A recent chat with friends regarding peaceful, non-violent resistance of cultural norms led to one of the most difficult parables taught by Jesus. Luke 16:1-9 has stumped and mystified interpreters for years, if not centuries. Some argue that the real meaning of this parable is lost to us forever; others point to Jesus’ overarching penchant for non-violent subversion as the key that unlocks the real meaning and intention of this parable. Given the social, political, and religious setting in which Jesus was situated, I tend to side with those who cite subversion.
William R. Herzog II, Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, and author of Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God: A Ministry of Liberation, dedicated an entire chapter to this parable in his monumental work titled Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. The chapter is titled: A Weapon of the Weak: The Parable of the Dishonest Steward. In this chapter, Herzog agrees with James Scott1 and explains why immediately:
This chapter reads the parable as an example of how the vulnerable utilize what James Scott calls “The weapons of the weak” in their endless struggle for survival in a hostile world governed by invisible elites. Specifically, the parable presents a limit situation, a steward (estate manager) summarily dismissed from his job on the basis of hostile rumors, and follows the steward’s limit acts that seek to ensure his survival.
The above quote clearly points to what is coming, as far as Herzog’s interpretation is concerned. Jesus is simply continuing his kingdom agenda. This agenda is seriously rooted in the peaceful, non-violent resistance of elite powers that span the religious, social, and political landscape of the 1st century. Remember, Jesus himself is a member of the lowly peasant class. He and his people are constantly oppressed by an almost invisible but very, very real power and the elitists who profit from it. So, the elite continue to benefit, while the peasant class suffers even more.
Jesus, however, broke ranks with the members of his class who called for a violent overthrow of these oppressive powers. This obviously did not set well with the zealots, but Jesus preached a different message and he lived a different way. Jesus said that members of his kingdom peacefully resist such powers in non-violent and creative ways. Many, many contemporary believers cite this as pure passivity. I’d disagree. Pacifism implies non-action. Jesus never said, “Do not act! Passively take the punches.” No. Jesus taught and lived in a way that reflects non-violent resistance. His program put this teaching onto the ground in a very, very tangible way. This is not the same thing as pure pacifism. This subtle fact concerning Jesus’ kingdom leads us right back to Luke 16:1-9, and offers us a glimpse into the real meaning and intention behind the text.
Jesus was arming his listeners - the oppressed - with non-violent tools of active resistance. Remember, James Scott later cites these tools as universals in class struggles and refers to them as “Weapons of the Weak.”
Herzog, of course, explains the parable further; the following are his main interpretive building points:
In the village context, peasants had little access to the systemic factors that dominated their lives because they could do very little about them, so they tended to focus on people who were within their reach, such as the steward or estate manager.
The hostile charges brought against the steward need to be seen in their context. They are not moral charges that cast a shadow over the character of the steward but tactics in the endless resistance that is part of everyday life in agrarian societies. The charges are brought to sabotage the steward, undermine his authority, and place the villagers in a stronger bargaining position.
James Scott differentiates between the “onstage” public life of the village and its “offstage” or “backstage” existence. The elites and their retainers control the onstage life of the village but cannot penetrate its offstage world, where the rituals of deference and the symbolic compliance of the peasants are put aside. Backstage is where “gossip, tales, slander, and anonymous sabotage mocks and negates the public ritual order,” and this is where “elite control [does] fall away.” The attack on the steward has come from offstage. It is anonymous slander or gossip, intended to put the steward on the defensive, knock his feet out from under him, throw him off balance, and create suspicion between him and his master.
So, what is Jesus doing in the telling of this odd parable? Given all that Herzog says in the above, it seems clear that Jesus does much more than simply pray for the reign of God on earth; he literally and tangible enacts its principles too! He clearly is teaching his listeners how to take the cards out of the rich man’s hand. The rich man held all of the cards, but the oppressed found a non-violent way to force him to lay them down. The oppressed did so by working subversively through the rich man’s manager. The oppressed actually subverted systemic injustice by starting rumors about the manger and his wasteful dealings concerning the rich man’s possessions. This rumor got back to the rich man. The rich man consequently fired the manager and abandoned him to the lower class. The manager, in a last ditch effort for survival, befriends the oppressed class and cuts their already exaggerated and inflated debt payments considerably (this manager was probably over-charging them, and pocketing the money). This act lightened the stress load of the peasants considerably. The peasants found a way.
This is not just an interesting interpretation of the parable; it is the only sensible interpretation. Let’s look at the parable, just to be sure:
The Parable of the Dishonest Manager
16:1 He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. 2 And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ 3 And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7 Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ 8 The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”
It seems Jesus was actually teaching his listeners the art of peaceful, non-violent resistance through the subversive guise of parable. This will undoubtedly create more than a bit of discomfort in most North American Evangelicals, but they need a little discomfort in their faith lives anyway. Seriously, when was the last time you heard of this side of Jesus in church? It’s right there, in the parable! If anyone has a better interpretation, I’m all ears. So are the countless New Testament scholars who have struggled over this parable for centuries. Sometimes the basic truth is simply unescapable.
So, the question begging to be asked is a simple one: Can you handle all of Jesus?
1 James Scott’s work focuses upon the ways that members of low social class resist dominance. Scott argues that dominated classes fight back with what he calls “Weapons of the Weak,” or “Passive Noncompliance” (e.g., foot dragging, dissimulation, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, and sabotage). Scott is Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University. Prior to this position, Scott was the Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Anthropology. He also has spent much time in Agrarian Studies.
Herzog, William R.. Parables As Subversive Speech: Jesus As Pedagogue of the Oppressed. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.