Want to read something really strange? Pull out your Bible or click on the link and read the lectionary gospel text for this week. It is a difficult passage to get your mind around, and depending on the translation you use, seemingly clear words and terms will become muddy and muddy ones will seem clear. Is Jesus praising a thief for his thievery?
Is the shrewd manager a thief? A first reading will certainly make it appear so. He seems to be giving away what rightly belongs to someone else. It is possible, even probable, that there are some cultural pieces at play here. Perhaps the manager is alleviating interest payments, which would be entirely appropriate based on Mosaic law. Then he would be a righteous man, not a thief. Perhaps the manager is alleviating his cut from the debt. Then he would be shrewd, but not a thief. Perhaps the debtors owe so much they are simply defaulting on their debts, and by shrinking the debts the manager is ensuring at least some repayment will be made. Then he would be an efficient manager, not a thief. Perhaps the manager is reacting against an extremely oppressive economic system. Then he would be a thief, but in the mold of Robin Hood. Of course, he might also be a simple thief.
Is Jesus praising him? This is really difficult to get a handle on. Usually we think of the powerful people of Jesus’ parables as God, and the other characters as either followers of Jesus or those opposed to Jesus, depending on how they act. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Perhaps Jesus is engaged in a bit of satire, and the rich man is really a fool. Or maybe the rich man is so entertained by the managers shenanigans he can’t help but be impressed by them. Even if these lines of speculation get us nowhere, we can notice that Jesus does not include the manager in the description of the “children of the light,” so any praise is restrained.
Trying to uncover the details of the parable itself is a fun exercise, but the instructions Jesus provides at the end are clear. God is more important than money. Other people are more important than money. Trust is something you earn, little by little. These guiding principles seem simple, but they are hard to put into practice when everything around you invites you to consume more and more. I invite to you to work on those three things this week. Make one decision that values God over money. Make one decision that values other people over money. Make one decision that earns you trust from someone else. Then look back in a week and see how your outlook on life and your faith journey are changed.