Dishonest, Dodgy, or Shrewd? | Dishonest, Dodgy, or Shrewd?

Dishonest, Dodgy, or Shrewd?

A Sermon for Trinity 17 on Luke 16.11.

Given by Roberta Berke on 22nd September 2013

“Who will entrust to you the true riches?”[1]

Just for a moment, imagine that you are the head of a large organization that prides itself on its high standards of ethics. Your organization urges everyone else to be ethical in all their business dealings. Then you are told that one of your managers has invested your money indirectly in a company that you have publically denounced as unethical. How would you feel? “Embarrassed and irritated”[2] was how Archbishop Welby said he felt when he was told that some of the Church of England’s money had been invested in a fund that had then reinvested that money into the payday lender Wonga. Earlier, Archbishop Welby had condemned Wonga, and other payday lenders, for their exorbitant interest rates. Even though he didn’t personally decide to invest in Wonga, this selection was very embarrassing for the Archbishop. Today’s gospel reading describes a master whose manager was dishonest. I am not suggesting for a moment that Archbishop Welby is similar to this master who had a dishonest manager. Nor am I suggesting that the person who invested in that particular pooled fund is dishonest, though it’s beginning to look like carelessness.

In order to understand this perplexing parable of the dishonest manager, we need to look at it through the eyes of people who lived in the first century. The master is described as “rich”. He does not look after his business himself; instead he employs a manager. This may imply that he is a wealthy absentee landlord, possibly a Roman. Absentee landlords are seldom popular with the locals, and this was certainly true in first century Palestine. People tell this absentee owner that his manager is squandering his property. The master dismisses his manager on the spot. He doesn’t wait to see his accounts. He doesn’t listen to any explanations. Why? The master seems harsh and abrupt.

The master’s actions are understandable, when we realise that in first century society, personal honour was even more important than money. At the time, many authors warned the head of the household, the paterfamilias, that he must keep his family and his servants under his control or he would risk shame and ridicule. A later Roman historian emphasised the importance of a man’s reputation: “[Slaves and freedmen in your household] should not…acquire excessive power, but all should be rigorously kept under discipline, so that you shall never be brought into discredit by them. For everything they do, whether good or ill, will be set to your account….”[3] The master who is brought into public ridicule by the actions of his cunning slave, is a stock figure in comedies. The Roman plays of Plautus often featured a rich but stupid master, who’s tricked by his much cleverer servant. This comic role reversal has persisted into the present day in comedies such as Up Pompeii. In this tv farce, the person who should have authority over his household is Senator Ludicrous Sextus, but he doesn’t notice what mischief his family members are getting up to. Only the clever slave, Lurcio, realizes what is really going on and frantically attempts to cover it up.

Perhaps this gospel parable is more understandable if we imagine the dishonest manager’s words spoken by Frankie Howard: “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg.”[4]  This is typical of the clever servant’s speech in classical comedy. In today’s parable, the dishonest manager tries to win favour by reducing the debts owed to his master. In one case the debt is reduced by a huge 50%. In another case the debt is reduced by a substantial 20%. Some scholars have suggested that these reductions are actually the interest, not the principal, of the sum owed to the master. At that time one way of evading the Jewish laws against usury, was to make the debt payable in goods, not in money, and to lump the principal and the interest together into a total sum on the contract.[5] The dishonest manager’s main concern is not safeguarding his master’s money, but clinging on to his own job.

Surprisingly, the master praises the dishonest manager because he has been  “shrewd”. The clever manager has lost his master’s money but he has saved his master’s reputation, which was more important. His debtors assumed that their debts had been reduced because the master had ordered his manager to do so. Indeed the master’s reputation had been enhanced by the dishonest manager’s actions, since generosity by the rich has always been praised. Who wouldn’t welcome a 50% or 20% reduction in their debts, especially if this was the amount of exorbitant interest charged? The manager kept his job and everyone was a winner.

The master’s praise of his dishonest manager seems illogical. But in the parable of the Prodigal Son, which comes just before this parable, the father’s forgiveness is also against ordinary logic.[6] The same word for “squander” is also used in both parables. But these parables are different. This manager is clearly dishonest, not merely wasteful, and shows no sign of repentance.

What does this parable tell us about our own business dealings? It certainly doesn’t tell us to cheat our employers. Today the dishonest manager would be arrested by the fraud squad and charged with theft by false accounting. Yet in this parable, the manager is commended because he acted “shrewdly”. The word “shrewd” has shades of moral ambiguity.

We have to be shrewd when making decisions, because ethical choices are seldom clear-cut. Do you know the name of every single company in every pooled fund your pension fund has invested in? I certainly don’t. When Archbishop Welby was told that the church had in invested at second hand in a payday lender, he did not excuse it, and he ordered an immediate investigation. But he also said that because of the complexity of funds and re-investments, sometimes it was difficult to decide which businesses were unethical. He gave the example of a hotel that had televisions in its rooms that allowed guests, if they chose, to view a pornography channel. The church had to operate in “the real world”. He said, “If you exclude any contact with anything that directly or indirectly at any point gets you [near] anywhere bad, you can’t do anything at all.”[7]  The Archbishop had been concerned about people whose poor credit ratings mean they can’t get loans from high street banks. These people often turn to payday lenders, which are aggressively marketed with cheerful cartoon characters. Cash is easy to get from them, but often very difficult to pay back because they charge crippling interest rates. For example, the annual interest rate, APR, on a loan from Wonga is 5,853%.[8] Archbishop Welby proposed a solution: strengthening credit unions, which operate to the mutual benefit of their members.

The parable of the dishonest manager is followed by a series of opposing attitudes to wealth: honest, dishonest; faithful, unfaithful; God versus wealth. But these choices between opposites are not always clear in our world of messy moral choices. While we hope and strive for God’s kingdom on earth, we still need money to live from day to day.  We love to spend time here in church adoring God. But this winter we won’t be able to do that without freezing unless we can raise the money to replace our boiler. We have to live in the real world. Yes, money worries and the love of money may lure us away from the ways of God. But we need to use money wisely, even shrewdly to survive in this real world. At the same time, we must always “seek first “true riches.”[9], the kingdom of God.  AMEN.

© 2013 by Roberta Berke. All rights reserved.

[1] Luke 16.11

[2] BBC Radio 4 Today programme and BBC News website 26 July 2013.

[3] Dio Cassius 52.37.5-6. Trans. Earnest Cary in Dio’s Roman History (Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge MA; Harvard UP 1917) p177. Quoted in Landry and May, “New Light on the Parable of the Prudent Steward” in Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 119 no.2 (Summer 2000) p 298. Accessed via Jstor.

[4] Luke 16.3.

[5] Brown, Raymond E., et al. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (London: Chapman 1997) pp. 707-8.

[6] See also the parable of the unjust judge in Luke 18.6.

[7] BBC Radio 4 Today programme and BBC News website 26 July 2013.

[8] Figure from Wonga’s Annual Company Report, quoted in The Times 04/09/2013, p.37; and on The Guardian website. Viewed 15/09/13.

[9] Luke 16.11