The story of the 'dishonest manager' has always been a puzzle to Jesus' disciples. Its message is so cryptic that no one has ever been able to say for certain what it means.
St Luke sticks onto the end of the story some sayings of Jesus which seem to belong to it, but he also includes one of the 'floating' sayings of Jesus – things which Jesus definitely said at some time in his ministry, but whose original context has long since been lost.
The saying in question is the one about two masters: 'You cannot serve God and money.' That's undoubtedly true, of course, but the saying doesn't belong to the story, which isn't about money, although money figures in it.
The story is really about leadership. We're all leaders – some great, some small. Some of us are destined to lead nations and armies. Some get to lead a company or a team. Some lead a class of schoolchildren. Some lead their family or friends. All of us, from time to time, are called upon to give a lead, though we don't necessarily rise to the challenge!
The story asks us to consider what sort of leaders we are. Are we resourceful? Are we resilient? Are we clever? Are we capable? Have we the makings of a good leader, or do we still have much to learn? Are we Christian leaders? Here are some things to consider as we ponder the answers to those questions.
First, to be a good leader we must be ourselves. The dishonest manager knew himself through and through. 'I can't dig ditches, and I'm ashamed to beg,' he thought, 'But I know what I am good at!'
If we're not honest with ourselves, if we don't know our own strengths and limitations, we can't be trusted to make good leadership decisions. And if we try to cover up our weaknesses by posturing and play-acting we shall either make mistakes or fail to convince those whom we would like to follow our lead. The only solution, then, is to be honest with ourselves, to recognise our weaknesses and to enlist the help of other people so that we can overcome those weaknesses. That's exactly what the dishonest manager did!
Second, to be a good leader we must value all the people we work with. Again, that's exactly what the dishonest manager did. When he knew he was about to be fired he started doing favours for some of his boss's tenants, but he didn't just curry favour with the wealthier or more influential ones. His help was given indiscriminately, in the best way at his disposal.
The wheat farmer owed the landlord a thousand sacks of wheat, which is roughly £5,000 in today's money. The dishonest manager allowed him to write down his debt to £4,000.
The olive grower owed the landlord one hundred barrels of olive oil. It doesn't sound much, does it, but just think what a bottle of olive oil costs today! Extra virgin olive oil must fetch around £400 a barrel, maybe more, so the man owed at least £4,000, which the dishonest manager allowed him to write down the debt to £2,000.
If you or I were the dishonest manager, we might choose to focus our attention on one or two people for whom we could secure the greatest advantage – and who would therefore owe us the biggest favours. It would be only human nature to concentrate our energies in this way. But the dishonest manager doesn't operate like that. He treats all the tenants equally. It doesn't seem to matter to him whether he's doing them a big favour or a small one, because – after all – when he's been fired every favour will be worth calling in. So he makes no distinctions. He calls them in one by one and deals with them systematically, because all the tenants are valuable to him, and he can help each one to a greater or lesser degree.
Three managers were having a conversation in the town hall when a very influential councillor walked by. The first manager had just asked one of his colleagues how things were going but, on seeing the councillor, he immediately peeled away from the group – even though the second manager was only halfway through his answer. Without even a word of apology, the first manager was gone – walking at the councillor's elbow and looking for an opportunity to speak to him. 'Well,' said the second manager to the third, 'That shows me how important I am!' It didn't, of course, but it did show him how much he was valued by the first manager.
One of the points Jesus is making here is that – if a dishonest manager is shrewd enough to value everyone in his organisation equally highly, from the humblest to the most important – shouldn't Christians be aiming to value everyone equally highly too? And yet we don't, do we? If we're not careful, we find ourselves paying more attention to people we like, or to the people we think can do the most to help us. That's not how a good leader behaves. A good leader tries to befriend everyone.
But there's much more to say about this story. For instance, good leaders don't sit around waiting for things to happen. Like the dishonest manager, they try to make an impact on the situation. They act and speak decisively to make sure that everything they do makes a difference and changes the outcome. In other words, they prepare for the future instead of waiting for it to catch up with them. In fact, they almost make their own future, if they can!
And good leaders also work as a team with those around them. They consult their colleagues and formulate a plan of action with them, but they always get the other members of the team to make their own decisions and play an active part in what's going on.
The dishonest manager could have written down the debts for the tenants and just told them what he was doing. But he was too wily for that. He knew they could always deny all knowledge of what he had done, so he implicated them in his plan by getting them to alter their accounts themselves. Again, the point Jesus is making is that, if crooks believe in teamwork, how much more should Christians work together as a team!
Good leaders also don't waste time and energy reacting to criticism, unless there's some way they can benefit from it. Too many of us spend a lot of our time complaining about unfair criticism, or responding in detail to what others have said about us, or trying to get even, when we ought to put the criticism behind us and get on with the job.
At the start of the story, the dishonest manager is accused by the landlord of wasting money. He's asked to justify himself, but he knows that's not going to be easy. One person's prudent expenditure can easily seem like wasteful extravagance to another. So, instead of putting his energies into constructing an elaborate defence of his actions, ('I did x because I knew that the longterm benefits would be y'), the dishonest manager simply makes the best of it. He's going to get fired, so he concentrates on doing some featherbedding to cushion his fall.
Jesus is warning us not to waste time justifying ourselves and trying to deflect criticism. We should do our best, and if we're not appreciated we should shake the dust off our feet and move on.
Finally, what about the landlord? Does he have anything to teach us? Yes, he does! For good leaders know how to recognise achievement. The landlord may have thought his manager had failed to deliver Best Value by squandering money, but he was generous enough to recognise that the man was a shrewd and skilful leader. 'He praised his dishonest manager for looking out for himself so well.'
That doesn't mean the manager got his job back. Nor does it mean the landlord was happy to have lost his unpaid debts. What Jesus means is that the landlord could see he had been outsmarted and was ready to concede as much.
If ruthless and level-headed businessmen and women can give credit where it's due, shouldn't Christians be ready always to acknowledge the gifts and achievements of those around us? That's the final message from our story. In fact, some of Jesus' other sayings – about the first being last, and the last being first – make it clear that we should never take credit for anything if the credit can possibly be shared with, or given to, someone else.
Is this, then, what the Parable of the Dishonest Manager is all about? Is it an illustration of how the Church could benefit from the way the world operates, and the way business leaders choose to work – not by borrowing some of their more dubious techniques, such as appraisal schemes, ever-reducing budgets and endless target setting and monitoring – but by recognising the qualities that go to make a good leader: knowing our own strengths and limitations, valuing our colleagues, making an impact, sharing decision-making, getting on with the job in spite of criticism, working as a team and recognising the achievements of others.
Whatever we might be called upon to do in life, it's a recipe for successful leadership; but it's also a recipe for Christian leadership.