What is known as the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16) is really the parable of the manager who cooked the books. As such it has always seemed puzzling. Surely Jesus is not approving embezzlement? We need to remember that Jesus admired initiative. And the message is really quite simple. It is this: People will go to great lengths to secure their material welfare. Why, then, will they not go to great lengths to secure their spiritual welfare? Or, to put the same question differently, if people act vigorously to protect themselves in this life, why will they not act vigorously to ensure their place in eternity? So the parable does not endorse creative accountancy: rather, it raises questions about the values we live by.
Money is one of the areas we are most touchy about. We are very sensitive about this. How would you respond if someone asked you how much you earn? Somehow, more than we think of our self-image is tied up with issues revolving around money. Someone I know was given the task of selling home office shredding machines. He found it quite easy. He simply asked people what they did with their old bank statements, credit card invoices and cheque book stubs once it was no longer necessary to keep them for tax purposes. Would you (he asked innocently) put them in the bin with the other rubbish - or would you rather shred them? No prizes for guessing the answer.
Jesus takes this human preoccupation with money and uses it to make a teaching point when he asks us what we do with money. Do we use it creatively and caringly, for the good of others as well as the good of ourselves? Notice the moving phrase that Jesus uses about money given for charitable purposes: ‘Use money, tainted as it is, to win you friends, and thus make sure that when it fails you, they will welcome you into the tents of eternity’ (Luke 16.9; cf 18.22). By this Jesus means the poor. The poor you have helped will welcome you at the doors of eternity, grateful for your compassion.
The contrast, of course, is with the manipulative behaviour on a vast scale witnessed by Amos (8.4-7). This passage about wheeling and dealing seems eerily relevant to today’s global economy where bigger and bigger deals can so easily lose sight of the workers and of the poor. But before we start bashing bankers and financiers, perhaps we should take a look at ourselves. We are part of this global system. Everybody loves a bargain. Next time you find a wonderful shirt or skirt at an unbelievable low price, look at the label to see where it was made, and think of the people who made it in Bangladesh or Mexico or China. How we use our power as consumers is one of the biggest challenges we face today.