The Prodigal Manager

My husband Jason spends as much time as possible at The Community Bicyclist Bike Shop in the Tanglewood Center. The shop is sort of like his Cheers, if you’re old enough to know that reference, where everyone knows his name. He hangs out there on Friday afternoons, unpacking new bikes and putting them together. From what I understand, there’s a fair amount of philosophizing about cycling and life that goes on there on Fridays, with the owner and all the regulars. This past week there was a discussion about a mountain bike race on an epic trail in Arkansas. Those gathered talked about how they weren’t really into doing the race per se, but they would all enjoy simply riding the route without any of the competition of a race hanging over them. Heads were nodding until one guy spoke up with a truth bomb. “You know what happens whenever there are two bikes,” he said. “There’s a race.” While they might talk a good game about just enjoying the trail and not worrying about who’s faster, in reality they would compete with each other. They would quickly size up who has the best bike, who’s better at ascending hills, who’s more fearless on the downhills, who’s more agile, daring, skilled, etc. Even a leisurely, noncompetitive ride in the woods inevitably becomes a competition. I’d like to chalk this up to male bravado at the bike shop, but I suspect there is something universally true about this. 

Whether we realize it or not, we constantly measure ourselves against everyone else. Take, for example, a friend or family member in your life who is totally winning at life somehow. You can admire that person for their success, and at the very same time, turn it into a self-criticism about how you’re not doing as well. For example, I remember  when friends of mine finished their dissertations before I finished mine. I was happy for them but pretty hard on myself with a sense of failure for not being done yet. It felt like a moral failure. This phenomenon works in the opposite direction, too. Maybe you have a friend or family member who is really struggling with something. We feel compassion, of course. But if we’re honest about it, we also feel a kind of relief that we are not as bad off. In bike shop wisdom, we could say that we don’t have the best bike on the trail, but we don’t have the worst, either. Whether it’s the kind of bike we have or family status, job, money, health, or even character traits like positivity or kindness, whatever marker of success we have in mind to measure against other people, we tend to know exactly where we fall in the pack. We are terribly busy sizing up ourselves and everyone else. 

Jesus, I think, had exactly zero patience for this. He seemed to get especially cranky whenever someone insisted on their own worth or respectability compared to someone else’s. Remember the Pharisee who was a little too pleased with his own virtue? When he thanked God that he wasn’t as bad of a sinner as the poor tax collector who was praying next to him, Jesus lamblasted him for his lack of humility. And in today’s parable, he’s got more lambasting to do. 

The parable of the dishonest manager is arguably the strangest of Jesus’ parables. Even Luke seems to be confused about the story. He tells it and then tacks on a bunch of sayings at the end that feel sort of related but which don’t actually help explain what the parable means. On the surface, it sure sounds like Jesus is praising some guy for lying, cheating and stealing. And that he’s also praising the dishonest manager over the so called children of light, the religious folks like us who try to live more ethically than this shady main character. Surely Jesus isn’t really holding this guy up as model, is he? 

It’s interesting to me that one of the common moves to understand this story is to try to clean up the manager and make him into a kind of Robin Hood. Brian McClaren suggests that we should call this the parable of the manager who switched sides. It could be that when push came to shove, his loyalties shifted from his master to the farmers who owed the master a lot of money. 

This is appealing because when we read parables we want to know who the characters stand for. In this one, we really want the manager to be the Jesus figure. We want him to be the good guy who is stealing from the rich to help the poor, erasing debts like he erases sins. But the truth is, this guy is no saint. He only reduces people’s debts out of self-interest, so that those same people would help him later on. There really is nothing redeemable or even likable about this guy, and yet Jesus praises him. Why? 

I tend to think that Jesus has had it. He’s thumbing his nose at all of the people who are caught up in the question of how good or righteous they are. He’s thumbing his nose at the children of light, the ones who think they are more righteous, the church goers, the good people. In other words, people like you and me. He has no patience for all the ways we measure ourselves against other people and claim any kind of superiority. That might have currency in this world, says Jesus, but it’s absolutely worthless in the kingdom of heaven. I’ll show you worth, but it won’t look like the person you have in mind. 

Also, remember that Jesus is in hot water when he tells this story. The Pharisees are after him for eating with tax collectors and sinners. That’s the real context here. To eat with someone is to declare equality, and Jesus’ downward mobility is offensive to the higher ups. To defend his actions, Jesus launches into three stories about lostness - the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. All three are stories of grace, about how much higher sinners are in God’s eyes than in our stingy estimations and measurements. But this story goes even farther than the other stories about the lost. 

Enter the dishonest manager, who should really be called the prodigal manager. He is as wasteful and unlikeable as the prodigal son. But this story is grittier, more plain, and more offensive. The master appears to praise the prodigal manager just for being the prodigal manager, for being shrewd, calculating, and shady. Not for cleaning up his act or doing the poor any favors. In fact, he’s kind of a snake. When he finds himself in a tough spot, he does what he has to in order to survive. Jesus says he knows something that the children of light don’t know yet. They don’t yet know how much they need God and one another because things are going better for them than for the prodigal manager. Grace may be freely given, but not everyone knows yet that they need it. 

When you really look at the pecking order that Jesus has zero patience for, you realize that it’s everywhere in our lives. The toxicity of it keeps us from loving ourselves and one another as fully as we can. There is clearly no room for it in the kingdom of heaven, where wholeness and grace are sovereign over our petty systems. Jesus wants us to start living into that sovereignty now. 

For a moment, let’s go back to those guys and their bikes in that hypothetical “non-competitive” ride. Imagine that they are busy sizing up one another’s bikes, speed, skill, and stamina. And before they know it, their sense of worth is wrapped up tight in how they measure up against one another. Except for one guy, sitting on the side of the trail, who has just crashed his expensive, new bike due to a dumb mistake. He’s not physically hurt but he feels rotten. The bike will be expensive to repair. He is also bummed in terms of measuring himself against the pack who are far ahead by now. In theological terms, he is as lost as the coin, the sheep, the son, and the manager. But from Jesus’ perspective, he actually has a new advantage that the others don’t have. He can see what they don’t yet, what he needs and what matters more than all those arbitrary, external measures. He needs grace like everyone else, but now he knows it. He will need the help of his friends when they loop back around. What he now understands is that those relationships are what mattered the most all along. 

Kate Alexander