If you find this parable difficult to understand, you are in good company! I’ve spent a good deal of time over the last few days reading textbooks and commentaries. There are different ways of understanding the parable, but what I think we have here is the Bible’s version of a BANKING CRISIS.
As an ex Banker myself, I am allowed to remind you that the definition of a Banker is somebody who will happily lend you an umbrella, but will demand it back when it starts raining! My favourite Bible verse for Bankers is Psalm 112.5 “Good will come to him who is generous and lends freely.” BUT believe me, if a Bank Auditor evaluated your lending portfolio in those words, anything but good would be coming to you!
Under the Old Testament Law, Jews were forbidden from taking interest from fellow-Jews when they lent them money (Exodus 22.25, Leviticus 25.36, Deuteronomy 23.19). But those who wanted to make money from loans reasoned that this Law was there to stop the poor being exploited. It was not meant to stop ordinary deals between honest businessmen, where the payment of interest amounted to a sharing of profits. So they found a way around God’s Law, a ‘legal fiction’.
The amount borrowed would be given a value in a common item like oil or wheat (say 80 measures of wheat), the interest would be added on (say 20 measures of wheat) and a bond, like an “IOU”, a promise to pay back, would be written out for the total amount in wheat (in this case 100 measures). Interest was effectively being charged on the loan, but the Bond gave no indication of this. Commonly, such deals were handled by a steward or manager, supposedly without the bank owner’s knowledge.
With this background in mind, the parable is telling the story of a “bank manager” who, faced with the loss of his job, protected his future by calling in the bonds owed to his master and getting the debtors, those who owed money, to rewrite their bonds so they no longer carried interest. He hoped these debtors would then be generous to him in their gratitude, after he had lost his job.
When the steward’s actions came to light, this put the owner of the “bank” in a difficult position. He would have difficulty proving the original debts, now that the first bonds had been destroyed. In any case he could not complain about the manager’s action without proving himself guilty of breaking God’s law by charging interest.
So he put the best face possible on the situation by pretending that he hadn’t known interest had originally been charged and by thanking the manager for putting things right. The manager would now be seen as belatedly complying with God’s law, and the pious and godly owner as applauding this! Today we might refer to this as a “win/win situation,” although the owner didn’t get his interest of course.
As the worldwide banking crisis unfolded in 2007, we saw the banks’ senior management, seeing that they were heading for a crisis, taking decisive action in approaching their national central banks in their role as “lender of last resort” in order to balance their books. We also saw millions of investors, believing their savings to be at risk, queuing for hours, all night in some cases, and passionately demanding the withdrawal of their money, so they could put it somewhere safer.
There are similarities with the behaviour of the dishonest bank manager in the parable, because he also took decisive action when faced with a crisis. This is what he was praised for, NOT for being dishonest.
Jesus implies in verse 8 that he’d like to see more of that PASSION, that URGENCY and that DECISIVENESS in his followers with regard to their discipleship.
When was the last time you queued up impatiently to get into a church service or prayer meeting?
When was the last time you argued passionately about your faith in Christ?
And bearing in mind that the human race seems to be living on borrowed time, how are you sharing the Good News of God’s love and mercy with your neighbours?
Do we challenge the inequality in our society? Racist sentiments? The exploitation of old people and minorities?
...Or do we just let these things slide by?
How will you be voting in the local council elections which are coming up in a few weeks? Will your vote be directed by what is best for you or by the needs of your most vulnerable neighbours?
Preachers often ask their congregations ‘If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?’ It has become a bit of a cliché but still is a fair question. Perhaps we are too casual and laid back about our Christian commitment, so that it doesn’t seem all that important to others and maybe starts to become less important to us. If this were to happen, it would make the prophetic words and actions of Jesus a mere blip in the status quo, a historical anomaly, instead of the decisive turning point they were surely intended to be.
Secondly, in verse 9 Jesus indicates that believers should use what wealth they have wisely, to build friendships for eternity. This is a difficult verse in a difficult passage, but it links with other teachings of Jesus about sharing what we have with those in need, regardless of their ability to repay, which of course turns the principles of banking completely upside down, like the money changers’ tables in the Temple. In the teaching of Jesus, money is not evil in itself, however the love of money is a great temptation. Jesus often warns that money is capable of destroying our relationships and our integrity and he urges us to spend it while we can for the benefit of others.
Finally, in verses 10-12, Jesus points us beyond our relatively unimportant earthly Bank Account to our account in Heaven. This is where true and lasting riches are stored by living humble and unselfish lives for Christ. This is where all of our debts and failures have been wiped out by the extraordinary life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This is where our God reigns, not as a “lender of last resort”, not as a divine umbrella snatcher, but as our merciful saviour, deserving of total loyalty, faith and commitment. The ‘deposit guarantee scheme’ He freely gives to all people, regardless of whether or not they deserve it, is safer and more trustworthy than anything the Government could ever provide!
May God find us trustworthy with our money and possessions, with our time and our priorities, in all our dealings with other people, and even more in our handling of his truth and his mercy, which we have a responsibility to share with all people.