Parables of Jesus: The Virtue of Shrewdness
There are many parables of Jesus that I find challenging, difficult, because I know exactly what Jesus is asking of us, and what he’s asking means changing my life in a way that is hard. For example, when Jesus teaches about our life not consisting of our possessions – well, that’s some pretty direct language that I can figure out. Our lives are filled with stuff that we value too much, more than we value people, sometimes! But I consider today’s parable to be the most challenging of them all – not because what Jesus is saying is so hard, but because it is simply to confusing. This is, to me, the most mind-boggling parable of them all. It’s called the parable of the Shrewd Manager, or sometimes, the parable of the Dishonest Manager.
Jesus directs this parable at the disciples, his close followers, although the scribes and Pharisees, to whom he told the Parable of the Lost Sheep that we heard last week, they’re standing close enough to listen in to this parable too. So tells the disciples that there is a rich man who has a manager or steward of the rich man’s property, a fairly typical arrangement in Jesus’ day. The person was usually a slave or a former slave, but they had a great deal of power, too. They were responsible for all the affairs of the master’s household. They oversaw all the finances, and had authority over all the other household slaves, and sometimes even over the children of the master. The Greek name for them is oikonomos, and that’s where we get our English word economy.
Someone reports to the rich man that the household manager has been squandering his property. We’re not told exactly what that means, but probably, the manager was using the rich man’s property, money, and possessions for himself and his own benefit – acting as though what he was simply in charge of was actually his. So the rich man calls the manager in to give an account. The manager is worried – he realizes that if he has to present the accounts, the rich master will figure out that the manager has been mismanaging. So the manager acts shrewdly, frankly, sneakily, to protect himself. He calls in each of the debtors to the rich man, and slashes their bills, sometimes by fifty percent, so that he will ingratiate himself to them and find favor with them – maybe he’ll be able to secure a new position after he is fired by the rich master. He’s thinking ahead and trying to make sure he lands on his feet. Mosaic law didn’t allow a lender to collect interest, and so it seems perhaps this rich man got around the law by charging for more than was actually given. Essentially, then, the steward cancels the interest on everyone’s bills, which will result in a lot less profit for the master of the house.
Now, we expect the manager to be fired for his actions, for his sneaky behind-the-scenes maneuvering. But instead, and this is where things get confusing, his master commends him – because he has acted shrewdly, a word that means astute or sharp in practical matters. And most surprising of all: what Jesus tells us we should learn from this story. “The children of this age are more shrewd than are the children of light . . . Make friends for yourself of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Jesus holds the shrewd manager up as a model for us to follow. Does he want us to behave like this? Are we meant to be sneaky like this? Will God reward us for this kind of behavior?
Parables are not always easy for us to understand and interpret with our contemporary ears. We try to solve parables like a puzzle, and figure out what each thing means, what each piece represents. But parables are not always “this equals that.” But they’re really not meant to be picked apart that way. Instead, they’re meant to be read as a whole, and gleaned for what they tell us about the kingdom of God. In his parables, Jesus is always telling us what it is like in the kingdom of God – not what it is like in heaven, but what it is like if we live here on earth as if God’s kingdom is already here. That’s what the good news was for Jesus – God’s kingdom being here already. So, what does this parable tell us about what the kingdom of God is like?
About forty percent of the stories in the gospel are about money, our stuff, our material possessions, and what we should do with them. That tells us something – what Jesus has to stay about this stuff is super important to him. He talks about it all the time. It’s a big issue. So what is Jesus saying here? First, he’s telling us that a manager had responsibility over a lot of resources, and he misused those resources. They weren’t his, but he used them like they belong to him. Second, we learn that when he was called on the carpet, the manager acted quickly – shrewdly – to make amends, which had the good result of helping others, clearing his own name, and pleasing his master.
Still, what does this tell us about how we should live? We try to plan for our future don’t we? Even though I hope to have thirty-something more years in the ministry before I retire, I’m already contributing to my pension plan and trying to choose what is best for my future. Most of us do that – think about retirement, think about our Social Security income, think about our benefits, plan for our future. Do we take as much care with our resources when it comes to wisely investing in and for our relationship with God? Are we good stewards, good long-term investors, when it comes to discipleship? Jesus says that people seem to act shrewdly when it comes to matters of business, but disciples, children of light, don’t seem to act with the same sharpness when it comes to matters of discipleship. Disciples are managers – all that we have responsibility for is not our own, but are things put into our care by God. And we, like the manager, have been caught in the act – we are squandering what God has given to us. Now what will we do? Can we act shrewdly?
I think I’ve told you that John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, very early in his ministry, fixed a budget for himself to live on, setting aside a certain amount to save, an amount to give to the poor, and so on. Over the years, his resources expanded. He had income from preaching and teaching. But his budget – the amount he would spend on things for himself and his personal needs – never changed. He used what he needed to meet his expenses, and the rest, he gave away. He always said that if he died with any money or possessions to speak of, he should be considered a robber, because those things would not rightly belong to him. How truly remarkable was his position! I wish I followed his example. I find that it is so easy to squander what I have for nothing.
These days, I seem to carry less and less cash with me. Everywhere you go, you can use your debit card for purchases, and have money deducted directly from your checking account. I find it so easy to hand over my card, and pay very little attention to what I’m actually spending on what. A swipe of the card is all it takes. There’s something about paying with actual currency, with cash, that makes me pay more attention to what I’m spending. But as I use my debit card more frequently, I find that it is easier and easier to squander and spend carelessly.
But I think Jesus is thinking even deeper than that. Don’t we sometimes squander ourselves? When we think about ourselves, all the gifts we’ve been given, all the ability and potential we have, all that we could be making of ourselves, don’t we often squander ourselves? Waste what we have? Don’t we squander our time? Don’t we squander our relationships? Don’t we squander our energy? It is so easy to squander our resources, isn’t it?
Jesus says that we are good at handling business, but disciples aren’t good at handling what they have been given responsibility over. So, what have we been given responsibility for? Are we squandering what God has given us? Using it for our own benefit? John Wesley wrote in his sermon, “The Use of Money,” that this parable means for us “"Render unto God," not a tenth, not a third, not half, but all that is God's, be it more or less; by employing all on yourself, your household, the household of faith, and all [humankind], in such a manner, that you may give a good account of your stewardship when ye can be no longer stewards . . . Employ whatever God has entrusted you with, in doing good, all possible good, in every possible kind and degree to the household of faith, to all [people]!”
Jesus says that we can’t serve two masters. We can serve our ourselves first. Or we can serve God first. We have to make a choice, because if we try to do both, we’ll find ourselves in trouble when we are called by God to give an account of what we’ve been doing with all the abundance we’ve been given. I wish I could work out all the puzzles of this parable – when all is said and done, I still do find it confusing! But I think that we can take away some things. First, we need to be a little shrewd, a little smart, about what God has given to us. We have so much. I’m not just talking about things and money and possessions. I’m also talking about our other resources – our gifts, our talents, the things we do well, the people in our lives, the time we have and how we use it – these are all resources we have responsibility for. And they are resources given by God to us – we are the stewards, the managers, of what God has brought into our lives. We may not have a good management record so far. We might have been squandering what God has given us. But now is the time to be shrewd. It isn’t too late for us to start taking better care over what we’ve been given. Second, we can understand that God is endlessly forgiving. What boss would forgive a manager as sneaky and underhanded as the one in the parable? Only one brought to us by Jesus. Only God could forgive such behavior, and try to turn it into a blessing for us. God knows our hearts, knows that we’re anything but perfect, knows that more often that not, we outright ignore what God has asked us to do. But God loves us anyway, and is so eager for a relationship with us. We try. We fail. We do less than we’ve promised for God. We squander the good and precious gifts we’ve been given. But God loves us still and always, and is ready to bless us again and again.
Have you been a faithful steward of what God has given you? Faithful with the blessings you have? How have you cared for the money, the time, the talents, the family, the friends, the faith, the love that God has worked in you? Chances are an honest assessment mind find that you haven’t been managing too well – that you’ve been squandering, even, what you’ve been given. Now is the time to take action. Why pass up a chance to make things right when we know that God is ready to forgive, ready to help us try again? Be smart! Be shrewd! Be forgiven! Be loved!