The way Jesus taught captured the imagination of His audiences. More often than not, Jesus used stories called parables to communicate critical truths to His followers. These truths were easy to understand and remember unless one’s heart was too hard (Matthew 13:11-13).
For modern readers, Jesus’s parables provide challenge, comfort, and inspiration-and occasionally, some disagreement. One of Jesus’s most controversial parables is about a shrewd manager who gets fired by his master. This parable has generated a lot of conversation and interpretations over the history of the church.
Let’s take a look at it.
The parable’s context
In Luke’s Gospel, many of Jesus’s parables are grouped together. In chapter 15, we find the “lost” parables, where Jesus talks about misplaced coins, lost sheep, and wayward sons. In chapter 16, Luke puts two parables together: the Parable of the Shrewd Manager and the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.
Just like the parables about lost items, Luke wants us to recognize the similarities between Jesus’s stories about the manager and the rich man. Both parables discuss the topic of money from a couple of different perspectives but arrive at similar conclusions.
The parable of the shrewd manager reads like this:
“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 gallons of 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 bushels of 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” (Luke 16:1b-9).
Jesus elaborates on the parable
After Jesus offers this parable, He expounds on the point, “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” (Luke 16:10-13).
Luke then tells us that, “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus” (vs. 14).
Interpreting the parable
The trouble people tend to have with this parable is that the rich man accuses the manager of wasting his possessions. When he gets fired for it, he starts calling on all of the people who have debts with his former master. He starts dramatically lowering their debt. He’s going to need a new benefactor, and so he’s desperate to make friends with the people who owe his former boss money.
Using his position to lower debts owed to his master to ensure he has a place to land doesn’t seem like ethical behavior. Yet his former master commends him for the shrewdness-and it appears that Jesus is holding him up as an example. So what are we to make of this?
When we’re interpreting Jesus’s parables, we must identify the main point He’s making. If we get too caught up in the details, it’s easy to get lost. For example, we’re used to the idea that the master in a parable must be God. But that’s a mistake here. None of these folks are intended to be role models.
The key to this parable is found in this line, “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” Jesus is giving us an example of how people in the world look out for themselves in a way that God’s people often neglect to.
So what is Jesus trying to tell us?
Like the people in His parable, Jesus encourages His followers to look out for themselves. But He’s encouraging them to think long term, to store up treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). He’s encouraging us to use our finances in a way so that God enthusiastically welcomes us as good and faithful servants.
He elaborates on this idea in the parables of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31). In that parable, a rich man passes a poor beggar named Lazarus every day but does nothing to meet his needs. When the rich man dies, he discovers there’s been a massive reversal of fortune. The beggar has been welcomed into paradise, while the rich man is the one in torment.
As this parable about Lazarus and the rich man unfolds, Jesus makes it clear that the Scriptures explicitly tell us to care for the less fortunate. One cannot read Moses and the prophets and pretend that they don’t understand their responsibility toward others.
By putting these two parables together, Luke encourages good stewardship from two different angles. In Lazarus and the Rich Man, we learn about our responsibility to steward God’s resources, and we discover that we don’t have an excuse not to know what God expects. In the Parable of the Shrewd Manager, Jesus encourages a kind of self-preservation instinct.
We know that the end of our life is coming, so if we’re half as wise as the pagan manager in this story, we’ll use our resources to help “gain friends in heavenly places.” If you have $20 in your pocket, you could use it to buy something that will make you happy for a moment or invest it in something that will please the Lord. This is the kind of self-serving behavior that Jesus actually encourages.
Jesus promises to reward us
The Lord isn’t above encouraging us to do the right thing for reasons that will ultimately benefit us. This is why He talks so often about the kind of behavior that God rewards:
- But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you(Matthew 6:3-4, emphasis added).
- Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, becausegreat is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets (Luke 6:22-23, emphasis added).
- But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked (Luke 6:35, emphasis added).
- Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use,it will be measured to you(Luke 6:38, emphasis added).
- Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you,you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14, emphasis added).
These are just a few examples of Jesus promising to reward godly behavior. The Lord doesn’t merely expect self-sacrifice on principle. He promises to honor and repay His people’s sacrifices on behalf of others and the kingdom of God.
In the end, we still have to take a step of faith. We have to trust that God is present, watching, and remembering what we do. It requires the confidence that God will indeed reward His children for putting the kingdom first.
You benefit from putting others first
Ultimately, the shrewd manager understood that if he wanted a job after his master fired him, he needed to get on the good side of other employers. He did them a good turn that he hoped would ultimately benefit him. But this was an act of faith, too. There’s no way to be sure that their appreciation would turn into a job.
Jesus wants to know why we’re not as shrewd as people of the world. They understand how to behave in ways that will ingratiate themselves to the powerful. They know how to leverage their gifts, resources, and talents in a way that benefits them. He wants to see children of God make the same kinds of decisions.
We know that Jesus identifies with the hurt, the lost, the broken, the poor, and the marginalized so much that He says “what you’ve done for the least of these, you’ve done unto me.” If we were shrewd like the manager in this parable, we would go out of our way to do as much as we possibly could for these people. Why? Because it pleases God, and He promises to reward behavior like that.
Someone might think, “Well, that doesn’t seem like the right motivation for doing good things.” But Jesus seems to have a pretty healthy understanding of what it takes to inspire people. He cares so much for the fatherless and the widowed that He’s willing to dangle a carrot to ensure that people care for them.
One of the last things Jesus says in Scripture is this: “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done” (Revelation 22:12). With this in mind, why wouldn’t we do everything possible to please Him?