The Parable of the Shrewd Manager
It never ceases to amaze me how parables are twisted to fit our desires. The Parable of the Shrewd Manager is at the top of the most-twisted list. What do we expect, it's about the love of money. How often is it preached that we should be shrewd like the shrewd manager because the master commended him? But does Jesus want us to be shrewd? Shrewdness implies a level of trickery. And who is the manager's master anyway?
When trying to understand the parables, we need to put them into context. What other part of scripture surrounds them? Who was the intended audience? Who was the secondary audience? In the case of the Parable of the Shrewd Manager, Luke begins by defining the intended audience: “Jesus told his disciples.” His disciples of yesterday and today are his main audience. Contrast this to how he ended the parable: “The Pharisees who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.” The Pharisees (hypocrites) were listening in. As we begin to understand this parable, we need to realize that both the disciples and the hypocrites were (and are) listening. And likewise, we must realize that within us, both types of persons are listening and at odds with each other—the hypocrite and the disciple. Within each of us, both characters are struggling to make sense of what Jesus says. Also let us note that the hypocrites sneered just after Jesus explained, “You cannot server both God and Money.” The hypocrite knows in his heart that Jesus is also speaking directly to him. The hypocrite loves money more than God. The hypocrite inside says, “I see what you're saying Jesus, and you just watch, I'll get away with it.” Get away with what? Get away with having power over others. A better name for this story might be “The Parable of the Dishonest Manager.”
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 master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
“‘Nine hundred gallonsof 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 bushelsof 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.
“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?
“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.”
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.
Jesus says, “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” He explains that the people of the light are not shrewd. We are like little children. We are not deceptive like the snake who is the Father of Lies. But once again we hear what we want to in the parables. We want to justify the shrewdness that goes on in our dealings and manipulations of others. But rather, we are to be innocent like a dove. It is only with this foundation that we can understand the Parable of the Shrewd Manager.
On interesting thing to note about this parable is that there was a “rich man,” who is also called the master. Most of us initially think this rich man refers to God, but what if this rich man is the Father of Lies, Satan himself? By reading it that way, this parable takes on a whole different meaning. Then the shrewd manager is the Pharisee or the hypocrite in you or in me.
Now what does the shrewd manager do when he knows he's going to be fired from his position? He cheats his master. And as we find out from the managers slap on the back, the manager desires just those sort of employees. The Father of Lies wants us to reflect his deception, rather than to be noble. Some have interpreted the manager's action of lowering the debtors' bills differently. They explain that the manager was just removing his commission from the bills. I'm not convinced with this interpretation, because the master commends him for being shrewd. From what I know of Jesus, he would never commend us for being shrewd. He would commend us for being loving, wise, turning the other cheek, etc. In just the next line, Jesus explains that shrewdness is a worldly trait, not a trait of the people of the light. God is not telling us to be shrewd in our dealings.
At this point, the parable is complete and Jesus says to disciples to “use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” The Church fathers seemed to believe that worldly wealth refers to what they called “mammon of iniquity.” These are ill-gotten gains. My question is how much of the wealth that we have is worldly wealth? Since I'm becoming convinced that Church must become poor, I'd answer most all of it.
Jesus is talking to his disciples. He explains what we are to do with our worldly wealth. And it is a simple solution. Are any of us ready to do it? Jesus tells us to “use worldly wealth to gain friends.” How do we use our ill-gotten gains to gain friends? I think this is explained very clearly, when Jesus invites the Rich Young Man to follow me.
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."