The Parable of the Shrewd Manager

Introduction

One of the most obscure parables Jesus related to His Disciples is found in Luke 16:1-13.  The average Bible reader is left scratching his head as to what on earth Jesus is doing in this parable in which He lauds what seems to be deceitful behavior by the discredited manager of his rich master’s accounts.  But once the reader sees the intended lesson, he is convicted by its message.  Let’s see if we can’t unpack that message here.

The Message

Somewhat unconventionally, I’m going to start with the explanation of the parable first.  Then we’ll do the unpacking once we’ve got the point of the message in mind to see where Jesus makes the points contributing to the His intended message.

Jesus says[i] to His Disciples (Luke 16:1-13):

[16:1] He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. [2] And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ [3] And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. [4] I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ [5] So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ [6] He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ [7] Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ [8] The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. [9] And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.

[10] “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. [11] If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? [12] And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? [13] No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

So what is Jesus teaching His Disciples (and us) here?

As we will see, there are a few things.

  1. That He wants us to serve Him only.
  2. That He wants us to use our resources for His purposes; specifically to result in more people joining His family.
  3. That though our “wealth”, as disciples, is in Christ and the blessing of a life with Him, while we are here, we are to use our wits to wisely manage and disperse the worldly resources God gives us to steward for Him and His work on earth.

How Do We Get There?

The first significant fact presented in the parable is the assertion that the manager was “wasting his (the Master’s) possession”.  We don’t get any details as to why this situation came to be uncovered.  But we are taught throughout the New Testament that God (our Master) doesn’t want us to waste the time He’s given us.

The master confronts the manager; demands that he present his accounts to him, and fires him.

The manager, confronting his new reality, has a moment of introspection.  He confesses to himself that he’s not strong enough to dig; too proud to simply beg on the street.  How is he going to support himself without his job?

Just then he has a moment of inspiration, according to Jesus.  “I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’”

The word “decided” here (1097. γινώσκω ginṓskō😉 has the meaning of “to come to know”.  A T Robertson[ii] explains the meaning of the word this way:

“It is a burst of daylight to the puzzled, darkened man: I’ve got it, I see into it now, a sudden solution.“

He had what we would call an “a-ha moment”.  Apparently, he’s figured out a way to deal with those he’s dealt with so that in the future they will “receive me into their houses”, assumedly so that he will be cared for and supported.  What is his revelation?

The manager has concluded that if he talks to each of his master’s debtors and renegotiates their outstanding debt to a lesser amount, the debtors will be grateful to him, and maybe, just maybe, his master will be pleased with him that he got at least some of the debt he is owed repaid.  The parable continues:

[5] So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ [6] He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ [7] Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ [8] The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.

The interesting, and controversial, verse is the last.  There the “master” commends the “dishonest” (93. ἀδικία adikía; gen. adikías, fem. noun from ádikos (94), unjust. Injustice) manager.  Why, we are led to ask, is Jesus telling a parable in which a man’s apparently unjust behavior is being commended by his “master”?

He begins to explain this paradox while still within verse 8 by saying: “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.”  The word “shrewd” has this meaning:

    1. φρόνιμος phrónimos; fem. phró-nimē, neut. phrónimon, adj. from phronéō (5426), to think, have a mindset. Prudent, sensible, practically wise in relationships with others

So Jesus seems to be commending this parabolic “manager” for, as our English translation (ESV) renders it, shrewdness.  Why?  This is where we have to expand our understanding to confront Jesus’ truth.

While this is scandalous to some Christians, it shouldn’t be.  In Matthew we find Jesus teaching this, speaking again to His disciples:

[16] “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. [17] Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, [18] and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.

The word “wise” here is the exact same Greek word rendered “shrewd” In our parable.

It seems that Jesus is focused on making His disciples aware of their need to do His work mindful of the guile and hostility in the world they will encounter, acting to undo their work.

Jesus uses the word nine times in his teachings in the New Testament (two of which are synoptic duplicates between Matthew and Luke).  He makes it quite clear that He sees a need to up the disciple’s game when it comes to dealings with those “in the world”.

If we assume for the moment that the master represents God in the parable, and the manager represents Israel, what does it tell us about Israel’s relation to the world (i.e. the nations)?  What it seems to be saying is that Israel – the people of God – were to be commended for managing resources such that God (or at least His willed outcomes) benefited.

But verse 9 introduces a new dimension to this conclusion:

[9] And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.

I think the interpretation Jesus is leading us to draw here is that all worldly wealth is “unrighteous”; that is, not generated for the Kingdom of God.  Ultimately it is going to “fail”.  After all, your wealth only lasts as long as you do.

So, to the extent that you come by it, you should use it to benefit others to be led into the heavenly precincts where they will join with you there.  In terms of the parable, into whose “eternal dwellings” will you be “received”?  Is it the debtors?  Quite possibly as you (the surrogate manager) have blessed them in discounting their debts.

Is it the master’s?  Also possible.  Though the characterization of God as a “friend” stretches things a bit far.  Although, it is quite possible that the fact that your other “friends” that you have applied resources to bless into a state of acceptance by your master, while credited to you, is also in keeping with the will of your master.  As He God, fundamentally, is seeking all who will come into His Kingdom.

The weakness in the parable, if any, is that at least in our English translations, there is no direct tie between the effect of the manager’s action on the debtors and the edification of the master.  He’s happy about the outcome, yes.  But the parable expresses that happiness in terms of His repayment; not in the fact that He is now united in some way with His debtors.

But, of course, that outcome isn’t Jesus’ purpose in teaching this parable to His disciples.  He wants them on alert for opportunities to prosper His Kingdom using what He considers to be perishable worldly wealth.

Jesus approaches the punchline of the parable in verses 10-12:

[10] “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. [11] If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? [12] And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?

Here Jesus gets to his “bottom line”.  If you don’t handle material wealth faithfully (i.e. devoting it to the work of God), how is it that you expect to be entrusted with handling eternal wealth?  If you’re not committed to managing your earthly wealth to glorify God (say by charity to the poor, the sick, the orphans), then how do expect your Master to entrust you with the blessings of eternal wealth?

These verses are all about your commitment to the Lord and that commitment’s effect on the decisions you make in allocating your resources (or the resources of others over which you have some influence).

As simple as it can be put, Jesus is saying: To the extent that you influence the allocation of worldly resources, prioritize the things of God with them – His Kingdom, His children in need, His children who are suffering.  This is the behavior of one who has his priorities right in God’s judgment.

And, just to make it crystal clear, Jesus closes the parable with this verse:

[13] No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

Jesus’ message in this parable is summarized here.  Your priority in managing worldly resources must be God’s priority if you expect favorable consideration by God.  Your priority just can’t be to prosper yourself, and to prosper God’s Kingdom occasionally, if at all.  Your priority really must be one, or the other.  Choose.


[i] The word “said” in v1 is 3004. λέγω légō, whose meaning is to have discourse with; perhaps repeatedly (imperfect tense).  The implication of this definition is that in presenting this parable, Jesus and His Disciples discussed it as he laid it out.  They (like we) no doubt had questions as to Jesus’ meaning, which he fielded from them and answered before moving on to the next idea.

[ii]  A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament. Baker Book House. 1930. vol. 2, p. 216

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