DISHONESTY OR PRUDENCE?
LUKE 16: 1 – 13
Today”s story from the Gospel is an insult to good accounting practices. The Chief Executive Officer doctored the books and cheated the owner of the business. He reduced the amount of debts owing to his boss to ensure he had future friends. How could Jesus praise such a crookedness as prudent? Donald Sutherland would have a fit if he heard about this!
The key to understanding this story is to learn about the accounting practices in the Middle East during the time when Jesus lived. Many of these practices were linked to the prohibition of usury. The Bible did not look favourably on the business of charging interest on loans. But in reality very few people actually lent money without interest. They found a way to go around the law. Where there is a law, always there seems to be a loophole.
The promissory note signed by the debtor had only one line. It indicated the total amount of the principal, the interest, and an administrative cost, all combined. So, for example, if you actually borrowed $1000, the bottom line said, you had borrowed and promised to pay back $1130, that included 10% interest – $100, and a 3% administration fee – $30. So the paper did not actually show any cost or interest.
So I would guess that what this manager did was, knowing that he was to be fired, called in the debtors and told them to change the amount of debts to that which would include easier interest rates and more charitable administrative charges. We have no way of knowing how much in extra charges he normally made, but judging from the 100% reduction he allowed on olive oil, this man must have been charging a lot of administration and interest. He must have been making large profits and pocketing a whole lot of it. No wonder the owner had wanted to fire him. But, by reducing his own profit, I am sure, he gained many grateful friends. Even the owner was impressed by his survival skills.
Another interesting aspect of this story is the backdrop of Jesus” experience about absentee landlords and the management of properties. The Galilee region where Jesus grew up had many such landlords. The landlords lived in the southern Palestine around Jerusalem which was the centre of power. Money and power were in the South, while the fertile agricultural land in the north in the Galilee region was full of tenant farmers. This is why Jesus spoke many times about absentee landowners in his parables. Because the landlords were absent, the managers had enormous power. They managed the property more or less on their own, making important decisions about investments, writing contracts, making loans to tenants, etc. They did not have to account for the details of their decisions. The land owners came only occasionally to collect their profits. For the rest of the time, they could behave like little kings.
People didn”t care too much about the landlords they did not see. But the managers were visible. The tenants, however, had real personal feelings about the managers: hating them or loving them depending on the way they were treated. So they did not much care if the landlords lost money, but they did care hugely if the managers were making large profit at their expense. When the manager was discovered to be cheating on the landlord, main concern of the tenants was how to get back the overcharged interests and administrative fees.
So when the manager found that he was going to be fired, he decided to prepare for his future by reducing his own profit to gain grateful friends. Who would not be grateful when their debts were reduced by 50% or even 100%? He had two options: to be fired with money but no friend, or to be fired but with friends with less money. He chose the latter.
This story destroys any image we may have of Jesus Christ as a nice but naive person. He knew the shrewdness of the business world. He was not dumb: he knew a few things about how to make friends. Christianity teaches tender love. But that does not mean we must be naive or simple. Sometimes loving requires shrewdness and prudence.
I think I told you once that, when I first went to my first church after I was ordained, one elder drew me aside and gave me a piece of advise. "Young man," he said, "if you want to be a successful minister, never touch on three subjects: money, politics and sex." I don”t think he read this parable of the dishonest manager. I wonder what kind of advise this elder would have given to Jesus. We must know how money works and how to manage it, that takes prudence and shrewdness.
But this story also teaches us that we must exercise prudence for the sake of relationships. When the crunch comes, we must opt for relationships over wealth. And Jesus said that the manager, dishonest as he might have been, made the right decision at a crucial moment and was prudent in acting on it.
I used to live among African people who still lived in nomadic culture. They trusted cattle more than money. In fact, they counted the size of their wealth in terms of the number of cattle they owned. When an amount of money is mentioned, they asked, "How many cows would that make?" I tried to argue that cash was better, because it was portable and universally accepted. But they said, "Cash is dead, but cattle are alive. Besides they procreate and increase." It was impossible to argue against such an entrenched belief as that. But it does teach us something about the limitation of earthly wealth. Jesus tried to point out to us that "money is dead, but friends are alive." Indeed, this is the lesson of the Gospel: "Wealth is temporary but loving relationship can be long lasting. And prudence is required to nurture long lasting relationships." The property manager put the prudence he acquired in business into a good use in order to have good relationships in the community. He lost a lot of money in the process, but he chose the better way. God grant us the wisdom to be prudent managers in all aspects of our lives!
I end with a joke and a quiz: There were once four good friends, a millionaire, a doctor, a minister, and a lawyer. The millionaire loaned each friend $100,000. Being a rather eccentric man, he extorted a promise from each to place $100,000 in his coffin, should he die first, which indeed he did. After the funeral, over coffee, surviving friends began to admit what they did with the money. The doctor admitted that he put only $80,000 in the coffin, as he donated $20,000 for medical research. The minister confessed that he gave $50,000 to the church. But the lawyer chided his two friends for contravening the expressed wish of the deceased friend. He placed beside the remains of the dear friend a full amount of $100,000 with his personal cheque.
Who among those three was closer to the image of the dishonest but prudent manager?