Discipleship as Defection from the Mammon System: Jesus’ Parable about a “Manager of Injustice”

luke16By Ched Myers, on this weekend’s Gospel text Luke 16:1-13

Note: In this piece, originally posted to RadicalDiscipleship.net in September 2016, Ched offers a longer study because of his conviction that this is a crucial text for middle class Christians. A more detailed version of the reflections below can be found here; a webinar exploring these themes can be found here. [Right: “The Wicked Servant,” Ian Pollock, 1972.]

Summary: This Sunday’s gospel can be read as a poignant fable for all who realize that they have been disenfranchised by the dominant economic system, and who would try to “monkeywrench” whatever status they have in it to provide a modicum of Jubilee justice for themselves and others.  This parable illustrates the contemporary strategy of navigating what Wendell Berry calls the “Two Economies” by using capital to build social relations, rather than sacrificing social relations to build capital. 

Luke 16 is structured as a chiasm. Two parables with identical opening lines (“There was a rich man who…”) bracket Jesus’ teaching concerning Mammon and the “love of money”:

16:1-8 Parable of the “Defect-ive” Oikonomos

16:9-13          Teaching on God and Mammon

16:14-18        Attack on Pharisees as “lovers of money”

16:19-31 Parable of Lazarus and the rich man

The whole chapter is a literary unit, but firmly linked to the previous and subsequent narrative. In fact, it is closely paralleled by a later sequence, which again brackets teaching and healing stories with two (contrasting) object lessons regarding rich men and discipleship (18:18-19:9). Each of these paired sequences could be titled “Two Rich Men and a Beggar,” and they represent the heart of Luke’s theology of economic justice.

Luke 16:1-8 is often referred to as the parable of the “Unjust” or “Dishonest” steward (so subtitled in many versions of the NT), which already biases our reading. This encodes the hermeneutic of moralistic capitalism, which takes the “side” of the boss while vilifying the steward—despite the fact that in Luke’s story, both the Master and Jesus commend the steward’s action! I thus prefer to call the main character the “Defect-ive Manager. I find a useful modern analogy to be a mid-level bureaucrat in a large corporation who, just as he is about to be downsized because of below-expected sales numbers, improvises a desperate but ingenuous “fire sale” that ingratiates him to his clients. This repositions him, for his own survival, toward the alternative, relational economy of mutual aid which survives just below the surface of the dominant market system. In this reading, the hero of Luke’s parable is a sort of archetype for all of us ensnared in a toxic and oppressive economic system, who try to use whatever social mobility or influence we have to “build a new world within the shell of the old,” as Dorothy Day put it.

The internal structure of this parable is also chiastic:

1-2: rich man’s charges against and dismissal of the steward

3: steward’s internal dialogue about his fate

4: steward’s decision and rationale (= focal point)

5-7: steward’s action: writing off debt

8a: rich man’s response to steward’s action

This rhetorical composition focuses our attention to verse 4, which encodes the “moral” of the story (which is then reiterated in 16:9).

The social world of this parable was the dominating, hierarchical patron-clientism that was the cornerstone of social stratification in ancient Roman Palestine, (William Herzog has described this in detail). At this period of the Roman Empire, a growing concentration of land and wealth in fewer hands resulted in landlessness among peasant classes, and thus greater dependence upon the patronage of “great households.” It is such a household that is depicted here in Luke’s tale.

The story begins with a matter-of-fact acknowledgment that the world is ruled by the landlord class (16:1). Luke’s Jesus has already made his attitude to the “1%” painfully clear in an earlier parable about a rich farmer (Lk 12:16-21; see my comments here). Like him and his huge barns, the estate implied here is vast, indicated by the significant amounts of wheat and oil owed by the Master’s debtors (16:6-7), suggesting that perhaps these are entire villages owing percentages of their harvest!

The “steward” (Gk oikonomos, whence our word economics) belongs to what sociologist Gerhard Lenski called the dependent “retainer” class, which served the ruling class “in a variety of more or less specialized capacities.” These literate bureaucrats had a tenuous existence, having to ensure exorbitant profits for the master through merciless resource-extraction and labor exploitation, while at the same time maintaining working relations with peasant producers and competitive merchants. As Herzog puts it, they were forever “caught in the crossfire between the master’s greed and excessive demands…and the tenants’ or debtors’ endless complaints.” This is where an analogy with modern middle-class, educated folks broadly applies: we too are people who are privileged within yet subservient to an economic system that both benefits and victimizes us. While most of Jesus’ parables feature peasants as their subjects, this story uniquely addresses us.

“…and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his goods” (16:1c). The two verbs here tell an interesting story. The first (dieblēthē, only here in N.T.) connotes accusations made “with hostile intent, either falsely or slanderously.” Herzog believes the manager is being undermined by fellow stewards, who are ever competing for increased prestige and influence in the system. Diaskorpizōn normally refers to a physical or geographic “scattering” of people (e.g. Mk 14:27; Acts 5:37) or seed (Mt 25:24). Only here and in the immediately preceding parable of the Prodigal Son is it translated “squandering” (Lk 15:13), doubtlessly thanks to capitalist hermeneutics. However, there is good reason in the context of this parable to argue that the verb here implies that this manager is already “skimming” and redistributing some of the assets under his control, a practice he will shortly intensify. Surely relevant is the fact that earlier in Luke, diaskorpizō appears in a key phrase of Mary’s “Magnificat”: Jesus’ mother sings about the “proud” being “scattered” (Lk 1:51f), a reference to the demise of just the sort of rich landowners portrayed in this parable!

Though the charges against this manager are “hearsay,” his dismissal is summary, confirming the absolute authority of the Master (Lk 16:2). The accused doesn’t try to argue or defend himself, knowing there is no due process in this system. Instead, in a poignant internal dialogue (16:3), he focuses on the stark alternatives facing him. This soft-handed bureaucrat realizes he cannot physically endure the brutal exploitation that was the lot of day-laborers; on the other hand, seeking alms would obliterate what remained of his “class” honor. Herzog rightly characterizes his options as “death by digging or death by begging.”

The story turns on the fired manager’s conclusion in v. 4. Though his action plan is not yet revealed, the hoped-for result is: he is going to do whatever it takes to “cross over” from the economy ruled by (and for) the rich to the remnant village economy of mutual aid. By further “scattering” his Master’s wealth, he might be able to re-enter the traditional ethos of “generalized reciprocity” which keeps afloat the communities exploited by the Master. The key value of that older economy is hospitality, and his hope is that in return for his facilitation of debt-relief, “they will receive me into their oikous.” Having been kicked out of the Great Household, he now must bet on what feminist economist Hazel Henderson calls the “love economy” for survival.

The rest of the story unfolds quickly (16:5-7). Presumably having a narrow window of time between his firing and the announcement of his dismissal to the village, he hurries to his place of business and, still acting as the Master’s agent, summons his clients “one by one” (perhaps so they can’t compare notes). “Tell me how much you owe” indicates that he no longer has the books; he does, however, ask for their handwriting on the revised bill to make it “official.” Herzog contends that the amount he writes off may be roughly equivalent to the Master’s profit margin; not so much as to raise skepticism, but enough to generate gratitude. This fire sale on debt represents a sort of “Jubilee” moment, re-enacting the old biblical vision (Lev 25:36ff; Deut 15:1ff) that forever stands in tension with ruling economies. In this story there are only two cases narrated, instead of the expected parabolic “rule of three” (see e.g. Lk 14:18-20; 19:16-21)—because this scene isn’t the “punchline” to the parable. That comes in the next verse: strangely, the Master commends his feral manager (16:8).

As in the parable of the Pounds/Talents (Lk 19:22b//Mt 25:26-29), the Master here concedes that his system is corrupt, acknowledging the one he fired as the “manager of injustice” (ton oikonomon tēs adikias). Yet he “gives him credit for being shrewd” (Gk phronimōs, probably Luke’s allusion to the “wisdom of self-preservation” in Prov 30:24-28). Herzog makes sense of this surprising response by showing how the manager’s action has put the Master in a bind. The debtors would praise the Master for authorizing this debt amnesty; he’s now a local a hero. To save face he must follow through on the write-off, so as not to place the whole system in crisis. Thus the Master begrudgingly admits that the manager has outsmarted him. Yet the underling is nevertheless out on his ear, his fate now in the hands of the villagers who benefited from his unilateral subversion.

Interestingly, we are not told whether the scheme worked for the dissident. Luke instead switches abruptly to Jesus’ “decoding” of the parable: “For the children of this age are shrewder than the children of light in dealing with their own generation” (16:8b).   The phrases “this age” and “their generation” are apocalyptic in tone, the traditional rhetoric of resistance in Jewish antiquity. They convey an indictment of the entire system of exploitation, characteristic of the world that must “pass away.” Yet embedded in this oppositional declaration is Jesus’ acknowledgment that as long as “this age” persists, “shrewdness” (Gk phronimōteroi, repeating the Master’s approbation) will be required to survive it. In this case, the manager has defected from his upwardly mobile track and instead linked his fate to the debtor class below him, helping them in order to help himself. His Jubilary gesture gives hard pressed peasants a measure of relief, and thereby (presumably) secures “refuge” among them.

This brings us to the “moral of the story.” Jesus has spun a tale about the rapacious, predatory world of ancient commodity managing, presided over by the “children of this age.” Luke chooses this moment to introduce a unique term, in order to underline a crucial lesson for the “children of light” (the disciples?): “Make friends for yourselves, therefore, by means of the ‘Mammon of injustice’” (16:9a). “Mammon,” which only appears in the N.T. here (and the parallel in Mt 6:24), seems to be a dark metaphor for the economic system of domination. Though not in the Hebrew Bible, is does appear in later Jewish writings. In the Mishnah it connotes property, often as contrasted with life; in the Targum it is an epithet for profit made through exploitation (“He destroys his house who gathers the mammon of injustice,” Targ Prov 15:27). Mamōnās is an Aramaic word that probably stems from the Hebrew for “that in which one trusts”; another possible etymology could be from the Babylonian man man, connoting “filth of hell.”

In the second part of v. 9 we see clear resonance between Jesus’ exhortation and the manager’s strategy at the center of the parable:

16:4: …in order that (Gk hina hotan) when I am put out of the economy they may receive me (Gk dexōntai me eis) into their homes.

16:9b: …in order that (Gk hina hotan) when it fails they may receive you into
(Gk dexōntai humas eis) the eternal tents.

From Jesus’ perspective, the question is not whether the unsustainable Mammon system will fail (Gk eklipē); only when. Significantly, the eschatological resting place for those displaced by the Mammon system is the hospitality of “eternal tents” (Gk aiōnious skēnas), suggesting that redemption lies in a return to Israel’s primal wilderness traditions. This stands to reason, given that the vision of Sabbath Economics was the people’s first lesson in freedom after their Exodus from empire (Ex 16).

Jesus’ here seems to be an urgent appeal for improvisational “monkeywrenching.” Like the manager being squeezed out, disciples caught and complicit in the “Mammon” system must figure out ways to defect from it, while trying to rehabilitate traditional ways of “Manna” sharing. If we so dare, we will be dismissed by the dominant system as “defect-ive,” but according to Jesus, this is the only way people like us can become “trustworthy,” as the following verses argue (16:10-12). At the center of Jesus’ triplet on trust (the Greek pisteuō/pistos appear five times) is a question about reliability amidst the conflict between the “Two Economies”:

If you can’t be trusted
with the unjust mamōnā,
who will entrust you
with things of true value (to alēthinon)?” (16:11)

While the parable recognizes the necessarily ambiguous attempts of any managerial attempt to re-deploy “Capital” on behalf of “Community,” Jesus’ teaching concludes with an unequivocal reiteration of the incompatibility of the Two Economies: “You cannot serve God and Mammon” (16:13). Such apocalyptic dualism provides rhetorical heat, and is Jesus’ way of “politicizing” the issue. As Wendell Berry puts it, “If we do not serve what coheres and endures, we serve what disintegrates and destroys.”

This parable articulates a difficult “trialectical” truth for persons of privilege:

  • It is encumbent upon us to realize that the Mammon system which appears to benefit us is in fact an end-game. We must figure out how to act creatively and concretely to use whatever economic means at our disposal to rebuild social relations with those oppressed by this system.
  • Our best efforts will only ever bring partial relief or justice in a world ruled by Capital; but we must nevertheless persist, knowing that the system is ultimately unstable and unsustainable.
  • The ambiguity of our position (complicit) and our conflicted efforts to resist (fractional) should not delude us (as it has mainstream economic theologians) that the Two Economies are perhaps not after all absolutely incompatible. They are, and the struggle to defect from one to the other is consequential, for us and for the poor.

The truth is, we are deeply entwined in Capitalist culture, and thus for the foreseeable future are “stuck” with the money system. No amount of dissociative rhetoric or oppositional activism exonerates us from our practical responsibility to handle the money we do have “subversively.” We must be clear that money is neither a rational exchange mechanism nor a morally neutral tool. Rather, it is a means of either negating or affirming social relationships. Unlike poor folk, we middle class Christians have far more of a choice about how we deploy our financial resources than we are socialized to imagine. Growing movements such as fair trade, community supported agriculture, sustainable building and social investing demonstrate this.

This subversive tale of the “defect-ive” discipleship of Jesus’ beleaguered oikonomos refuses to exonerate those of us neck-deep in what Dorothy Day called the “filthy rotten system.” We have the response-ability to act—however improvisationally and partially—to use Capital to rebuild Community and justice. Only conscious, critical and creative practices will begin to change the economic narrative that is killing us, and animate our political imaginations to embody ever more radical alternatives to the Mammon system.

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