The Parable of the Shrewd Manager
1Jesus told his disciples: "There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2So 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.'
3"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— 4I know what I'll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.'
5"So he called in each one of his master's debtors. He asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?'
6" 'Eight hundred gallons[a] of olive oil,' he replied.
"The manager told him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.'
7"Then he asked the second, 'And how much do you owe?'
" 'A thousand bushels[b] of wheat,' he replied.
"He told him, 'Take your bill and make it eight hundred.'
8"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. 9I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
10"Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own?
13"No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money."
Anyone who has been over to our house in the last three years knows that we have a rather energetic young terrier named Johnny Cash. Johnny is a lovable and good-natured dog, but one (with all apologies to my wife) who is just not the sharpest knife in the drawer. In other words, he is a good dog but he’s just not very smart. He loves to play, though. In fact, he is always read for a good game of catch, tug, or chase. One of his favorite games is to chase anything that you throw, even if it is not something that you really wanted him to go get and bring back to you. One of the funniest things that he does though happens when you throw two things at him. Like I said, he is not the brightest bulb, and throwing two things at once confuses him. He hilariously jumps back and forth between the two items, trying to pick them both up with his mouth at the same time. He goes back and forth between the two items, trying to figure out how to carry both of them at a more and more frantic pace. If you feign like you are going to take one of his items away, then he really gets crazy, moving his mouth quickly back and forth, picking up one item, then dropping it to pick up the other. He does this quickly and repeatedly but one thing never changes. The canine genius simply cannot carry two things at once, he must choose one or the other.
Jesus has been systematically redefining, through the pages of Luke’s gospel, what his family of disciples would look like. He has redefined what it means to follow God and be part of that family, and he has drastically redrawn the lines of who would be welcomed into that family. He has shown that his brothers and sisters in that family needed to think and act in dramatically different ways than the culture in which they found themselves, wherever that might be. In chapter 15, Jesus told of the shocking grace and love that the Father was willing to shower on those who would but recognize that they had squandered what God had given, would admit that they were lost, and would do nothing more than to allow the Father to find them. But to experience that, a clear choice has to be made. Who will your master be? Will it be your possessions, your wealth, and ultimately your own will, or will it be God? Above all, Jesus knew that to truly abandon one’s own agenda and follow him meant that we must be willing to give up any thoughts of our plans and advancement, and trust in God alone.
Virtually every commentator and biblical teacher will agree, if on nothing else, that this is one of Jesus’ most difficult parables to understand and interpret. There are, in fact, so many different potential interpretations of this passage, that we simply do not have the space to consider all of the possibilities. When a passage is so difficult, though, it usually is a signal that there are some cultural explanations or usage of figures of speech that are difficult for us, who are separated by a vast cultural gap and time gap, to understand. The keys, I believe, in understanding this complicated passage, are to understand a bit of the cultural example that Jesus gives along with our continued consideration of the larger context of this new Exodus passage that stretches from Luke 9-19.
One of the clues to better understanding this parable is to recognize that it comes on the heals, at least in Luke’s ordering of things, of the parable of the lost son. He has now turned to his disciples to specifically teach them something important about decisions that must be made to turn away from the Israel that the religious leaders and Pharisees were calling people to, and to turn to the true Israel that Jesus was calling them to.
Another important clue is to give consideration to the fact that this is indeed a parable. Parables were short stories that used common, everyday occurrences to demonstrate some truth about the kingdom of God. As a general rule, the intent of the parable was not to expound upon the actual topic of the parable, although it may at time shed some moral light on the subject area of the example. But, for instance, the main thrust of Jesus’ parable about the man who threw a great banquet (Lk. 14:16-23) did not have to do with what one should do if they throw a party and no one comes. Nor was the main point of his parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) meant to be sage advice on how virgins should prepare for a wedding. And certainly the purpose of the parable of the sower (Lk. 8:1-15) was not an examination of good farming techniques. In the same way, although there may be some valuable principles for how one handles money, the parable and the subsequent explanation that we have in this passage have much more to do with a truth of the kingdom of God and what it means to follow Jesus.
In general, it was a safe assumption in first century Israel that if someone told a story of this nature about a manager and a master that the master was generally representative of God and the manager was Israel. Although, there are differing ways to interpret this parable, I believe that this is probably the best explanation. Jesus describes a manager that is about to lose his position due to poor behavior which leaves him with a choice of what to do. He looks at the inevitability of the situation and makes the decision to take care of his future rather than clinging to his practices of the past. Biblical scholar Duncan Derret has ably demonstrated that what the manager did to soften the blow of the situation he was in, was to forgo the commission that a manager in this situation would have received, which would have been a significant amount. Continuing in his previously dishonest practices would have done him no good so he needed to abandon them and do something to create good will. His gesture would have put the clients in his debt and ensured that they would treat him kindly when he was eventually fired by the master. He took advantage of the time that he had to turn away from his dishonesty and to give up what he might have had coming in the present to put himself in a better situation in the long run. The master admired the fact that the manager had created good will for himself by acting shrewdly in a way that softened the blow for him but did not further cheat the master.
As we have seen, a large portion of the content of Jesus’ teachings had to do with the warnings to Israel for her failure as a nation to be God’s light to the world. The time was running short for them to embrace the Messiah as the true identity of the people of God. Israel was about to permanently lose their position as God’s manager of his creation. In the face of that impending removal, what should they do? Well, they should learn from an example of a shrewd and worldly person. They should start thinking long term rather than short term. They should start to think more about their position in the eternal age to come rather than clinging to how they had always done things. That time was coming to an end. To follow Jesus meant to think of one’s position in light of the eternity of the resurrection age and to give up what might seem like profitable things in the present age (things such as land, money, inheritance, and family status) so as to live a life that was preparing them for that future age.
The manager had finally shown that he was ready to give up the dishonesty that cost him the job and he turned to a solution that meant giving up a little profit in the present for a long-term solution, one that was not built on dishonesty or ripping off the master. He had learned the true priorities and what it took to provide for himself in the long run.
Apparently, most of Israel was not that wise yet. They were not thinking about their long-term status but were instead clinging to every little drop of their own commission in the present that they could squeeze out. If they were going to cling to the present ideas of status before God rather than the values of the age to come, as was evidenced by the importance they placed on wealth, inheritance, and land, then they would never be able to embrace the values of being God’s true people. They had poorly handled the affairs that God had given them and they were unwilling to change in light of their inevitable dismissal.
Why would God give his true inheritance to a people that had squandered what they had been given? Maybe Israel was behaving more like the younger son of the previous parable then they would care to admit. They had wasted the possessions and advantages that had been given them as God’s people (Luke uses the exact same phrase in 16:1 that he used in 15:13 to describe the younger son’s squandering of his possessions) so why would they be given more?
When it came down to it for Israel, or for anyone who would take up the challenge of the life of Christ, it was a matter of which master was going to be served. Would it be the master of self and making weak and futile attempts to provide for self by clinging to the practices of the past? Or would they have the shrewdness and wisdom to read the signs and see that things were changing radically. Either we drop the idea of temporary gain and think from the perspective of God’s coming future age or we will find ourselves with nothing at all. It is a choice of masters. We embrace one and sever ties with the other, plain and simple. We can’t have two masters anymore than my little dog can carry two balls in his mouth at once. It must either be the master of self and thinking of the present, as most visibly characterized by money, or the master of God. The choice must be made decisively.
Take a long, hard look at your life. Can you truly say that you serve only one master or do you sometimes find yourself acting like a dog trying to carry two balls at the same time? Many of us have made that decision and are serving God as best we can, but some of us haven’t, perhaps, ever fully made that choice.