Jesus told parables to hide certain truths from those powerful men who would seek to harm him or his followers if they could be shown to be openly teaching those truths. He knew that he would eventually go to the cross, and that his followers would suffer persecution, but it was also necessary for him to put off those things until their due time because the church needed an opportunity to be established. Nearly all of his parables are now well understood and taught daily in churches around the world. Except one.
I can almost guarantee you that you have never heard Luke 16 preached from any pulpit, anywhere. Scholars can’t even agree what to call it. Some call it the parable of the dishonest steward, others call it the parable of the shrewd manager. The story itself is simple, but the meaning is complex, and unlike many of Jesus’s parables it has both earthly and heavenly implications.
Jesus told this story to his disciples: “There was a certain rich man who had a manager handling his affairs. One day a report came that the manager was wasting his employer’s money. So the employer called him in and said, ‘What’s this I hear about you? Get your report in order, because you are going to be fired.’
3 “The manager thought to himself, ‘Now what? My boss has fired me. I don’t have the strength to dig ditches, and I’m too proud to beg. Ah, I know how to ensure that I’ll have plenty of friends who will give me a home when I am fired.’
5 “So he invited each person who owed money to his employer to come and discuss the situation. He asked the first one, ‘How much do you owe him?’ The man replied, ‘I owe him 800 gallons of olive oil.’ So the manager told him, ‘Take the bill and quickly change it to 400 gallons.’
7 “‘And how much do you owe my employer?’ he asked the next man. ‘I owe him 1,000 bushels of wheat,’ was the reply. ‘Here,’ the manager said, ‘take the bill and change it to 800 bushels.’
8 “The rich man had to admire the dishonest rascal for being so shrewd. And it is true that the children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with the world around them than are the children of the light. Here’s the lesson: Use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends. Then, when your earthly possessions are gone, they will welcome you to an eternal home.”
Uncharacteristically, Jesus even provides an explanation for this parable. He wants nobody to miss the meaning. And yet today, a point Jesus tried to hammer home is lost on nearly all of us. It is a point that he made central to the Lord’s Prayer as well, yet we still do not see.
Right now, people, banks and governments owe money they simply cannot pay. Those who are owed the money are in a hardly more enviable position: often they are producers of goods and services whose goods and services won’t be bought unless individuals, companies and nations have money to spend. So long as the debtors are prostrate, the producers will also suffer. God is aware this always happens, and like always he has a plan we could follow that would minimize the result of our human failings.
The ancient Hebrews followed one of God’s laws that wiped the debt slate clean every 50 years, called the year of Jubilee. In modern times, a Russian economist named Kondratiev rediscovered the cycle of debt creation and destruction that underlies the need for the year of Jubilee, and he named the four parts of the cycle after the seasons, with winter being the season where the economy crashes due to debt overload. I think hardly anyone could look at Kondratiev’s work and deny that we are in Kondratiev Winter.
It is easy to see the rich man as God and the manager or steward as ourselves. But there are deeper levels to the parable, which is why Jesus was at pains to explain it. The rich man in the parable did not care as much about his wealth as the manager thought. The manager’s write-downs were completely transparent to the rich man, and when the rich man saw them he was pleased rather than being angry. Likewise, God looks for all of us to realize that just as each of us owed a heavenly debt we could never repay until Jesus paid it for us by dying on the cross, our earthly debts must be written down when they become unpayable.
The modern equivalent of the year of Jubilee is the bankruptcy process, which is available to debtors every eight years. However the process has become expensive and less effective with respect to many creditors, while it is entirely ineffective against student loan debts. The latter category has affected many of our young people as college tuition has skyrocketed to consume the maximum amount of loan guarantees available each semester.
Not only individuals, but banks and even nations are now affected, and it is time to do something systemic. Other writers have spoken for a need for a kind of global reset button. Whatever they’re going to do, they need to do it soon. Historically global financial collapse has a single outcome: war.