I’ll begin the reconstruction of this challenging parable by looking at the characters of the story.
- The Rich Man – The source of this person’s wealth is unknown, but the parable reveals that he has dealings with agrarian society. Once the story is set in motion the Rich Man is largely ignored. His primary function seems to be to provide the means and opportunity for the Manager to misbehave. Of course, Jesus’ attitude toward ‘the rich’ cannot be ignored in any parable that begins with, “There was a rich man…” More details will emerge for this character as our study evolves.
- The Manager – The main character of this parable; the theological lesson revolves around his behavior. He is a curious character because while he seems to be untrustworthy, he is in fact considered “shrewd” (a word with far more favorable connotations). Furthermore, it seems as though Jesus holds up the Manager as the character in the story His disciples should model their own behavior after.
- Debtor #1 (olive oil, v.6) – The first of, potentially, many of the Rich Man’s debtors with whom the Manager meets. At first blush this person (along with Debtor #2) appears as a less important member of society than the Rich Man. Perhaps a good comparison might be the ruling class (Rich Man) and the merchant class (Debtors #1 & 2). It’s too early to draw conclusions, however, or to begin looking for 21st century equivalents.
- Debtor #2 (wheat, v.7) – The second of, potentially, many of the Rich Man’s debtors with whom the Manager meets.
- Unknown Party (brings charges against the Manager, v.1) – The source of the catalyst of the story, the Unknown Party reveals the behavior of the Manager to the Rich Man. There is nothing in the text to suggest who this might have been, and because the other characters (particularly the Manager) dominate the story this character is often overlooked. But note that without the Unknown Party, the Manager would have continued his behavior ad infinitum. In other words, without the Manager there is no theological lesson, but without the Unknown Party there is no parable. The role this character plays is fascinating, and the longer I think about him and his silence throughout the rest of the parable the more convinced I am that the Unknown Party is one of the keys to our contemporary understanding of this parable. Did Jesus create the Unknown Party simply to act as a literary device to create tension, or is there more to the Unknown Party? Who would stand to gain in a situation like this? Who would have the motivation to reveal the Manager’s actions to the Rich Man? Most importantly, would this motivation have been important to the original audience of the parable? The most obvious candidate for the Unknown Party is a rival Manager working for another Rich Man, perhaps settling some long-standing dispute. Another possibility is that a second Rich Man hoped to embarrass the first Rich Man by revealing the Manager’s behavior. A third possibility is that through his actions the Manager angered one or more of the Rich Man’s debtors, and one of these individuals reported the Manager. Furthermore, the motives in these examples are anger and jealousy; could these be a part of the parable as well?
- The ‘Master’ (who commends the Manager, v.8) – I suspect most people who read this parable assume the “master” noted in verse 8 is the Manager’s master, i.e. the Rich Man. However, that assumption rests on the interpretation of the word “his” which comes directly beforehand, “And his master commended the…” However, note that verse 7 ends with the Manager adjusting a bill for Debtor #2. It is possible (though too early to say definitively) that the “master” of verse 8 is the master of Debtor #2, i.e. a second Rich Man. This could mean Debtor #2 is a second Manager, or perhaps even a household slave. Once again I am drawn to the rich possibilities of the second silent, and largely ignored, character in this parable. The commendation of the “master” is what makes the parable so difficult for contemporary audiences to comprehend, thus understanding the “master” in verse 8 is critical to our understanding of the entire story.
- Have I missed any characters?
- Do you have any initial insights into these characters not already discussed? Try to base your observations on a reading of the text alone, and be careful not to regurgitate what you think you already “know”. Remember: We are trying to discover this parable, not rehash the last bad sermon you heard on it.
- Do you disagree with any of my conclusions or assertions?
- What questions do you still have about the characters I’ve identified?