of what he did. The difficulty lies here: how could a dishonest person be offered as a model? Before explaining it, I’d note that praising the shrewdness of a person does not mean to agree with what he did. They told me of a thief who was able to escape from prison opening all doors with a simple lighter. He deserves a praise …. He was a villain, but he was clever (vv. 5-8a).
This difficulty does not exist if the parable is interpreted in a different way. We depart from the consideration that if the owner had felt cheated again (2,250 liters of oil and 110 quintals of grain are not small stuff) he would be outraged. If he praises his former administrator it means, in this process, he has not lost anything. We have to presume that the administrator this time has put back his own, giving up what he used to grab for himself as commission.
Let me explain: the administrators must deliver a certain amount to their owner; what more they could get goes into their pockets and the figures could be higher. It was the technique used by the publicans to enrich themselves when they collected taxes.
What did the administrator of the parable do? Instead of behaving like a loan shark with the debtors, he left them the profit he expected to have. If things would be in these terms, then all things will be clear. The admiration of the owner and the praise of Jesus have a logical explanation.
The administrator was shrewd—says the Lord—because he understood on which to bet on: not on goods, products that he was entitled to, that could rot or be stolen, but on friends. He knew how to renounce the first in order to conquer for himself the second. This is the point. We will shortly retake it.
Some sayings of Jesus linked to the use of riches follow the parable. These should be applications, teachings taken from the parable. The first: “The people of this world are more astute, in dealing with their own kind, than are the people of light” (v. 8).
After having appreciated the ability of the administrator, Jesus makes an observation: with regard to managing money, doing business, making trades; his disciples (the children of light) are less shrewd than those who commit their whole lives in hoarding goods (the children of this world).
It is normal and it must be so: while “the children of the world” can act without scruples (they only have to worry not to go against the law of the State or at least not to be caught red handed), the Christian believers must follow other principles and maintain a transparent and right behavior. They are prohibited from subterfuge and deceit.
Does this really happen? Perhaps there are Christians competing with “the children of darkness” in economic affairs, cut a poor figure. And this is worrisome!
“Use filthy money to make friends for yourselves so that when it fails, these people may welcome you into the eternal homes” (v. 9). This is the most important saying of today’s passage. It synthesizes the whole teaching of the parable.
We note above all the hard judgment the Teacher gives on riches. It is called “unfair,” “acquired in a dishonest way.” The reason was already indicated by Amos in the First Reading. We have heard his explanation on the origin of riches. After him, a wise person of the Old Testament affirmed: “Just as the stake is settled between two stones, so sin wedges itself between buying and selling” (Sir 27:2).
This is not a condemnation of goods of this world; it is neither an invitation to destroy them, to be freed of them as if they are impure objects. It is an observation: in the hoarded money there is always present some forms of injustice, exploitation, and misappropriation. Jesus teaches the method to purify the unfair riches.
The administrator is a model of ability because he has a brilliant idea. If he would consult with his colleagues, they would exhort him to take advantage until the very end of his position besides increasing the income (nest’s eggs).
He will take all the counterattacks: he understands that money can devalue and then he decides to stake all on his friends. This is the wise choice that Jesus encourages to do, and he ensures the success of the operation: the benefitted persons in this life will always remain by our side and they will bear witness in our favor on the day in which money will have no value.
It is not a question of favoring the giving of all that one possesses. That would be a senseless gesture, not virtuous. It would not help the poor, but would increase their misery and would favor the lazy ones. What Jesus would like us to understand is that the only shrewd way of using the goods of this world is to use them to help others, to make them friends. They will be the ones to welcome us in life.
The last part of the passage (vv. 10-13) contains some sayings of the Lord. To understand them it is enough to clarify the significance of the terms. The “little” (v. 10) “dishonest riches” (v. 11) “the riches of others” (v. 12) indicate the goods of this world that could not be brought with oneself. St. Ambrose used to say: “We must not consider riches that which we cannot carry with us. Because that which we should leave behind in this world does not belong to us. It belongs to others.”
The goods of the future world, the reign of God are instead called: “the many” (v.10), “the true riches” (v. 11) “our riches” (v. 12). These could be obtained only by renouncing, as the administrator of the parable paradoxically did, to all goods that do not count (cf. Lk 14:33).
Jesus concludes his teaching affirming that no servant can serve two masters…God or money. We would like to please both: we will give to the first the Sunday and to the other the ordinary days. It is not possible because both are demanding masters. They don’t tolerate that there is a place for another in the heart of a person and above all, they give opposing orders. One says “Share your goods, help the brothers/sisters, forgive the debt of the poor …” the other repeats: Think of your own interests, study well all the ways to profit, to hoard money, have all for yourself ….” It is impossible to please them: It’s either that one challenges us or to blindly believe the other.
Italian missionary and biblical scholar