Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
The Parable of the Shrewd Manager
1Jesus 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 “‘Eight hundred gallons 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 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.
For years, I struggled with what to do with this passage. It seems confusing. The parable Jesus tells seems to portray a dishonest manager as the ‘hero’ of the story, which seems like it can’t be right.
I try to consult with respected Bible commentaries on passages before I write or preach on them, but the best scholars don’t agree on what Jesus had in mind. They’ve suggested a wide variety of interpretations. Some of them say the manager used his last days on the job to dishonestly offer discounts to his master’s creditors. That way, either he could get a kickback for these discounts, or he’d be able to blackmail the creditors in the future. Some scholars say the manager was actually deducting a commission that was owed to him. None of those explanations seem too persuasive to me. Other Bible commentators just say that the manager was somehow dishonest, even though they can’t say exactly how.
All of which isn’t that helpful to us average folks. So a lot of people get to this passage in the Gospel of Luke, and they sort of shrug and read on. They figure there must be some misunderstanding, because Jesus wouldn’t have been praising someone for being dishonest.
I have to admit, that’s pretty much the attitude I’ve taken about this parable in the past. For a long time, I would just skip it when it came up in the reading list, and write the day’s Reflection on the listed reading from the Letter of James.
But not long ago, I came across a commentary that shared a fact about the world of Jesus’ day that turned on a light for me – that let me make sense of this parable for the first time.
Here’s the fact: In the world Jesus lived in, honor was more important than money.
So think about the story keeping that fact in mind. The manager works for a guy who is very prosperous. Prosperous enough to employ a professional manager. Prosperous enough that people owe him large sums of money.
Word reaches the rich guy that his manager is managing his affairs in a wasteful way. That would bring dishonor on the rich guy – failing to control your servants was considered dishonorable. So the master tells the manager that he’s being fired.
The manager knows his career choices are limited – he’s a white-collar guy who’s unfit to do manual labor. So he comes up with a plan. At first blush, it looks like the plan is to cheat his boss. But if the ‘honor was more important’ theory is correct, the real goal of the manager’s plan is not to cheat his boss, but rather to bring honor to him.
One of the ways that people could bring honor to themselves in that world was by acts of generosity – like, for instance, forgiving a big chunk of a debt that was owed to him. So the manager starts calling people in and telling them they had been granted a big reduction in what was owed. Notice that the manager doesn’t ask any of the creditors for any kind of kickback – he’s just telling people they don’t owe as much. So most people would assume that it’s the master’s idea to give them a break – and the master would have been given great honor as a very generous guy.
And since in that world honor was more important than money, the master “commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly.” The manager’s actions wound up bringing great honor to the master. So the master might go through with his plan to fire the manager – but maybe not, given the shrewd strategy the manager had come up with. But even if he did get fired, the manager could probably find a new employer who would be glad to have a manager with a knack for bringing honor to his employer.
And look how Jesus wraps up this parable: “I tell you, use worldly wealth to win friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”
Bringing honor to God is more important than having money. We have a choice about how to use the things that are entrusted to us in this world – not only wealth, but also our time and talents. We can use those things for our own pleasure and honor, or we can use them to bring honor to God. It’s often said that we can’t take our wealth with us when we leave this life. But it’s also true that we can’t take with us the honors that come to the wealthy in this world. And we won’t get extra joys in the kingdom of God because we had more wealth and honor in this world. In fact, the Beatitudes seem to say that it’s those who suffer in this world who are most honored in the heavenly kingdom.
The fact is that the only thing we can do with our time, talent and treasure in this world that will really help us in eternity is to devote it all to bringing honor to God. So it seems like the life of true discipleship is a life that devotes steadily more of its resources to that goal.
So when you read this parable through the lens of that one fact, it starts to make a lot more sense, doesn’t it?
Let’s pray. Lord, by the power of your Spirit, transform us into people who devote more and more of our time, talent and treasure to bringing glory and honor to your holy name, so that we too will be welcomed into your heavenly kingdom when our days in this world are done. Amen.
Have a great weekend, and worship God joyfully on Sunday!
(The other readings for today are Psalms 130 and 148; Joel 2:28 – 3:8; and James 1:16-27. Our readings come from the NIV Bible, as posted on Biblica.com, the website of the International Bible Society.)