Friday, December 22, 2006

The Dishonest Manager

It probably seems like I am writing a lot lately, but quite a bit of what I've posted was written for other projects and just edited for this format. Actually, I hate to admit it, but much of my downtime (while the kids are asleep and Christy is occupied) has been absorbed by an addiction to Sudoku. A friend got me this themed book which presents a challenge once one solves all the puzzles throughout, so ...

Anyway, I've taken on the task of answering e-mails that people send in through our parish website. I thought that occasionally I would post those here, as well. Remember how it was in school, even though one person asked the question, five more had it on their minds, so hopefully this is helpful to some of you.

This question came a couple months ago from a woman in Ohio:

"Hope you will be willing to answer a question from a curious group not of your parish .... We look at the Mass readings on a weekly basis, usually sticking to the Sunday readings. However, in discussion of yesterdays' Gospel we all realized that we had significant questions concerning the meaning of the parable of the Dishonest Manager. What is the Catholic interpretation of this passage? If you could include verse 9 in your answer we would really appreciate it, it is just as hard to understand that verse, for the same reasons."

My answer:

Regarding the parable from Luke, I will start out by saying there is no official Catholic interpretation. The verses that the Catholic church have defined infallibly are very few, and the church allows for personal interpretation on the rest, as long as we follow three rules: 1) our interpretation must take into account the unity of Scripture (rather than just pulling a verse out of context), 2) our interpretation must not contradict Sacred Tradition (as Tradition and Scripture are complementary records of the revelation delivered during the apostolic period), and 3) our interpretation cannot contradict doctrines of faith (things which we are required to believe as members of the Catholic-Christian community), as these have come from the guidance of the Holy Spirit (John 16).

That said, you are struggling with one of the toughest parables in Scripture, and I applaud your attempts to understand it. So many people, both Catholic and Protestant, tend to skip over it rather than to grapple with its meaning. To summarize, the manager, or steward, was being wasteful with the rich man's money. When this came to his attention, the rich man dismissed him from his position. Realizing that he had nowhere to turn and was not about to resort to "digging" (a job usually reserved for slaves) or begging, he goes to several debtors and reduces their debt to the rich man (even though he has no authority to do this any longer) so that they will accept them into their houses when he is cast out. Ironically, the rich man "commended" him for this action, rather than seek revenge. Even more ironically, Christ seems to approve of this action, which brings us to the troubling ninth verse, where Christ tells his disciples to "make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations."

Some commentaries tell us that the amount that each debt was reduced was the manager's "commission" in collecting this interest, and that by eliminating this, he was attempting restitution for the wrong he had done in being sloppy with the rich man's fortune. He had, after all, not been dishonest at first - just irresponsible, and perhaps he was trying to show that he wanted to be accountable for his wrong doings, an act that the rich man might approve of. Unfortunately, he chose a dishonest means of doing so.

However, the context points to something more. Let's say, for argument's sake, that he was not simply reducing his commission (to which he was no longer entitled, incidentally), and that he was actually reducing the debt that these others owed the rich man. What was the manager's motivation? Realizing he was being kicked out of the rich man's service, he was making shrewd arrangements to have a home among these debtors.

Christ obviously does not approve of his dishonesty, but the parable was an attempt to show us that, as Christians, many of us are put to shame in our ambition to reach Heaven. We should be just as concerned about having an eternal "home" after we leave this world as the manager is in his own situation. The point of the story isn't his moral behavior, but the energy that "sons of this world" put into their matters, that "sons of light" could do to emulate.

Why would Christ pick such an example? Why not a more moral protagonist? Well, if we go with the idea that he was simply reducing his own interest, his actions were not as severe as they appear. On the other hand, some commentaries indicate that this story - where a slave or servant outsmarts his master - was a popular type in the Jewish communities, and that Christ was just pulling upon a popular genre in order to make a greater point. He was, after all, emphasizing the manager's ambition, but not his methods, and the community would have recognized that better than we do in the modern reading. They wouldn't have taken his story as an endorsement of dishonestly, but as an illustration of zeal.

Another problem is why the manager would approve of this action? The obvious consequence of the manager's dishonesty would be that the debtors would assume that his actions had come from the rich man, himself, and were he to discipline the manager, the debtors would suddenly realize that the rich man deserved no credit and disapproved. He needed, at least publicly, to show approval. More likely, however, the rich man recognized in the manager some of the shrewdness and enthusiasm that had helped him become rich in the first place, and his approval goes to indicate that this was the intent of Christ's story - the enthusiasm that we should display as Christians toward reaching eternity with God.

As for the troublesome verse nine, the phrase "dishonest mammon" can be more accurately translated as "mammon of inequity" and is a phrase used to indicate those things which can make us focus on worldly things or even money acquired dishonestly. We should use this "mammon", or money, to make friends who can receive us into "eternal habitations". These friends must be those in Heaven because none of our earthly friends can provide eternal habitats. So, the point of this verse must mean that we should take money and use it to make restitution for our wrongful acquisition of it or (if it was not "wrongly" acquired) to help us to perform holy and pleasing actions, such as alms giving and creating work opportunities, in order to turn our material possessions into signs of our spiritual devotion, making the type of friends that can house us through all of time.

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