February 13, 2012

Was He a Dishonest Manager After All?

A much longer version of this blog appears in The Fourth R, 25.3 (May-June 2012): 9-10.

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On February 1st I published a brief story that is usually titled “the Dishonest Steward,” and asked readers for their thoughts. Here are some of my thoughts about the story from an as yet unpublished paper. In brief the story concerns a manager accused of “wasting resources” in his management of his employer’s business. The reader is never told specifically what someone had reported about him. He is confronted by the owner and summarily fired. No evidence is given that the manager is guilty of what he had been accused. Managers in places of great responsibility in the ancient world were people carefully chosen for their aptitude for management, or at least that is what the little evidence in ancient literature about managers leads one to believe. This manager, however, does not protest the owner’s actions or proclaim his innocence. Instead faced with the prospect of accounting to the owner for his service while as he is leaving office, he comes up with a desperate and risky plan to feather his nest by defrauding his former employer. The plan involves collusion with those indebted to the business. If they will agree to defraud the owner, it will result in a significant savings to them in the amount of money they must pay to the owner of the business. The manager hopes that this desperate action on his part will obligate the debtors to him, so that when he is finally out of the job, some of his fellow conspirators will reward him with a position in their households. The narrative ends with the manager pitching his proposition to two of his boss’s debtors.

     The narrative ends without a resolution. Did the debtors agree to the plan? When the manager was through with giving an accounting to the owner, did one or more of the debtors provide him shelter? At the end of the story readers are left with an image of a man engaged in what on the surface appears to be an illegal act.

     The story does not teach a moral lesson. It presents readers with an unresolved complication: that is, to answer the question: what happened next? Do the debtors go along with the manager’s plan; is it successful or not?

     Without assuming information not given in the story, it raises this question: does the manager’s cause (him securing his future wellbeing) justify his risks and the means he takes to secure his future—or, as it appears in ethical theory: do the ends justify the means? The manager was faced with the loss of livelihood and the only two options he sees are becoming a common beggar or a day laborer, neither of which he is prepared to do. His dire situation, as he sees it, called for whatever action would resolve his situation—even action in the extreme. In his view the only action open to him is to curry favor with his employer’s debtors by forgiving part of their debt, with their complicity, through forgery and fraud. In short, he takes from the rich and gives to those with less and the only thing he gets out of his Robin-Hood-like act is the hope that they may reciprocate when he finds himself on the street. It is a pretty risky plan with no certainty of success, but it was, he thought, the best decision he could make based on his situation. Can such a deliberate illegal act ever be considered ethical or moral? And why is Jesus telling a story like this?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 7:59pm

Dear Charlie,
After I read your blog about the Dishonest Manager, I sent in a comment saying it's all about the money then and now.

You e-mailed me back and asked if I could say some more about that. Sure; but not much. I think there's a tendency to attempt more significant interpretations and some of the parables warrant. I see Jesus as undermining some of most significant themes in his culture.

One theme is that God blesses, that is, gives power and affluence to his chosen folks. Those folks are the elites who rip off the poor and manipulate the economy to get get more than their share, and when thievery and manipulation become less productive, they turn out squads of thugs to impose their will.

If that isn't a characteristic description of the economic situation in the United States today, I don't know one that would be better. You remember that quote from Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor New York City, who claimed that he had his own army, the New York City Police Department. Poor Mayor Quan of Oakland is in big trouble because her Army seems not subject to any of her influence. They have been known as renegades for years and years.

So I think Jesus is just telling a story about how things are and if John Dominic Crossan is right that we have here the outline of what might've been a very long story told as much for the amusement of his listeners as for any other reason. I think Jesus might have ended his story by quoting Kurt Vonnegut, “So it goes.”

I'm attaching an interpretation from Loren Rossen's (?) blog. I think you can see that he is coming from that school of scholars like Herzog, Yoder and Horsley.

Keep asking the questions and my best to you,
Posted by Peter Lawson on 2/15/2012 at 5:02pm