The Parable of the Shrewd Manager (Luke 16)


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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 16:8-9)

This is Jesus talking, and when we read this little snippet of His speech, it sounds like He’s telling us to go out and be like the world: buying people’s favor with money because somehow people’s approval of us down here will affect our eternal status. Well, no, this isn’t at all what He’s saying, and this passage is a great example of why it’s important to look at context.

Let’s start from the beginning of this chapter and hear this parable in its entirety so that we can get a clear idea of what Jesus is teaching us. But before we even start the parable, we have to see who Jesus is talking to. It turns out He’s getting hassled by a crowd of scribes and Pharisees who are criticizing Him for hanging out with lowlife sinners and even sharing meals with them (Lk. 15:2). This parable is one in a string of parables that Jesus fires off in response to those who are griping against Him. Each parable focuses on something different—this one focuses on money. We’re told in Luke 16:14 that the Pharisees were lovers of money. So as we read through this parable, let’s remember that Jesus is specifically countering those who are criticizing Him, and holding them up as examples of what God doesn’t like in order to further educate His sincere followers.

So then, turning to His disciples and knowing full well that the Pharisees are standing right there listening, Jesus says:

“There was a certain rich man who had a manager handling his affairs. One day a report came that the manager was wasting his employer’s money. So the employer called him in and said, ‘What’s this I hear about you? Get your report in order, because you are going to be fired.’” (Lk. 16:1-2)

Jesus sets the scene with a situation we can easily picture: a rich man receives word that one of his employees is up to shady business. Whatever this person’s job was, it involved managing the rich man’s money. The rich man now gives his shady employee notice: he’s going to be fired.

Well, this is very bad news. Who is going to hire our little cheat now that he’s been found out? No one. That leaves him with two options: low paying manual labor jobs or begging. He doesn’t like either option.

“The manager thought to himself, ‘Now what? My boss has fired me. I don’t have the strength to dig ditches, and I’m too proud to beg. Ah, I know how to ensure that I’ll have plenty of friends who will give me a home when I am fired.’” (Lk. 16:3-4)

Our man is a quick thinker. After all, he didn’t get away with his crimes this long by being dumb. He now figures he has one advantage left: that his last day on the job is still a little ways off. If he acts fast, he can use his status as the rich man’s manager to make some other people feel indebted to him.

Now a lot of people owe the rich man a lot of money, and they can’t pay it all. Our shady manager now seeks out some of his big debtors and offers to cut them a generous deal: if they just pay him part of the debt, he’ll let them off the hook for the rest. Well, this is great news to the debtors, and they erroneously think this shady manager is acting with his boss’ approval. But of course he isn’t. The rich man doesn’t know his shady manager is out there cheating him still further by excusing those who owe him money from paying the full amount back.

“So he invited each person who owed money to his employer to come and discuss the situation. He asked the first one, ‘How much do you owe him?’ The man replied, ‘I owe him 800 gallons of olive oil.’ So the manager told him, ‘Take the bill and quickly change it to 400 gallons.’

‘And how much do you owe my employer?’ he asked the next man. ‘I owe him 1,000 bushels of wheat,’ was the reply. ‘Here,’ the manager said, ‘take the bill and change it to 800 bushels.’” (Lk. 16:5-7)

Eventually, word gets back to the rich man about what his manager is up to. The rich man is crafty himself, and he can instantly see what his manager is scheming. He knows the little rat is trying to make friends for himself later on. After all, once the manager is out of work, he can go to one of the people he helped and say, “Don’t you remember how I let you off the hook for all that money you owed? The least you can do for me now is put me up at your house and give me some spending money.” And since the debts that have been forgiven were so large, the manager can work this guilt trip for a very long time.

Even though he’s been cheated out of still more money, the rich man is impressed with his manager’s cunning. Jesus says:

“The rich man had to admire the dishonest rascal for being so shrewd. And it is true that the children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with the world around them than are the children of the light. Here’s the lesson: Use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends. Then, when your earthly possessions are gone, they will welcome you to an eternal home.” (Lk. 16:8-9)

The eternal home here is not referring to Heaven, but to long-term assistance on earth. If you make people feel indebted enough to you, they’ll be willing to always help you out in life. Jesus points out that unbelievers are way more skilled at working the system than believers are. There’s an obvious reason for this: believers are restricted by God’s moral code. We’re not allowed to lie, cheat and steal in order to manipulate people into feeling like they have to bail us out of jams. Doesn’t Jesus think it’s better to live morally than it is to be like this shady manager? Of course He does. He isn’t telling believers to throw morals out the window here. He’s making a different point.

“If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities.” (Lk. 16:10)

Jesus now turns the table and points out the flaw in this shady manager. The fact that the manager only cared about himself made him an untrustworthy jerk in everything he did, big or small. Evil character acts evil in every circumstance. But a man who is righteous in character can be trusted with big things, because his focus on pleasing God will keep him honest.

“And if you are untrustworthy about worldly wealth, who will trust you with the true riches of Heaven? And if you are not faithful with other people’s things, why should you be trusted with things of your own?” (Lk. 16:11-12)

Now Jesus points out how our choices on earth affect our eternal futures. If you do a lousy job of serving God on earth, you’re not going to be collecting rewards in Heaven. It is obedience that God rewards, not rebellion. Those who sincerely care about pleasing God will be promoted on the other side, but not those who just went around living for themselves.

“No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Lk. 16:13)

Now here’s a very famous verse, but how interesting to read it in its full context. Of all the things in this world that tempt us to turn away from God, money is one of the most dangerous. Money is the key that unlocks the door to so many things we crave in this world: power, social status, fame, popularity, respect. Money has a way of consuming us so completely that we end up hating anything that tries to come between us and a growing bank account—even God Himself.

Now let’s remember that while Jesus is talking to His disciples, He’s also sticking it to the Pharisees.

The Pharisees, who dearly loved their money, heard all this and scoffed at Him. Then He said to them, “You like to appear righteous in public, but God knows your hearts. What this world honors is detestable in the sight of God.” (Lk. 16:14-15)

Hearing their indignant snorts, Jesus looks right at the Pharisees and calls them out on just how rotten they are in God’s sight. Like the shady manager in the parable who seemed like a hero to the people he was helping, the Pharisees have succeeded in impressing many people with their pretense of righteousness. But just like the shady manager in the parable, their good deeds are just a phony cover up for ugly carnal agendas. There was nothing admirable about the shady manager cheating his boss out of money so he could make other people feel indebted to him. In the same way, Jesus warns the Pharisees that they are in trouble with God for the way they are living. Like the shady manager, the Pharisees were letting material wealth be their god instead of seeking to honor the real God. If they didn’t clean up their acts, they were going to experience serious consequences in eternity.

This parable has nothing to do with being a good steward of the money God has given you. Jesus is talking about internal motivations. Who are you living to please: yourself, or God? Everything starts with heart attitude. The shady manager’s motivations were rotten, therefore even his “good deeds” would be discounted by God as total garbage. In the same way, when you give a million dollars to the homeless shelter because you want them to rename the place after you and build a statue with your likeness on the front lawn, God is not going to be applauding your generosity in helping the poor. He knows you’re just using the poor to make a shrine to yourself in the community. Always with God, it is the heart that matters. The world might applaud you for being clever, just as the rich man in this parable applauded his shady manager. But what is such applause worth? Unbelievers might be able to teach us a thing or two about how to better manipulate people into doing what we want, but that’s not an education we want to receive. As Christians, we want to honor God with how we spend our lives down here, and that means seeking His will in all things and asking Him to have His total way in our lives.