Squandering and scattering

September 17, 2007

Every time I come to the parable of the dishonest manager, I’m baffled.
Superficially it just doesn’t add up. Does Jesus really commend as our
role model “a manager of unrighteousness”? So this narrative makes us
listen extra carefully and read extra slowly, as we figure out in what
way this parable depicts the kingdom of heaven. As with any
storytelling, the choice of language and the particular detail given
will provide the clues—usually in the first couple of sentences.

This
is the fourth parable told by Jesus in continuous sequence, prompted on
the one hand by tax collectors and sinners “coming near to listen” and
on the other by Pharisees and scribes grumbling (Luke 15:1-2). We hear
a story of a lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son and then . . . a
dishonest manager. The connections between the first three seem pretty
natural: they are all cases of “lost and found.” Are we to view the
fourth under the same heading?

It is the repeat of an uncommon Greek verb, diaskorpizo,
that serves as segue between the third and fourth parables, a thread
translated here as squandering. The lost son “squandered his property
in dissolute living” (15:13); while the dishonest steward was
“squandering his [master’s] property.” More commonly the same verb
describes “broadcasting or scattering something such as seed” (e.g.
Matt. 25:24, 26). Put this way, we may recognize Luke’s trademark
interest in the ownership of property and the way possessions are
handled. Both of Luke’s squanderers are “scattering” property.
Depending on your point of view, they are dispersing it generously or
carelessly—certainly publicly—and acting as if what belongs to whom is
irrelevant. Is it that here we gain a preview of Luke’s showcase
description of the distribution of property among Christians after the
resurrection, where no one claimed anything they had was just theirs
but held everything in common among them all (Acts 4:32)?

In viewing the parable of the dishonest manager in economic terms, I am deeply endebted to Ched Myers of Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries.
His booklet “The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics,” as well as his
speaking ministry, is threatening and invigorating. Prepare for a whole
new way of thinking about money. Myers would describe the principles
for which the dishonest manager is congratulated in terms of keeping
money moving. Money is a resource so long as it is given or
spent—scattered or broadcast—especially for providing to those in need
and releasing people from debt. Thus it builds the kingdom of God,
whereas a privatized account that protects against all forms of
dispersal stands in the way of growing the sort of relationships and
serving the kind of purposes that matter.

The dishonest manager
realizes that generosity is the best investment. He gets himself out of
a hole by building social capital. It is irrelevant, apparently, that
he gives away money that does not belong to him—at least the God-figure
in this story does not mind. It’s as if the rich man turns to the
manager he fired to discover the secret of true riches: generosity.

Does
it take the experience of personal bankruptcy to name the possibility
of a whole new economic order? That is what happens here. Economics,
from the root oikonomia (the Greek for “household
management”) relates to putting your house in order. The “squanderer”
is about to lose his home, his job and the shirt on his back, at which
point (Dare I suggest like the prodigal he “comes to his senses”?) he
says to himself: “I have decided what to do so that, when I am
dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” The same
phrase crops up again at the end of the parable, to underline the
message. It’s time to change economies. Forget “my economics”: it is
time to invest in somebody else’s. Forget “my household”: it is time to
think about other people’s households. . . . time to squander that
which is squirreled: money should be kept moving. It is time to handle
it as the overflow of God’s abundant grace: to scatter it freely, to
the end of making friends and setting people free—just as God does with
his grace.