The Shrewd Manager
Jesus tells this parable while travelling to Jerusalem. We are told that “large crowds” (Luke 14:25) travelled with Him and he taught them along the way. He was teaching about counting the cost of following Him.
We know also that Jesus hung around “tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 15:1). Somewhere along the line, the Pharisees and teachers of the law criticised Him, saying that He “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). That is when Jesus launches into the 3 famous parables – the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son or prodigal’s son.
In these 3 famous parables, one thing is common. There is celebration and rejoicing on earth and in heaven over what was once lost and now is found (Luke 15:6-7, 15:9-10, 10:23-24). The message to the pharisees is crystal clear:
- Those who followed Jesus are now found
- His role on earth was to seek and save the lost (Matthew 9:12; Mark 2:17)
- They should be happy that the lost are found (Luke 15:31-32)
However, we know that the pharisees did not see Jesus as God’s sent and rejected Him (Matthew 12), neither did they rejoice when the lost are found. In fact, just before this, Jesus was at a Pharisees’ house having a party and He critisized them (Luke 14:1-24). From there, we receive a picture of the Pharisees. They were a arrogant bunch who prided themselves as experts of the law. They sought positions of respect, recognition and honour. They applied onto others laws that they could follow but others couldn’t. They sought their own benefit.
With that in mind, this is when Jesus begins the parable.
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.’
Note firstly that He is speaking specifically to his disciples. It would seem that He had finished addressing the Pharisees’ criticism and is directing His attention back to teaching. Here in the parable, we have a manager about to be fired by his master because he was ineffective in his management, thereby wasting his master’s resources.
“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.’
The manager considers his options very carefully. He is too weak for manual labour, too proud to beg on the streets. But he has a brilliant plan.
“So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’
“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.’
Next comes the tricky bit, he uses the master’s resources, which he has stewardship over to make friends with his master’s debtors. By using what he has to lower their debt, he places himself in a favourable position. After he gets the sack from his master, he can then go over to other businesses to get a job.
Note here that we know not how much of the debt was principle or interest. There is so far no inclination that the manager had been charging interest. His crime was wasting, not over charging. There is no place here to suggest that the manager had been violating the Mosaic Law by charging interest or hiding excessive profits into goods (Deuteronomy 23:19). We can pretty much rule out that possibility. I note this because many modern commentaries say that his crime was over charging interest.
Next comes the master’s bewildering response.
“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.
Here we see that the manager is now labeled dishonest. Why? Because he lowered the debtor’s loan, decreasing his master’s profits, but reaped the benefits from it. Effectively, by giving away what was not his own, he benefited himself. Dishonest indeed. But the master has the most ironic response. Rather than firing off at the manager for wasting more of his resources, he was commended for his shrewdness.
And here we have the explanation why, “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” To understand this verse, let us go through the act that got the manager labelled shrewed. He used what was not his to benefit himself by giving it away.
To put this verse in my own words:
- The dishonest pagan [people of this world]
- was able to give to others what he did not own for his benefit [more shrewd in dealing with their own kind],
- but believing people don’t practice this shrewdness [than are the people of the light]
We begin to see the allegory here. God is the master, who owns everything (Psalm 24:1; Deuteronomy 10:14). We are the stewards (managers) of everything that He owns (Genesis 2:15; Matthew 25:14-30). Even the money that we have is from God (Deuteronomy 8:17-18). We are the people of light, who need to understand that benefiting ourselves means giving unto others, because what we give doesn’t even belong to us. If a dishonest pagan can understand that, why can’t we?
I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
“I tell you” is often used at the end of a parable/teaching to emphasize the key point behind the passage. Somewhat of a moral of the story. Here He speaks directly to His disciples – “people of the light”, not in a parable but the teaching behind it. This is the moral of the story: our worldly wealth is for making friends. The result is that when the wealth is gone, we will be received into “eternal dwellings”. This gives us an understanding that the friends we are trying to make live in heavenly places.
Note that Jesus says here “for yourselves” – a reflection again of the shrewd manager’s self benefiting actions.
How then do we use our wordly wealth to befriend God?
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
It all becomes clear when we look at similar things that Jesus has said:
“Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.'”
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”
If we look back at Jesus’ rebuttal of the Pharisees’ criticism that He “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2), we see that perhaps His topic had not moved on. Instead, He has chosen to turn that defense into a teaching point and later into an offense.
“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. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?
In these verses, we see an important principle in His kingdom and the way Jesus views our “worldly wealth”, compared to “true riches”:
- If you are faithful with little (worldly wealth), you can be faithful with more (true riches).
- If you are faithful with what you don’t have (worldly wealth), you can be faithful with what you have (true riches).
Worldly wealth is small and invaluable, and it doesn’t even belong to us. True riches is infinitely more valuable and is ours to own. They are direct opposites. Other passages in the bible show just how valuable this “true riches” is. But what is this “true riches”? Have a look at Romans 8:17 and 2 Timothy 2:12. We are inheriting the kingdom of heaven as heirs of Christ and we will reign with Him.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.”
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”
What a way to view our rags on earth and our treasure that is in Christ!
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
It comes at no suprise that Jesus says this here. Worldly wealth and true riches are direct opposites (note: not mutually exclusive). If you hold on to one, you have to lose the other. It is inevitable.
The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.
Here we see Jesus’ flawless tactics in throwing the Pharisees off their feet. First, Jesus reveals that they don’t rejoice when someone is found in God (although they ought to). Second, He reveals that this is because they don’t value what it means to be found in God. Their hearts are devoted to something else – money (worldly wealth). They sought their own benefit by hoarding money. No wonder they don’t rejoice! Little do they know that the worldly wealth that they value is worth nothing in God’s sight. What good is having everything that amounts to nothing (Luke 17:33; Matthew 16:25; Mark 8:36)?
Money and eternity, constantly tug at our hearts, demanding our devotion. They are so closely linked and we often don’t even realise it. The bible doesn’t say we need to be poor. On the contrary, we are told that we are enriched!
You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.
2 Corinthians 9:11
But we are rich for only one reason. How we handle our riches reveal what we are devoted to.