The Shrewd Manager.
The parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-9) has an important lesson to teach us about money, but we often miss it because some of the wording in the parable throws us off course.
The basic story is that a manger is going to lose his job and doesn’t know how he will provide for himself. So he tells his master’s clients to lower the amount they owe his master in hopes that, when he loses his job, they will be favorably disposed toward him and provide for him. The master commends the dishonest manager for his shrewdness, and Jesus adds an explanatory word that the people of the world are more shrewd in dealing with their generation than godly people.
Then Jesus states the point we are to get from the parable. The words, “And I tell you” (v. 9) are a clear signal that Jesus is introducing the intended lesson. I’ll come back to it later, but first let me try to clear away some things that are stated prior to this point and that are not the point.
The point is not that God will commend us if we are dishonest and shrewd (v. 8). The word “dishonest” ought to make that clear. It’s true that the master in the story commended his manager for dishonest shrewdness, but we should not think God will do that. Remember, most parables are not allegories, so not every aspect of the story is a lesson we are to learn. God is not like the master in this story, and we dare not use this verse to justify shady, worldly dealings.
Nor is the point that Christians should “catch up” with non-Christians by learning to be more shrewd in dealing with people (v. 8b). We sometimes read this line as if Jesus were saying “they’re better at shrewd dealings than we are so we need to pick up the pace.” But shrewdness in financial dealings is not a practice advocated by Scripture. Rather, the statement in v. 8b is simply an explanation of why the master would commend his manger for dishonesty. Jesus is explaining, not commending. I might add that if we find ourselves turning to Luke 16:8 as a prooftext for something we intend to do, we should probably do some humble soul-searching instead.
So what is the point of the parable? As indicated above, Jesus uses the words “And I tell you” to introduce what he wants us to learn. The point is that we are to “use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves” (v. 9). That is, we are to use money to build relationships with people. In keeping with other teachings about money in Luke, we are not to hoard it for ourselves. Rather, we are to use it to benefit others.
The positive result of doing so is that we will be “welcomed into heavenly dwellings” (v. 9). Literally it says “they may welcome you into eternal dwellings” (ESV, NASB). This is difficult for us to understand because we don’t know who the “they” are. We know God or Jesus allow us into heaven, so who are the “they?” Perhaps the word “they” is used to make the line parallel to the people (plural, they) that the dishonest manager thought would welcome him into their homes. Apparently the word “they” here has an indefinite sense similar to going to a hotel and having someone say, “If you go to the desk in the lobby, they will give you a room.” Actually one specific person will give you a room, but the indefinite “they” can be used. The NIV avoids this difficulty by translating it as a passive—you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. Though less literal, I think that is the right sense.
To summarize, not every detail of the parable is intended to be a lesson. Instead, the point of correspondence between the parable (vv. 1-8) and the application (v. 9) is that we are to use money in such a way that someone who has power to do so (either the creditors in the parable or God in the application) will give us a home (either by taking the manager into their homes in the parable or by giving us an eternal dwelling in the application).
Notice, too, the phrase “when it fails” (v. 9). Money is going to fail. Luke emphasizes the danger of money more than any other Gospel writer. Money is not the ultimate value in life. So, instead of hoarding it or buying more and more stuff for ourselves, we should use it for other people. One great way of doing this is to give to the poor. Another, in our day, would be to take people out to dinner. Or we might buy someone something we know they need but can’t afford. Obviously care needs to be taken in how we do these things, but if we do them appropriately, we can enhance friendships and influence others toward God and his kingdom.
It’s worth noting that God’s priorities in regard to money are reflected in the verses that follow, though more generally. If we are faithful in the small matter of money, by using it for people, then God will entrust true wealth to us (presumably in heaven)(vv. 10-11). But the opposite is also true (v. 12). Further, how we use money indicates who our true master is (v. 13). The statement at the end of verse 13, that we cannot serve both God and money, shows he is still talking about the same subject. Verses 14-15 continue the theme even further. The Pharisees loved money and ridiculed Jesus for his teachings about it, but God knew the evil that was in their hearts. Jesus then sums up the whole discourse by saying what is exalted (or highly esteemed) among people—namely money and hoarding it—is detestable in the eyes of God. The values of God’s kingdom are different than the values of our world.
So, what will we do with the lesson Jesus wanted us to learn (v. 9)? Who do you know that you could build a better relationship with by spending some of your money on them or for them? What would be a good and appropriate way to do so? Such wholesome priorities are a step toward being welcomed into an eternal dwelling.