If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a story at the right place and time is worth at least that many words of facts, figures, and data. People who make commercials understand this so rather than push information on us they pull us in through characters like Flo of Progressive or Jake from State Farm (now Jake from planet State Farm).
Jesus employed stories to complement and illustrate His teaching. His parables provide His audience then and today with windows through which they can see God and themselves. In Luke 15 Christ tells three stories in response to the complaint of the Pharisees that He was hanging out with the wrong crowd (v. 1-2). These parables illustrate God’s care and concern for people who are estranged from Him. They are well-known, beloved, and powerful as they reveal our Father’s heart (and in the process rebuke the Pharisees’ lack of compassion for those apart from God).
Following on the heels of this is a fourth story. Although this is told to the disciples (16:1), it appears that the Pharisees aren’t far from Jesus’ thoughts (v. 14-15). While the three stories of chapter 15 are simple and straightforward, the story of 16:1-8 is head-scratcher. But that’s the point of some stories—they’re designed to challenge us and make us think about their purpose and point.
The story begins with a rich man which is this section of Luke is not uncommon (12:16, 16:11). But the focus is not on the rich man but his business manager—who apparently has been doing everything but taking care of his master’s business. He’s accused of wastefulness and is fired (v. 1-2). Unlike today when being fired means cleaning out your desk and being immediately escorted out by security, this man is charged to “give an account of your management” (i.e., bring the accounts to his master).
The story escalates as the man sees in this the only opportunity he has to secure his future. Accordingly, he calls together those in debt to his master and begins to slash their bills. One has his debt reduced by 50% and another by 20%. The manager’s thinking is that by doing this he will ingratiate himself to them and either they will offer him a job or at least provide a referral to someone who can.
Up to this point, everything has been straightforward and easy to follow. But a couple of curve balls are on the way. The first is that the master, upon finding out what has transpired, “commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly” (v. 8). This is the same person who fired him because he was wasting his possessions. In a reversal fitting of the other reversals in Luke, he now commends the man for what he has done! If that’s not enough, Jesus tells His disciples this is the kind of thing they ought to be doing. At this point, most of us are ready to go back and talk some more about the wonderful stories of Luke 15!
There are three explanations to this parable that I’m aware of. The first is that what the manager did was to simply take the interest off the accounts. In other words, his master didn’t lose anything because he would still have the entire principal repaid. Of course, Jewish people weren’t supposed to charge interest (Deuteronomy 23:19-20), but this wasn’t always adhered to. And, this would explain why the master is okay with what his manager has done. The idea that the interest on the first account was 100% is a little hard to swallow. Aside from the business aspect, it detracts from the story by taking our attention in another direction rather than keeping it on the manager’s actions.
A second explanation is much like the first only instead of interest being lopped off, it’s the manager’s commission. As with the first explanation, this accounts for the owner’s praise but again, a 100% commission sounds exorbitant and doesn’t fit the flow of the story. But there’ a bigger problem with both of these explanations. We’re told in v. 8 that the owner commends the “dishonest” manager. There’s nothing dishonest about reducing interest or commission—so characterizing him as “dishonest” (even though he might have previously been wasteful) wouldn’t be fair. Whatever waste he had been guilty of would be compensated by withdrawing the interest (which shouldn’t be there in the first place) or his commission.
We’re then left with the third explanation—what the master reduced was the real value of the debt and in essence stole from his master. That’s the simplest and most straightforward way of reading the story. It still leaves us with the question as to why the master would commend him for stealing from him.