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The Shrewd Manager

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  • Loren Rosson
    ... Exactly. In fact, Bob, I think a better title for the story is The Shrewd Manager, rather than The Dishonest Manager. The manager s behavior is fully in
    Message 1 of 2 , Sep 24, 2001
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      Bob Schacht wrote:

      >Luke's Gospel of the Parable of the Dishonest
      >Manager is a hard text to understand, because it
      >looks like Luke is praising dishonesty! But if we
      >look more closely, what is praised is his
      >shrewdness...

      Exactly. In fact, Bob, I think a better title for the
      story is The Shrewd Manager, rather than The Dishonest
      Manager. The manager's behavior is fully in line with
      the code of ("shrewd") self-preservation in an
      honor-shame world. See more below.

      >We do not know enough about the cultural context
      >of this passage. When the manager was re-writing
      >the debtor's bills, was he simply refunding his own
      >commission, or was he rebating his master's money?

      The manager was being slandered by hostile rumors
      (that he was "squandering his master's wealth") and so
      faced the prospect of joining the ranks of the
      expendable classes -- begging, digging, etc. But we
      don't know by whom the hostile rumors originated. Bill
      Herzog thinks they came from either (1) merchants who
      thought the manager was taking too much of a cut (his
      "honest graft") so that their own profits suffered, or
      (2) peasant villagers who were left with virtually
      nothing after the manager took his cut ("honest
      graft"). Malicious gossip is but one of the many
      "weapons of the weak" (as James Scott calls them)
      employed by the powerless in agrarian societies.
      Cultural context would suggest that the hostile rumors
      brought against the manager was anonymous slander or
      gossip, intended to put the manager on the defensive
      and create suspicion between him and his master. So I
      think that the manager -- knowing full well that he
      was under attack by whoever these debtors were -- was
      engaging in survival tactics here, reducing the
      debtors contracts and giving the difference to these
      merchants/villagers.

      Of course, the master has been cheated in the process.
      But here's the important catch: If the master banishes
      the manager from his service, "it will blacken his
      reputation among either the merchants with whom he
      works or the villagers whose compliance he must
      ensure" (Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech, p.
      255) -- either of whom now favor the manager for
      having made them a fortune. So it is arguably in the
      master's best interest to keep this "shrewd manager",
      because now the merchants/peasants will be fully
      indebted to him. These debtors will have, in effect,
      signed a new contract with all sorts of hidden
      interest. They will pay for their "good fortune" in
      other ways, as clients always did in the ancient
      Mediterranean.

      So I agree with Herzog that the manager didn�t really
      cheat the master. He simply put new cards in the
      master's hand. The master took a short-term cut but
      would realize a long-term gain. And in the meanwhile,
      "out of this battle came a temporary respite for the
      debtors, a glimpse of time when debts would be
      lowered" (Herzog, p 258). Jesus may have been
      suggesting how weapons of the weak could produce
      favorable results in a world dominated by a small
      percentage of elites.

      >Perhaps the emphasis should be on the mercy
      >of the steward, and of the master in accepting
      >his steward's deed, rather than on dishonesty.

      I think this is beside the point. All parties --
      master, manager, debtors -- are operating out of
      self-interest and survival. Seeing mercy or
      forgiveness as the key to the story does not address
      the glaring problem: A man praises (not forgives)
      someone for backbiting him.

      Loren Rosson III
      Nashua NH
      rossoiii@...

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