From dishonesty to solidarity: The journey of transformation of the shrewd manager

Fr Paolo Consonni, MCCJ

During the past years, anti-corruption policies in Macau have been tightened, affecting the gaming industry of the city, which was once considered Asia’s gambling mecca.  It is also interesting that, in the same period of time, another fight against corruption has been fiercely waging in an unlikely place – the Vatican. Pope Francis, in fact, has had to take extraordinary action to confront illegal practices in the small state and to promote financial transparency in the Church. These moral and legal battles, in two totally different contexts, underscore the universal difficulty we have dealing with wealth together with morality. The issue is undoubtedly complex, even for religious organizations.

The parable in this Sunday’s Gospel (Lk 16:1-13), which has a dishonest manager as the protagonist, digs into this complex issue. Surprisingly, Jesus praised the dishonest manager for being “shrewd,” a term which in the original Greek can also be translated as “wise” or even “prudent” (like the five virgins who took extra oil or the faithful servant waiting for the return of the master). Knowing of his impending dismissal, this manager skillfully reduced the amount of the debt owed by several of the master’s debtors in exchange for shelter. Jesus ends by making some puzzling remarks. The children of light need to act more shrewdly. We should make friends for ourselves by means of dishonest wealth (an extremely strong statement!). If you are not faithful with dishonest wealth, you cannot be trusted with “true riches.” You cannot serve two masters, God and wealth (mammon). How do we make sense of all of this?

First of all, we need to remind ourselves that parables in general are not to be taken literally. Jesus is not exhorting us to emulate the behavior of the dishonest manager, but He is simply trying to expound on larger principles, like the correct use of wealth and other personal resources. The topic is relevant even in our modern global economy that increasingly accumulates riches in the hands of a few individuals and tends to treat people as objects to be used and discarded, with little respect for their inherent dignity.

According to the Pope, we should instead build an economy which has, at its heart, the good of the human person, his or her basic relations and social expressions.

Since the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has called for a new economic model that puts the human person at the center and reduces inequalities, because our financial systems that focus on profit cause suffering and poverty all over the world. According to the Pope, we should instead build an economy which has, at its heart, the good of the human person, his or her basic relations and social expressions.

In the parable, the dishonest manager was able to make a “paradigm shift” in his own value system. In the past, he squandered wealth only for personal pleasure.  Knowing that he might become unemployed, he finally realized that wealth serves also a social purpose. Even though his actions are still morally ambiguous (it is not clear whether or not he was entitled to make those discounts), he learned that relationships and attention to people are more important than wealth itself. Because he himself is in need, he starts to understand that without solidarity a society cannot stand.

But is this not still a selfish and unethical way of acting?  There is no easy answer. Even the practice of guanxi in China, or the concept of utang na loob in the Philippines, both involve exchanging mutual favors in order to strengthen bonds of trust, which sometimes borders on behavior associated with corruption.

However, even though the dishonest manager was still a sinner, looking out for his own interests, he shrewdly transformed a bad situation into one that benefited both himself and others. By reducing the amount of debt owed to his master, he created a new set of relationships, not focused solely on profit, but on something similar to the reciprocal and egalitarian solidarity among friends or among those who are in need. His actions are not perfect, but he is already headed in the right direction to build a lifestyle where persons, and not money, are at the center.

To be ethically correct in the use of our wealth, and to manage our resources in an evangelical manner, is a long and complicated journey, even for the Vatican! But the dishonest manager was “shrewd” and wise enough to take the first steps in this direction. What is important is to start the journey.

In the midst of this pandemic, we have all experienced how vulnerable our economy has become and how volatile our resources are. Corruption and unethical transactions are not the answer to our problems.  We had better learn instead from the protagonist of the parable and, as Pope Francis once wrote, acknowledge “the ultimate connection between profit and solidarity, the virtuous circle existing between profit and gift …  Christians are called to rediscover, experience and proclaim to all this precious and primordial unity between profit and solidarity.  How much the contemporary world needs to rediscover this beautiful truth!” (Address of 16 June 2014).