Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
The Parable of the Shrewd Manager
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 “‘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 a long time, I skipped this parable when it came up in the lectionary. I didn’t use it as the basis for Reflections, and when it came up in the Sunday lectionary, I didn’t preach on it. It just seemed too complicated to try to explain why Jesus was commending a crook. But clearly, that’s some kind of theological malpractice, so I decided to see if I could find out what’s going on in this passage.
That required going beyond the commentaries I usually use for insight on Bible passages. The scholars I typically consulted didn’t seem sure what to make of the story, either. Some of the Bible scholars said the shrewd manager was deducting his own commission off the debtors’ bills. Other scholars said he was reducing the bills to remove excessive interest that his master was charging the debtors. Still other scholars said the shrewd manager was dishonestly writing off debts owed to his master to make friends whose help he would need later. But when you look closely, none of those explanations really hold water.
And some Bible scholars just threw up their hands and said that the process of translation and the change in economic practices over the centuries have made the story incomprehensible.
But then I came across an explanation that seemed to make the parable make sense for the first time. That explanation requires us to have one key fact that would have been known to people in Jesus’ day, but that isn’t known to us. Here’s that fact: To people in Jesus’ time – and especially to rich people – honor was more important than money.
People who were already well-to-do were looked down on if they just greedily tried to get richer and richer. But they were greatly honored if they were generous and extended great favors to others.
So, now that we’ve established that fact, let’s look again at the story. Once the manager knows he’s going to get fired, he starts calling in those who owe money to his master, and he starts reducing the amount each owes. The debtors would logically assume that the manager was doing this at his master’s orders, so they would all hold the master in great esteem.
Now, the master could call all those debtors back in and reinstate the full amount of the debts, but then he would lose all the honor he was gaining. He’d look greedy, and he’d also look bad for having to reverse the actions of his manager. So the master’s best bet was just to bask in all the honor his manager was getting him, because as we said, to him, honor was more important than money.
So maybe he changed his mind and retained the manager he had resolved to fire. But even if he didn’t the manager would find plenty of other rich people who craved the kind of honor he had brought to his former master. So either way, he would be alright.
And Jesus uses the parable to make the point that we can use the things of this world to gain us welcome in the heavenly kingdom. We can use all the things entrusted to us here on earth – our material resources, our time and talents, our energy and imagination – to bring honor to our master. Because to God, as to the master in the story, honor from his people is much more important than money.
So it seems to me that in teaching this parable, Jesus wasn’t encouraging us to be dishonest, but rather to be as smart and resourceful about cultivating our relationship with the heavenly kingdom – about bringing honor to God – as the manager was about bringing honor to the master who was about to fire him.
Let’s pray. Lord, you have entrusted to us a certain amount of time, talent and treasure. Let our goal be to use those things – to use everything you place at our disposal – to bring honor to you. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The other readings for today are Psalms 17 and 18; Deuteronomy 4:32-40; and II Corinthians 3:1-18. Our readings come from the NIV Bible, as posted on Biblica.com, the website of the International Bible Society.)