Jesus told his disciples, “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’
The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg – I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’
So he called in each one of his mater’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ ‘Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.’
Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’ ‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied. He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’
The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”
This parable is just in the wrong neighborhood. It is right next door to the “lost” trifecta of chapter 15 and it comes directly on the heels of the prodigal son story, one of Jesus’ greatest hits.
This is like the song that comes on the radio right after your favorite song, the one that prompts you to quickly change the channel.
And this parable gives us fits, too. It bothers us that Jesus commends this dishonest manager. And so we think, “Is Jesus praising him for being dishonest?” That seems to rub up against the norms of piety we’ve known for most of our lives. And so, you’ll find some commentators going through all kinds of histrionics to make this guy seem more honorable. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the manager is merely reducing his own commission, thus saving his hide while not cheating his employer. But there are all sorts of problems with this, not the least of which being that Jesus never says anything of the sort. And besides that, if this were the case, we should ask why Jesus still calls the man “dishonest” in v8.
So, what do we do with this odd story? Well, here’s my best shot at it.
For starters, there’s this: beginning in chapter 9 and continuing through chapter 19 in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is marching toward Jerusalem. As Jesus journeys, his teaching on discipleship intensifies. It’s no more Mr. Nice Guy when Jesus decides to “set his face toward Jerusalem” (9:51). The teaching in this section of Luke’s Gospel will prepare his followers for what must happen in Jerusalem — both the agony of the cross and the glory of the empty tomb.
Many of the themes we find from Luke 9-19 are bound up in this parable. Take stewardship, for example. Jesus lays out His definition of stewardship at Luke 12:48, From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. The original invitees to the Great Banquet of chapter 14 were poor stewards of such a tremendous invitation and their places of honor were given to the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. Jesus critiques Israel for being poor stewards of their calling, noting that the call will move on to “the nations” – the pagan Gentiles. We could definitely say that the younger son of chapter 15 was a poor steward of his inheritance. And so, our dishonest manager in our text is yet another demonstration of poor stewardship – an example of “what not to do.”
Another of Luke’s themes, his emphasis on wealth and materialism, makes an appearance in this teaching. On the heels of this parable, Jesus says, “You cannot serve both God and Money.” When Luke says at 16:14 that the Pharisees were lovers of money, we understand that wealth (Mammon) has become their treasure. And Jesus accentuates this point with yet another story, this time about a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus.
And in all of this, we see a central theme emerge: People are to be loved and money is to be used. And the best way to use money is in service to loving people. Possessions are to be used in service to loving people. Too often, we invert these in our practice. We’ll use people and love money. People simply become means to an end when Mammon becomes our god.
The shrewd manager doesn’t “love” these people – but he’s wise enough to understand that money is to be used, not loved. So he uses the money to cultivate richer relationships, in the hopes that he’ll be welcomed into someone’s home when judgment comes.
How much more so should we – not as dishonest people, but as children of light – comprehend this truth that people are to be loved and money is to be used, not vice versa?
When I was 10 years old, my father passed away. Six years later, my Mother remarried a man named David. She and David met in the Singles class at our church. They were only married for about a year when Mom received her cancer diagnosis; she passed away a few months later. In the aftermath of her death, many of my Mother’s things ended up in David’s possession.
One of the things that ended up at his place was my Mother’s collection of dolls. These were the kind of dolls that my Mom had collected over the years and she put them in this display case in our living room. A few years ago, my sister, Tara, had mentioned to her husband, Richard, that she would love to have Mom’s doll collection. So, Richard went to David’s house and asked David if he would mind giving those dolls back to Tara since they belonged to her mother and had great sentimental value to her.
David replied by saying, “I won’t give them to you, but I’ll sell them to you.” And he gave Richard some ridiculously exorbitant price for the entire doll collection. Again, these dolls meant nothing to David; they were just sitting in a box in his attic, collecting dust. But rather than giving them back to us, he demanded a huge ransom for them. I think Richard ended up buying one doll and giving it to Tara for Christmas.
That’s not a tragic story, but it is a reminder that wealth and possessions are to be held rather loosely. What really counts are your relationships. People are to be loved and money is to be used, not vice versa.
So that seems to be at least one piece of what’s going on here.
But another important element here is this word “shrewd.” That seems to be a key word in this parable; the manager is praised for his shrewdness. It refers to a prudent person, a thinking person. The shrewd person is discerning. He possesses a degree of self-awareness but he also knows the lay of the land, knows the country he’s sleeping in. And he is able to put all of this together in a way that is wise.
It should be noted that the master praises the manager for his shrewdness, not for his dishonesty. Like all of us, this guy is a mixed bag, so it shouldn’t bother us that this unsavory character receives a little bit of praise for his shrewdness. Perhaps the master, like God Himself, is looking for something praiseworthy in this servant. And once his back is up against the wall, that shrewdness makes an appearance. So, the master sees it and praises the manager. He’s not baptizing everything about his character, just this one component.
This isn’t the only time Jesus preaches about the importance of shrewdness. In Matthew 10, Jesus sends the Twelve out to the lost sheep of Israel to preach of the nearness of the Kingdom. And he tells them, I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves (10:16). Shrewdness is part of the missional strategy Jesus calls the disciples to employ as they announce the nearness of the Kingdom. And, by virtue of this being a word for the church also, we understand that shrewdness is part of our missional strategy as well as we share the Good News with others.
Even earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount with a word about shrewdness. In our translations, we read about the “wise man” who built his house upon the rock, but it’s the same word translated as “shrewd” in these other texts. Jesus says, Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a shrewd man who built his house on the rock.
Back to our manager, he acts shrewdly to curry favor among his clients. He prudently calls in some of his account holders and cuts a few deals. The amount of the reduction here is significant. One scholar says, “The actual value of the reduction in each case has been computed to equal about…sixteen months’ wages for a soldier or a day laborer.”
This is an important point; more than just semantics: It’s not that a manager is commended for an act of dishonesty, but that a dishonest manager is commended for an act of prudence. These acts reflect well on the wise manager, but they also curry favor for the master. And in an ancient culture, a master’s honor was priceless. By reducing the amounts his clients owed, the manager helped give the master a more honorable name in the community.
What are the missional implications of that idea? Perhaps this idea of shrewdness and prudence would keep our hearts and minds pointed in the right missional direction.
I love the way part of this passage is translated in the Complete Jewish Bible. V8, CJB, “And the employer of the dishonest manager applauded him for acting so shrewdly! For the worldly have more sekhel than those who have received the light – in dealing with their own kind of people!”
The Hebrew word in this translation — sekhel — means “common sense, practical intelligence, wisdom.” Jesus says people of the world usually have more common sense about approaching their own kind than the children of the light possess.
Here is the manager’s common sense shrewdness: he takes decisive action in the face of judgment. He acts prudently in light of what’s coming. He can interpret the signs of the times and act accordingly.
One final example of this from the OT. In 1 Chronicles 12, men of Israel assemble at Hebron to fight for David “to turn Saul’s kingdom over to him, as the Lord had said,” (12:23). And the text lists how many thousands come from each tribe to fight for the cause of David. The tribes from the east of the Jordan – Rueben, Gad, and Manasseh – brought 120,000 troops! But the smallest number belonged to Issachar: 1 Chronicles 12:32, Men of Issachar, who understood the times and knew what Israel should do – 200 chiefs, with all their relatives under their command…
Only 200 men from Issachar, which doesn’t sound like many numerically. But the key was in their shrewdness. They knew the times and knew what Israel should do. And they deployed this shrewdness in the battle for the kingdom.
The shrewd are the ones who steward the moment well. They see past what is to see what will be. And they wisely deploy their resources in service to this eschatological vision.
On one hand, the parable of the shrewd manager is about those in Israel savvy enough to see what God was going to do in Jerusalem through Jesus. It seems to be directed at Israel with eyebrows arched: “Will you be shrewd enough to discern what is to come?” I think Jesus intends for this parable to goad Israel to see her Messiah and welcome him into these “dwellings” he refers to in this story.
And on the other hand, this parable is about those of us savvy enough to see what God is doing in our own time. I think Jesus speaks these words to us with eyebrows raised as well. And I think He has two questions for us. First, will we be shrewd enough to see what God has done through Jesus? And many of us came to that conclusion long ago. We said “Yes” to Jesus and that has made all the difference in our lives. Praise God for this!
But Jesus tells us this story and I think He still stands there with His eyebrows raised. I think He says, “I’m glad you’ve been shrewd enough to see where all of this is headed. Now, will you steward the moment well?” And in this word for us, Jesus intends for this parable to goad us into being good stewards of our current moment.
North America is increasingly a post-Christian culture. There has been a sea change in the religious landscape over the last 20-30 years. The number of self-identified “spiritual but not religious” or “religious nones” has multiplied exponentially in this generation. Church attendance and religious affiliation are in a freefall.
From Gallup’s Annual Faith and Beliefs Poll, May 2017:
Americans continue to express an increasingly liberal outlook on what is morally acceptable, as their views on 10 of 19 moral issues that Gallup measures are the most left-leaning or permissive they have been to date. The percentages of U.S. adults who believe birth control, divorce, sex between unmarried people, gay or lesbian relations, having a baby outside of marriage, doctor-assisted suicide, pornography and polygamy are morally acceptable practices have tied record highs or set new ones this year.
This particular moment requires tremendous savvy, shrewdness, and common sense from God’s people.
Will we steward this moment well?