Parable of the Shrewd Manager, Luke 16: 1-9

This week’s money and stewardship devotional from the four Gospels* is from Luke 16:1-9. The Parable of the Shrewd Manager is a strange parable, one many Biblical scholars debate about; however, it teaches a unique message to financially unwise believers.

1 Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 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.’ 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— 4 I 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 “‘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.’ 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. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

The antagonist and anti-hero. In this parable, Jesus uses two central characters to teach us–a wealthy business man antagonist and his anti-hero manager. We are told at the outset that the manager was accused of wasting assets of the businessman. We don’t know if he was guilty, but we do know he was fired. He was also called dishonest, but we don’t know if his lack of truth was malicious for his own gain. It could have been that he was fearful of telling the businessman what he didn’t want to hear–the truth that his business had problems because of the owner. Whatever the case, he had a short time to tie up loose ends of the business and then look for a job. In those days, it was hard to get re-employed in a position if an employer accused you of wrong doing, whether you were guilty or not. In this instance the boss wouldn’t give him a letter of recommendation. The manager was worried that he would have to resort to manual labor in his older years. The manager was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

In today’s employment environment, employers often are hesitant to make recommendations or say something bad about a previous employee, because they fear they might be sued. However, in pre-modern times, a letter of recommendation and a good name were worth more than anything else in seeking a new job.  People didn’t have resumes that gloriously listed all their accomplishments, education and prior jobs. No one could look them up on Linked In to see their professional network. Networking was done, but probably between merchants and workers in the market place and in other places where people gathered. If people developed a bad reputation, it was as if their names got dragged through the mud and a scarlet letter was sewn to their garments. Shame and guilt could hang with them forever.

Whether the manager was a good manager or not we don’t know. It is possible that the business owner set him up to fail by giving him the bad accounts–the ones with late or no payments. Maybe the rich man was just a harsh, demanding man, over-working and under-paying his manager. This isn’t an unusual situation in any business environment.

In literature, we often see the anti-hero as the tainted bad boy, who ultimately does good. The manager may have been dishonest, but he demonstrated two good important qualities. One is that relationships are key.  How well we relate to people may help us in our current job, and it might also help us if we have to look for a new one. Someone once told me you never know who could be your next boss–maybe someone working below you or waiting on you in another business, or even a client. Therefore, not only is it a commandment to love others, but it is also a smart thing to do in business. The second skill I observe here is to be financially wise. It makes sense sometimes to settle for less when someone owes you money than to wait for a day that may never come to receive full payment.  Showing grace, forgiveness and understanding, especially over money and in business, shows tons of love, and it gives people the opportunity of a new, fresh start.

The story is completed with this fascinating ending: “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. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

Jesus uses the phrase “people of the light” to refer to people who know God, and “people of the world” to refer to people who don’t know God. Jesus indicates that when it comes to business, money, and relationships, “people of the world” act more wisely than believers. I can see the point Jesus is making here in my role as financial ministry director at church. It has been my experience in counseling and teaching many people that believers often act much less wisely than the average person on the street, especially in finances. Christians are to walk by faith, but we are to become wise and to exhibit wisdom in everything we do, too. Wisdom and faith are both sides of the same coin in the ‘both and,’ not ‘either or’ Gospel of Jesus. Having forgiveness and faith in Christ doesn’t release us from study and intelligent thinking and acting. This is especially true in finances. He wants us to be smart, wise and shrewd as he taught us to be in Matthew 10:16: ‘Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” Sometimes we are to have blind faith with finances, but it has been my experience, both for myself and others, that we need to be much wiser.

In Conclusion: humans are easily and often fooled by their emotions and wants, particularly when it comes to finances. Taking time to pray and exhibiting patience will often reveal God’s heart and our own on particular financial matters. This also gives us time to seek and consider other people’s opinions too. Proverbs 15:22 : “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” We are the forgiven anti-hero in Jesus’ story, misunderstood souls who have failed but have been forgiven and blessed with second chances to get things right in our finances.

*A chronological examination of any verse that involves money and stewardship, attempting to see the new light that Jesus shines on money in His ‘for-us’ but selfless, grace filled, Holy Spirit empowered, and Kingdom oriented positions. This is the forty-seventh post in this series.

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