The Parable of the Shrewd Manager
The parable of the workers in the vineyard is thought to be Jesus' greatest. It encapsulates the grace and favour of God perfectly. But the parable of the shrewd manager is very different. It is even hard to think that it is the same Jesus talking. The characters in this parable are rascals, every one. Embezzlement, fraud and selfish self-interest are at its heart. How could Jesus tell such a parable? It even tempts us think that Jesus was an ordinary human rabbi and teacher rather than the Son of God.
Note the familiar themes, the rich man, the servant, the business setting, money and influence. Why did Jesus keep using such examples? Maybe because he got instant attention with these stories. Are not our newspapers replete with such issues today? Celebrity, wealth, money, power, bad behaviour – these fill our media. Jesus had a way of gaining people's interest. He used everyday examples of the kind of things that were going on in that society just as they do in ours.
There were many absentee landlords in Palestine in Jesus' time. They entrusted their business affairs to educated servants. The term 'manager' is used here and we do not know that he is also a slave until verse 13. This person would have been intelligent, financially skilled and capable of factoring properties. But he was also lazy and corrupt. He did not respect or love his master. He had become arrogant. He was in fact a serial embezzler, a thief, a rogue. He was resourceful too. When found out and told he would lose his position, he contrived to prepare for the future by increasing his dishonesty. The master's debtors were rascals too because they happily took a discount on their debts and helped to falsify the accounts. The rich man was a rascal because he actually commended the manager for his ingenuity, getting a proportion of the debts repaid and at the same time being able to blackmail the debtors into offering him shelter when he was soon to be made homeless and out of work.
Verse 8 says 'For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with people of their own kind than are the people of the light'. The word shrewd means astute at best and using sharp practice at worst. In business it means spotting an advantage and exploiting it. It means getting something over another person by having greater awareness. That is how much business operates today. Facebook made £105 million from advertising last year in Britain. It paid £4327 in corporation tax on that income, less than the average worker pays in income tax. Some tradesmen use materials paid by one customer for another job for which they also charge for the same materials. The small print of contracts is often confusing and difficult to understand. Purposely. It gives advantage to the seller. People sign up for things without fully knowing what they are getting into. What Jesus is saying is that if only Christians were as eager and ingenious in their pursuit of goodness as shrewd people are in business they would be much better people. And if people were as energised and committed in the things which concern their souls as they are in money and material things, they would be in good standing before God and in a good place for eternal life. How much do you care about this Church compared with your other interests and pursuits? How much do you spend on leisure and holidays compared with what you give to the Lord in your offerings? How much time do you have for Jesus Christ compared with the time you have for other things? If you were in business as a Christian, would you survive? That is what Jesus is teaching his disciples here.
This is a realistic parable of the human condition for we are all dishonest in small things or greater. We may have made big mistakes in life and we may have tried desperately to put them right. We are all covering up. But if we are wise enough to accept the forgiving love of God through Jesus Christ and live our lives as he wishes us to do all will be well for us in eternal life. In Jesus' parables the absent landowner, vineyard owner or boss is an illustration for God. God is absent but a day of reckoning must come. Faithfulness is rewarded, dishonesty and hypocrisy is exposed. But in this parable does the rich man's example reflect the goodness of God? At the heart of the parable message is the sentence in verse 8 'The rich man commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly'. This suggests that although we are all asked to love the Lord fully, if we love the Lord partially, that is better than nothing. If we do not follow Jesus for Himself and just for our own interest and salvation, it is worthwhile even if it is not complete. Even if we are not idealists and perfectionists in Christian life, God commends us for whatever expressions of Christian faith we manage. If our Christian devotion is only pragmatic and not from the heart and soul and mind and strength, even so, it is accepted. The dishonest manager did lose his job and home and position, however.
Verse 9 is very problematic. 'I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings'. Jesus is advising us to use money to cement friendships. Maybe this means, for example, giving someone a loan at a critical time in their lives. Maybe it means paying off someone's debts. In Africa if you help educate a child he or she will be your friend for life. Bernard Muindi and Eunice and the people at Riamukurwe think of us as their friends because we help and support their work financially, all be it on a very small scale. It could mean 'crowd funding' - that new development whereby people loan money to start up a business or enterprise. It could be charitable giving where there is a lasting personal connection. At heart this is about storing up wealth in heaven rather than hoarding it here on earth. We all know we cannot take possessions with us when we leave this life. But we can invest in eternal life by doing good things with our money here on earth. Material wealth is left on earth to be divided up by relatives and others. Spiritual wealth lasts forever. There are also many charities whose funds help people. Take the Carnegie Trust, for example, or the Bill Gates Foundation. Most businesses have charitable trusts because there are tax advantages to giving to good causes. There are countless educational foundations. In the June 1889 issue of the North American Review, Andrew Carnegie published an article entitled 'The Gospel of Wealth' in which he argued that it was the duty of all rich men and women to use their wealth to benefit the welfare of the community. 'No man can become rich without himself enriching others', he said. 'The man who dies rich dies disgraced'. Bill Gates said 'I have no use for money - this is God’s work'. Having already given away $28bn, Bill Gates intends to eradicate polio, with the same drive he brought to Microsoft. That is what Jesus is meaning.
Verses 10 & 11 offer a familiar message of Jesus. 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? Jesus uses the illustration of looking after money properly and using it for good purposes as a way of teaching the disciples that they must treasure the spiritual riches of the New Covenant of which they are to become stewards and ambassadors. We somehow think that Christianity just happened. It didn't. The apostles were careful, committed and devoted people who led and evangelised and organised the early Christian Church so that it grew over the centuries. Without their lifelong following of Jesus there would be no Christianity in the world. There will be no Christianity in the future without committed Christians in our time fulfilling their calling. It won't just happen. It won't just happen here. It depends on you and me at the moment and on those who follow after us. We have this treasure to share and we must do it. It is too important. It is eternal life and salvation.
Verse 13 says 'No servant can serve two masters. 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 both God and money'. In the parable the servant manager serves himself and he serves money for himself. He is not devoted to his master. Jesus is telling his disciples that they need to be seriously committed to Him and to His purpose for the world. We should remember that Peter and James and John had been small businessmen. Matthew was a money man – a tax collector. Judas, we are told, stole money from the offerings given to Jesus. He needed them all to give up desire for and dependence upon material security in order to found the Church based on Himself. Peter had a hard time coming to terms with this. He had asked Jesus what rewards he would be getting for leaving everything to follow him. Even after Jesus' resurrection, Peter took up his fishing business again until Jesus followed him and re-engaged him with the threefold question 'Do you love me Peter?' The first Christians did not serve two masters. As the centuries progressed the Church began to serve God and money and became rich. And it became corrupt. The Reformation restored some balance and Christianity flourished again and expanded throughout the world. Not by accident – only by committed Christians who served only God and followed Jesus Christ. The Scottish missionaries in Africa and China are particularly respected for their transparent Christian lives of service. Mohammed served two masters, God and power and money. Islam still stands for these things together. Where does your heart lie then? With the Lord? Really, truly. 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'.
We are told that the Pharisees had been listening to Jesus telling his disciples this parable. These Pharisees sneered at Jesus, mocking his teaching. They were snobs and they despised Jesus' way of teaching along with the content. Both were to them unlearned. Luke tells us that Pharisees generally loved money. It was the sign of God's blessing under the Old Covenant. Jesus taught the opposite 'Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven'. Jesus responded to their insults by pointing out to them that they were righteous only in presentation and in public relations. They were unconverted unreconstructed people far from God's transforming power and far from the grace and mercy which he embodied and which he was mediating to anyone who would listen to him.