Luke 16:1-8 may be the most confusing parable Jesus ever told. It’s a parable of the antihero. On the surface it seems that He’s commending dishonesty and manipulation. This led the Roman Emperor Julian to accuse Christians of being liars and thieves. At this point, we might be thinking “Jesus, couldn’t you make this one a little easier?” Yet, we do well to remember why Jesus spoke in parables to begin with. In the mode of indirect communication, parables simultaneously reveal and conceal. They jolt listeners to attention; they cause people to scratch their heads; they offend and unsettle. Some listeners throw their arms up and walk away. Some get upset and go no further. But some slow down and keep wrestling, keep asking questions, and by so doing “the secrets of the kingdom of God have been given for you to know” (Luke 8:9).
OBSERVATION: An Unsavory Story (Luke 16:1-8a)
In Jesus’ agricultural context, it would have been a familiar scene. A rich landowner (he owns olive groves and wheat fields), who allows people to live on his land as long as they farm his land and give him a steady percentage of the produce. In this story, the landowner has a manager who deals with the tenants on a day-by-day basis. The owner gets an accusation that the manager is dropping the ball and can’t be trusted. He calls the manager in and tells him to turn in the books. He’s finished. So, the manager hashes out a plan. He goes around giving discounts to the tenants. He hooks them into his scheme by having them revise the numbers. After cooking the books, he shows up to close business out with the boss. To his surprise, the manager has shrewdly acted in a way that has caused everyone to win. The boss looks really generous (e.g. 50 measures of oil would have been akin to over a year’s income). The manager has locked down some future friends and future favors (and possibly kept his job?). The tenants are happy recipients of unsolicited generosity. End result? The manager gets commended for his shrewdness (v.8a).
INTERPRETATION: Shrewdness is Key (Luke 16:8b-9)
There is a difference between commending a shrewd man for his dishonesty, and commending a dishonest man for his shrewdness. Jesus isn’t giving the disciples a crash course on “How to win friends and manipulate people.” What is commended is shrewdness. Some might call it street smarts. The Bible calls it wisdom. The manager acted shrewdly.
Part of wisdom in action is that there’s a sharpness that’s able to see the situation, look at the players, survey the territory, and act accordingly. That’s the one point this parable is driving home: shrewdness.
Yet, it’s not just shrewdness as an end in itself. We see quickly from v.8b-9 that this is about shrewdness with money. In v.9, Jesus says to his disciples there are two kinds of people in this world: children of this age and the children of light. The children of this age are living strictly for this age. They live by what they can see. They’re chasing the almighty dollar, and they’re willing to even act like scoundrels in the process. But the children of light (disciples) aren’t as shrewd because they live in two ages: this age and the age to come. And because we can’t tangibly see the age to come, we can be prone to use money (which we can see) only for this age. What must followers of Jesus do? Put on the bi-focals of both ages. Through one lens we can learn a thing or two from the children of this age (e.g. their tenacity, their creativity, etc.). We then look through the other lens to compare this age, which is temporal, with the next age, which is eternal.
A person can live a long life, make lots of money – but that life will one day end as a nano-second in comparison with heaven; and their money won’t go with them. Yet, the money isn’t meaningless. Jesus says, “just like children of this age know how to deal with their people; I want you to deal well with your people.” Verse 9 tells us how: “Make friends for yourselves by means of worldly wealth so that when it fails (ie. runs out), they may welcome you into eternal dwellings.” Just like the unrighteous manager used money to make friends who would welcome him in when he was out of a job, Jesus is saying “one day you’re not just going to be out of a job, you’re going to be out of a life (and definitely out of money). Eternity awaits. And so use money now to make friends who will welcome you then.”
In Luke 12:33, Jesus talks about giving to the poor and by so doing storing up treasure in heaven. Here he simply puts meat on the bones of that statement. There’s an investment that’s being made, and part of the return is that those you’ve given to will recognize you. Though this might strike some as self-interest in the form of altruism, Jesus would have us know that self-interest is always a factor. The question is whether our self-interest will be short-sighted or heaven-sighted.
Jesus’ kingdom calls for self-denial in the interest of self. Children of light let the light expose the truth about their money. Money doesn’t last, but it can be used for what does. That is an invitation to kingdom shrewdness and generosity. 8 out of the 9 times this word for “shrewd” is used in the gospels, it’s used in relation to the coming kingdom. In the coming of Jesus, disciples now see life – including their money – differently! We let the coming age impact the way we live in the present age.
APPLICATION: Stewardship is the Challenge (Luke 16:10-13)
The knots of this parable get untied when you look at v.10-13.
Who you serve determines your stewardship. You cannot serve both God and money. This is a challenging teaching. Yet, stewards only have one option – to serve the interest of their master. Christ calls us to consider God and let the glory of heaven energize us into shrewd and faithful stewardship.
Richard Baxter wrote: “If there be so certain and glorious a rest for the saints, why is there no more industrious seeking after it? One would think, if a man did once hear of such unspeakable glory to be obtained, and believed what he heard to be true, he should be transported with the vehemency of his desire after it, and should almost forget to eat and drink, and should care for nothing else, and speak of and inquire after nothing else, but how to get this treasure. And yet people who hear of it daily, and profess to believe it as a fundamental article of their faith, do as little mind it, or labor for it, as if they had never heard of any such thing, and did not believe one word they hear.”
Kingdom shrewdness look risky and even foolish in the eyes of the world. Yet, that’s the difference between children of this age and children of light. Children of light SHINE. Their lives look different against a backdrop of materialism and overabundance.
Just like the shrewd manager in the parable, we can use money in such a way that everyone wins: 1. God looks good – a gospel that creates loving generosity in us is a gospel that is attractive; 2. we make friends for time and eternity, investing in others and in the life to come; 3. others benefit now in real tangible ways that we pray don’t result in praise to us but praise to God.
Here are some questions for further reflection:
- Take an honest assessment of your life, and especially your use of money. Do you more resemble the children of this age or the children of light? What’s a one step you can take that will help you be a more faithful steward?
- Can you think of creative ways that you can grow in kingdom shrewdness?
- Is there a fear that this teaching evokes in you? How might Jesus be inviting you to trust His heart for you?
- Think of examples of people who served God and people who served money? How were their lives different? Who was truly the most fulfilled?
Jesus is the best financial counselor. More than that, He is the Lord over all. Even more, He is a Savior we can trust.
2 Cor. 8:9: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: Though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”
Romans 8:32: “If God is for us, who is against us? He did not even spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. How will he not also with him grant us everything?”
The return on our investment is guaranteed. May we trust Him and invest wisely.