Click here, Luke 16:1-13, for an easy to print or email Adobe PDF version of this note.
Over the last few Sundays, the "audience" has shifted from "large crowds" (Luke 14:25), to "Pharisees and the scribes" (15:2) to now, "the disciples." (16:1) And, apart from the story of the prodigal and his father and brother (Luke 15:11-32), the content of Jesus' teaching is primarily wisdom stories and concluding sayings. (And often the concluding sayings are only loosely connected to the actual content of the stories. For example, the sheep and the coin are lost but do not sin nor repent. The sayings about joy in heaven would more logically follow the story of the prodigal son.)
And so, what are we to make of the story of the manager (or steward or agent) and the concluding sayings?
First, we should understand that the manager is indeed being shrewd (or wise or prudent or astute), in that, knowing that he is incapable of earning or begging a living, he uses the time and resources at hand to ensure a third option - social obligation. By reducing their indebtedness, the manager is making the debtors socially indebted to him, and therefore will be able to drop by for free meals.
Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh (Pages 292-294, see footnote below) debunk the suggestion that the manager is simply returning an unjust excessive charge. This interpretation does not make any sense in the historical context, nor in the literary context of the story itself.
Malina and Rohrbaugh also suggest that in the context of the story, the manager has been treated generously by the master at the outset since he was only fired instead of being more severely punished.
And. Since the manager represents the master (even after being fired since the others were not aware of this change), in the eyes of others the master is now in a pickle.
If the master renounces the actions of the manager and demands full payment of the debts, he will lose honour both for reneging on a deal made by his agent and for not properly controlling the actions of his agent. On the other hand, if he accepts the actions of his agent, he will gain honour for his generosity in forgiving a portion of the debts. The master (shrewdly) opts for increasing his honour and publicly praises his manager for his actions.