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6. The Parable of the Shrewd Manager

| Martin Charlesworth
Series 9: Episode 6
Luke 16:1-15

The manager is shrewd because he looks to the future. He is also corrupt and loses his job. Jesus teaches about how to use finance and avoid materialism.

The manager is shrewd because he looks to the future. He is also corrupt and loses his job. Jesus teaches about how to use finance and avoid materialism.

Transcript

Hello and welcome to Series 9 and Episode 6, 'the Parable of the Shrewd Manager'. We're studying in Luke 16: 1 - 15.

Introduction and Recap

Luke is a wonderful resource for parables and, as I've said in earlier episodes, quite a few parables are unique to Luke; they appear just in his accounts and this is a good example of them. If you've been following the two previous episodes, you'll know that there were three parables that we've just been studying, the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Lost Coin and the Parable of the Lost Son or the Prodigal Son, in Luke 15. We are at a very interesting time in Jesus' ministry. Luke describes in detail, events that happen as Jesus travels to Jerusalem to bring his ministry to a conclusion. This is really towards the end of his public ministry. He spent about three years in Galilee; we've seen that described very much in detail in earlier parts of the gospels. He toured around Galilee three times that we know of, and it was a remarkable period of time. He made a very clear decision to bring that to an end, and in series 8 and 9, we've been studying the events that happened as Jesus leaves his home area and travels south.

His intention is very clear. He wants to make a big public entry into the capital city of Jerusalem and he wants to bring about a major confrontation with the religious authorities who are firmly against him. He's expecting this to lead to his suffering, his death, and his resurrection at the very end of this particular period, leading to the beginning of the Church. This is all clear from things that he says around this time, or just before the events that we're looking at in these episodes right now. He's warned his disciples there's going to be tough times. He's going to suffer, die and be raised again. We see him repeat this warning a number of times. Crowds gather round him as he travels south through Samaria and particularly in Judea, where most of these incidents take place as far as we can tell, although Luke doesn't give us a lot of geographical reference points. We know that he is on the journey; we know that there are often large crowds with him; and we know that many people are aware that he's heading to Jerusalem and they sense that increasingly this is very significant. We also know that the opposition coming from the religious authorities in Jerusalem is very firm. They've already denounced him as a false messiah; they're looking for ways to eliminate him; and they are testing him, questioning him and undermining his authority in the crowd. We often see their representatives, usually Pharisees and Teachers of the Law in Luke's narrative. They keep appearing, and they are either criticising on the side, or they're confronting directly, or they're undermining Jesus with the crowds, or their attitude is hostile to what he is doing.

In fact, in this parable, the Pharisees will appear again as one of the two main intended audiences for this particular parable. This was also true of the last three parables that we studied in Luke 15, where we noticed at the beginning, in the first two verses, that the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law were around, muttering negative things about Jesus and he addressed those three parables directly to them. We always have to keep in mind the context: who is Jesus primarily talking to? In this particular case, we can identify the two main audiences very clearly because Luke 16: 1 is clear. Jesus told his disciples this parable - so they're his first intended audience. He's teaching about discipleship. We'll come back to that in a moment, but verse 14 is also very important. Just after this parable has been completed, Luke comments, ‘the Pharisees, who love money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.’ Very interesting! Two intended audiences, the disciples and the discipleship community, and the opponents, the Pharisees. The particular thing about the Pharisees that is identified here is that they loved money. They were very materialistic. This is something that maybe wasn't immediately obvious to people, because they appeared very religious; they carried out a lot of religious duties, prayer, public worship, reading of the Scriptures and fasting. They even carried out acts of giving to the poor very publicly, in order to be seen by others. Underneath it all, Luke states categorically that actually they were very materialistic; they were accumulating money and becoming wealthy on the back of their religious leadership roles. There is a moral for today and we'll come back to that theme later on.

The connection between money and active Christian faith and discipleship is a very sensitive one and it's that relationship that is being discussed in this powerful parable that we are going to read today, the Parable of the Shrewd Manager. When you first hear it, it has a surprising outcome, in terms of how the rich man, who is the main character in the story, deals with his manager, who was corrupt and selfish. The fact that he actually commends him, he's positive about some things he's done, even though they're hostile to him. That's quite a complicated thing we're going to have to think about. The parable has a surprise and a challenging statement in the middle of it but as we study it more closely, we'll see how much it makes sense, and how powerful that statement is. Parables have one main point, and one main theme, as I've often stated. We need to keep in mind what's the main thing that Jesus is trying to tell us through this story?

Let's now read this parable, the Parable of the Shrewd Manager Luke 16: 1 - 15,

‘Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2So 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— 4I 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“‘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.’ 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.9I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. 10“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. 11So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own? 13“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.” 14The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God's sight.’

Luke 16:1-15, NIV

The Parable of the Shrewd Manager

Let's think about the main characters. The rich man is our starting point and he really does appear to be very rich because the size of the debts that people owed him, of goods, suggest huge transactions going on of agricultural and foodstuff goods. This would be a trader, or a landowner, or both, and because he had such a huge business, he needed a manager. That's our other central character - the manager, who turns out to be both dishonest and shrewd. He controlled the business but it appeared he was wasting his possessions. Verse 1, What does wasting his possessions mean? Maybe he's running the business badly, maybe he's stealing off the business, something that we see so commonly in these kinds of business situations. The rich man becomes anxious; he feels that the manager is not doing a good job. He says he's going to dismiss him. It is in that moment, between the threat of dismissal and actually leaving the business, that the manager very quickly makes a shrewd and very selfish decision; he realises once he's lost his job, he's not going to be able to find a similar job. First of all, people will find out why he's lost the job. The rumour will go round that he was corrupt, and that he was stealing, that he was selfish. Secondly, he hasn't got other skills. He certainly doesn't want to beg on the streets; he's not used to manual labour; he doesn't want to dig in the fields; and he doesn't really know what kind of a job he's going to get . He thinks in that very short period of time between the statement that he was going to be dismissed and his actual departure from the business - we don't know how long that time is, but that time is implied in the nature of the story - while he's still operating, he goes to some of the debtors, some of the people who owe his master significant a amount of goods and he basically reduces their liability. He authorises the reduction of the debt by a significant proportion, 20% or even 50% - vast proportions, a huge loss to the rich man, a huge loss to his master is implied in this. His hope, which we can see clearly from the text, is purely selfish. He wants some people who will be his friends when he is out of pocket, out of resources, out of a job and out of favour. He thinks, will these people remember me because I did them such a huge favour? They'll perhaps give me somewhere to live, give me a job, give me some finance, give me some food, maybe just one of those things to support him.

The Punchline

Eventually, a little bit later, the master, the rich man, discovers what his manager had done, once the manager's departed. The master's response is very remarkable and it's really the punchline of this particular story, verse 8, ‘the master commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly.’ That's very interesting; he was looking to the future and planning for his future, even though he was being dishonest. There was one thing good about him and that was, he was thinking about the future. That's the theme that this parable takes up. We need to reflect a little about what Jesus's wider intention is in raising this question of acting shrewdly, or wisely, with money. To act wisely with money usually means planning for the future, and anticipating what the future needs are going to be. It's those who plan who are very likely to be able to provide for their families, provide for themselves and find financial security. Jesus points out that worldly people, selfish people, are often quite good at this. This man is a great example; the dishonest, shrewd, manager was purely selfish. He was only doing it for himself. He didn't really care about his master; he didn't really care about the business; he was willing to steal from it; he was willing to waste the possessions; he was willing for the value of the business to go down. He did it himself but he was doing one thing that Jesus thought was good - he was looking to the future. What he's saying is that people of the light, verse 8, meaning disciples of Jesus, need to look to the future as they consider how they use their money now, in the same way that the shrewd and dishonest manager looked to his future as he handled financial opportunities at the time. Disciples need to be just as deliberate in investing in God's kingdom as the shrewd and dishonest manager was in investing in his personal future. The difference is that disciples are aiming to receive eternal rewards, whereas wealthy people are aiming to get financial benefits in this life.

Jesus goes on to say, in verse 10, that trustworthiness is also a very important issue. This is where the manager fell down dramatically, didn't he? He was utterly untrustworthy, and he lost his job but Jesus is pointing out that trustworthiness with finances is a central part of Christian discipleship. We're going to comment on this as we go along but what an incredibly important point! Christian discipleship cannot be separated from being trustworthy, being faithful with the little resources that we have, using them well for the reasons that they have been given to us.

Application

Let's think about all these themes in more detail, because there are three main things I'm proposing that we can learn from this passage. Jesus is equipping his disciples. He is teaching them about kingdom lifestyle and it's not the first time that Jesus has taught very specifically about finances. Finances and money is a major theme of the New Testament and it's a major theme of Jesus' teaching. It's a significant theme of the Sermon on the Mount, which was the foundational teaching of Jesus on discipleship which we studied extensively in Series 4. I'm going to refer back to that passage and that teaching briefly, in a few moments. The things we can learn are, first of all, that we should be using wealth to invest in the Kingdom of God. It's verse 9,

‘use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it's gone, you'll be welcomed into eternal dwellings.’

Luke 16:9, NIV

This saying has puzzled people very often but the likely implication of this saying is that we use our wealth to invest in the mission of the Kingdom, making ‘friends’ of people who come to Christ through the mission of the church. As we resource that mission, people come to Christ, and then their presence in eternity provides a sense of welcome for us because there'll be some recognition that we played a human part in their eternal salvation. That's the apparent underlying meaning of this rather complex statement. We're making friends by investing in the Kingdom and people are benefiting from that investment, usually by salvation and also by building the church. We gain the honour for our investment in eternity, in some mysterious way that isn't wholly explained here but I think this is very clear that Jesus is talking about this. First point, use wealth to invest in the Kingdom of God. The second point he makes is that he is looking for trustworthiness in the use of money, unlike the dishonest manager. One of the greatest risks to the Church is the dishonest, poor, or selfish use of financial resources in church communities, church congregations and church denominations. This is a huge risk. Discipleship principles suggest that those with financial responsibility in churches and church leaders, pastors and ministers, are not in those roles to make significant financial gains. They're there to serve their people and to witness for Christ in a very sacrificial way and to live very straightforward, simple and culturally appropriate lifestyles. This has been corrupted very often in the Church, where money has been taken for the benefit, even the luxury, of church leaders. Sometimes, some forms of teaching, like forms of prosperity teaching, have suggested that this is actually God's will but this point can easily be refuted in the New Testament. There is absolutely nothing in the New Testament that suggests that - nothing in the teaching of Jesus. Quite the contrary, he advocates a simple material lifestyle; he advocates trustworthiness; giving; simplicity; and investment in the Kingdom, rather than investment in your own material wealth. This point will have many applications in different parts of the world in different contexts but many listeners and hearers of this video will be aware of the extent of this problem in your own cultures and in your own nations. Jesus has warned us that we should be trustworthy in the use of money and not use it for selfish gain. He goes even further in the third point. We cannot serve both God and money. This is exactly the same point that he has made in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 6: 19 -20,

‘“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.’

Matthew 6:19-20, NIV

We're not here to accumulate vast amounts of material wealth; we're here to invest in God's kingdom and if we are serving money, if we're drawn to money, if it's our primary security, then our discipleship will be compromised. We will be ineffective disciples without any doubt. This is the teaching of this parable.

In conclusion, in verse 15, Jesus makes the point that what people value highly is detestable in God's sight. Material things are status symbols in every society. Sometimes that's stated obviously, sometimes it's promoted by advertising, and sometimes it's just something we feel deep down. People don't necessarily say it but they want us to see them from material possessions; they want us to admire them and to respect them because of their wealth. Jesus says this is detestable in God's sight. What we value highly, he doesn't care about - it's of no concern to him. He is vastly richer than all of humanity put together; it's of no interest to him; it's detestable to him; it's an idol; and that idol of materialism mustn't stand in the way of Christian discipleship.

Reflections

As we conclude our episode, I want to say this is one of the most important parables that Jesus gave us and not so widely taught; not easily understood but incredibly powerful. It makes us ask the question, and I want to come back to this issue, how do we use wealth to make friends for eternity and to invest in the kingdom of God? I'm going to make some suggestions on this. It's a very practical talk, and the best way we can use this talk is to reflect on this ourselves personally and decide what the Holy Spirit is saying to us in our lives, in our situations.

How can we use our wealth? To invest in our families - if we have families - so that those families are strong and members of our families may come to follow Jesus Christ. We can invest in our church, our local church, the church to which we belong, whether it's a formal church, whether it's a house church, whatever church community you belong to, whatever leadership you come under, then I'm encouraging you to invest in that church and particularly in its evangelistic mission. We can invest in giving to the poor, a theme that often comes out in Jesus' teaching, that they may be blessed, that Jesus may be honoured through our gifts, and that some of them may come to believe. We can invest in all sorts of missionary endeavours and projects and agencies and we can invest in helping our neighbours in times of need, that they too may be drawn to Christ. These are just some examples of how we can apply this, how we are investing our finances for the advance of the Kingdom, rather than just accumulating them for our own comfort.

The Church needs a radical critique of materialism in order to be strong in discipleship. That's difficult, and there are many different applications in different communities. In rich Western nations, there are some obvious applications but in poorer, developing countries, we have to think these things through more carefully. The same principles apply in every society. We need to critique materialism; we cannot let the god of money control our hearts and our minds and lead us astray. That's what happened with the shrewd and dishonest manager but he got into trouble in the end, lost his job, lost his status; he lost his honour and he was shamed in his society. At least he was thinking about the future. We should be investing for the eternal future, to please God, to bring more people through to the Kingdom, and to build up his Church, so that it's powerful in this world; and to support our families, so that they are in a good place in which people can believe in Christ and be secure. Thanks for joining us for this episode, and I encourage you to spend a little bit of time reflecting on what the Holy Spirit might be saying to you as an individual, or family, or group, or church. Whoever is studying, I encourage you to go on a journey as the Holy Spirit leads you and let the Scripture and Jesus' teachings shape your life by faith, for his glory.

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