Legal fictions and shrewd behaviour.

Signpost for Sunday September 18, 2016: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1: 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13.

The parable in today’s gospel is interesting, not least because it is difficult to understand. On the face of it a rich man commends a manager for being dishonest. Of course this does not seem to be right, so there have been many allegorical interpretations produced which seemed to me to achieve nothing. However, in reading around there is one approach, I found, in the Tyndale commentary on Luke, written by Leon Morris, one which seems to make sense. It puts the parable in a context which matches the closing statement of the reading, You cannot serve God and wealth, and fits the way that the law was circumvented. The relevant law, forbidding the taking of interest from other Israelites, is to be found in several places, most emphatically in Deuteronomy 22:19. A legal fiction allowed the law to be circumvented, saying that it was designed to prevent exploitation of the poor, but, if the poor man had any oil or wheat he was not destitute. Anything borrowed was therefore given a value in oil or wheat, interest was added, and a bond written out for the amount that was to be repaid, which, of course, included interest. By the use of the legal fiction the charging of interest was permitted, by making out the bond for the amount to be repaid the appearance of complete obedience to the law was maintained: there was no record of the loan itself.

The manager who was called on to give an account of his operations decided to look after himself, reducing the amount of the bonds to represent the actual amount that was borrowed. He interviewed the debtors one by one, reducing the bond by an amount that represented the interest that was being charged. The quantities of produce were significant. His boss was left unable to attempt to claim the full amount of the bond, that would have left him open to an accusation of charging interest, so he had no option but to commend the manager for doing the right thing, as well as expressing some admiration for his shrewd behaviour.

The people who heard this story would have had no difficulty in understanding what was going on in the story. Such legal fictions, and shrewd behaviour are not confined to ages past.

Jesus makes a point that it is not possible to devote yourself to devote yourself to seeking God and also to devote yourself to seeking wealth. As soon as we start to concentrate on wealth we lose sight of the more important things, God’s love, God’s grace, and the love and care owed to our neighbours.

George

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