Make for yourselves friends of unrighteous mammon: the parable of the self-serving business manager

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Jesus did not tell moral fables. He was not a purveyor of uplifting Christian allegories that transcend time and space. He was a prophet in the mould of Isaiah or Ezekiel, telling disturbing, and sometimes deliberately disorienting, stories about the imminent impact of the kingdom of God on first century Israel. Very few, if any, of the parables have direct relevance outside of that historical context.

So when Jesus tells his disciples that they risk being treated like the unforgiving servant, who was handed over to the “torturers,” if they do not forgive one another, he means that they will suffer the fate that the wicked and adulterous generation of first century Israel would face: annihilation, oblivion, historical obsolescence.

Another parable that presupposes a coming catastrophe, though less starkly, is that of the unrighteous business manager in Luke 16:1-10.

A certain rich man has a business manager who is accused of squandering his wealth. The lord summarily dismisses the manager from his post and demands a full account of his affairs. This gives the manager some time to make arrangements for his future. He is not strong enough to dig and is ashamed to beg, so he comes up with a plan to ensure that he will have a roof over his head, at least for the time being.

He summons his lord’s debtors and tells them to reduce the amount owed on their accounts. The first owes a hundred baths (batous) of oil, which is revised down to fifty. The second owes a hundred cors of wheat, which is cut to eighty. These are large amounts. Artaxerxes instructed his treasurers to make generous provision of up to a hundred baths of oil and a hundred cors of wheat, among other items, for the returning exiles (Ezra 7:21-22).

Quite what the reasons for the debts may have been is unclear, but probably these men owed the commodities as rent on land, which would put them in a similar category to the wicked tenants in the parable of the vineyard, who failed to produce the fruit of the vineyard for the owner (Lk. 20:9-16).

The assumption of the unscrupulous manager is that the debtors will be honour bound to repay his kindness when the need arises. Perhaps we are to suppose that involving third parties is more likely to succeed than simply siphoning off more money for his own use, but we shouldn’t press the parable for strict plausibility.

We are then told, surprisingly, that “the lord praised the unrighteous manager because he acted prudently” (Lk. 16:8).

Is this kyrios the master in the parable, or is it Jesus? Since verse 9 sounds like an emphatic application of the parable by Jesus (“And I tell you…”; kai egō humin legō), it seems likely that the parable concludes with the landowner’s commendation of the dishonest manager’s actions. The second half of verse 8 is then perhaps a secondary comment, originating with the tradition or with Luke, reflecting the experience of the early church: “For the sons of this age are more prudent than the sons of light with respect to their own generation.”

The reference to “their own generation” highlights the eschatological significance of the parable. Jesus has in mind the current generation of Jews which stands condemned and subject to judgment (cf. Lk. 7:31; 9:41; 11:29-32, 50-51).

The “sons of this age” are contrasted with the “sons of light,” who will inherit the age to come (cf. 1 Thess. 5:5; Eph. 5:8). Prominent Jews ask Jesus what they must do to “inherit the life of the age” (Lk. 10:25; 18:18). Jesus later says that the “sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Lk. 20:34–35).

From Jesus’ perspective, the end of the age is the end of the age of second temple Judaism, which will come with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (cf. Matt. 24:3). That there will be a resurrection at this moment is drawn from Daniel 12:1-3.

We then come to Jesus’ application of the parable: “And I say to you, Make for yourselves friends from the mammon of unrighteousness in order that whenever it might fail, they might receive you into the dwellings of the age” (Lk. 16:9).

This is addressed specifically to the disciples (cf. Lk. 16:1). Jesus does not spiritualise the meaning of the “worldly” parable. He applies it at the level of money and material resources. It has been suggested that the “friends” made are the poor or those who would welcome the disciples to the eschatological banquet. But this is a long way from the sense of the parable, which has to do with meeting a foreseen need under dire circumstances. The expression “in order that whenever it might fail” (hina hotan eklipēi) in verse 9 echoes “in order that whenever I am removed” (hina hotan metastathō) in verse 4. The story has to do with when things go wrong, not when things are put right.

I would argue, therefore, for a quite pragmatic reading. Luke means his readers to think that Jesus commends the shrewd use of unrighteous mammon to ensure that his followers are not left physically vulnerable and destitute in the period of turmoil around the end of the age. They are to use money to make friends who will help them when money fails.

The phrase tas aiōnious skēnas is usually understood as meaning “eternal dwellings”—where believers will go when they die, analogous to John’s house with “many rooms” (Jn. 14:2). But I would argue that what is envisaged is the transition from the present historical age of second temple Judaism to the historical age that will succeed it. The disciples are to do something like what the dishonest manager did. He did not give away his own money in the hope of getting something back when he was out of work. Rather, he exploited the “system” he was part of in order to secure his future when he himself had nothing.

As the text stands, the “friends” are the prudent “sons of this age,” who must presumably welcome the impoverished disciples into their own dwellings. These “tents” or “huts,” however, are impermanent structures; they belong in the wilderness, they are lived in by shepherds, nomads, and migrants. The disciples offered to knock together three skēnas for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah on the mount of transfiguration (Lk. 9:33).

So perhaps they are dwellings of “this age” that is passing away; but for the next few decades they will provide some protection for the disciples.

If they are dwellings of the age to come, on the other hand, the point would be that normal life carries on after the judgment on rebellious Israel and the transfer of tenancy of the vineyard to a people who will produce the fruit of righteousness.

When the followers of Jesus inherit the age to come, they will also inherit the “world”—nations with their existing economic and social structures, subject only to a new political-religious régime, with a new Lord and a new priestly caste. Jesus—or at least Luke—is thinking ahead regarding the practicalities of life in the new order.