One of the most confusing and controversial parables that Jesus ever told can be found in Luke chapter 16: the parable of the shrewd manager. On the surface, it looks like Jesus is recommending that we should lie, cheat and steal from our bosses so that we can secure our own interests, even at the expense of theirs! Perhaps you’re thinking, ‘Aha! Just the parable I’ve been looking for!’ Well, not so fast. There is more going on than meets the eye.
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’ (Luke 16:1-2).
In other words, to use a now-famous phrase: ‘You’re fired!’
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’ (Luke 16:3-4).
Then we read that he urgently makes contact with some of those who owe his master and, while he still can, slashes their bills. The person who owes 900 gallons of olive oil has 50% written off and the person who owes 1000 bushels of wheat is told they only have to repay 800. We would expect the master to be enraged but, as we find out, he is impressed. The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.
What exactly is commendable about the shrewd manager and would Jesus be similarly impressed with us if we ‘go and do likewise’?
Correspondence or contrast?
For many people, the confusion in understanding this parable comes with the assumption that this is a parable of correspondence. Most parables are. In those cases a physical story corresponds to a spiritual reality. In the parable of the four soils, the soft soil corresponds to someone who has a soft and responsive heart towards the things of God. In the parable of the lost sons, the rebellious son corresponds to a sinner being reconciled with God while the religious son corresponds to one who refuses to recognise his sin.
However, some parables are not parables of correspondence but parables of contrast. For example, in Luke 11 we learn that if earthly fathers, though they are evil, know how to give good gifts to their children, how much more will our Father in Heaven give good gifts (namely, the Holy Spirit) to those who ask him? In Luke 18, Jesus turns our attention to an unjust judge and makes the point that if an unjust judge will see that justice is done because of the widow’s persistent pleas, how much more will God, who needs no persuasion to be good, ensure that justice is done for his people.
Back to Luke 16, we are being called to consider the idea that if this manager has seen this all important principle, even though he is clearly sinful, selfish and desperately deceitful, then surely we ought to be able to see the same. What is this ‘all important principle’ that the dishonest manager has identified?
Resources versus relationship
We know that in telling this parable, Jesus is not saying, ‘Take as much as you can while the getting is good.’ What is he saying? What exactly is commendable about the manager’s actions? Fortunately, we’re not left floundering for answers, Jesus tells us in verses 8 and 9.
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 (Luke 16:8-9).
In the parable we have a man who is aware that his ability to wield resources is limited; time is slipping away from him. If he is to act, he must act now. The same is true for you. God , your master, has given you all kinds of resources to steward and to manage. You have access to them now but that access is not granted forever. Your time to use them is limited. Those resources include money, of course, but they go beyond that, too. The blood in your body, the beat in your chest, the breath in your lungs; all these are gifts from him. They are yours to manage but for a short while.
The first thing to recognise is that both you and this dishonest manager have resources that are not ultimately yours; they belong to the boss but have been lent to you. You can use them now but you will not be able to use them forever. The window of opportunity is short.
The second thing to understand is that the master knows that the manager has not done a good job stewarding those resources. He has been wasteful and the master is going to call him to account. There is a meeting scheduled, a judgement day approaching and the same is true for you and me. With all the blessings that have been bestowed upon us, we have not used our position well. A judgement day is coming and after that judgement day, we will be stripped of those resources and opportunities.
Crucially, the dishonest manager sees that when his resources are gone, his relationships will last. He uses what he can, while he can, to secure relationships that will see him safely through.
The application is simple. Use the days of your life to turn from your sin and put your trust in Jesus. Use the breath in your body to call out to God for forgiveness, because all you know is fleeting. Your earthly resources are passing away, but your relationship with God is eternal.
If even the dishonest manager, though he is spiritually blind, can see this much, surely those with sight should be able to see much more. As Christians, we should be all the more ready to use our resources in the hope that many might be brought into a living and eternal relationship with God.
As C.T. Studd said:
Only one life, yes only one,
Soon will its fleeting hours be done;
Then in ‘that day’ my Lord to meet,
And stand before His Judgement seat;
Only one life, ‘twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
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