Parables of Jesus: Parable of the Shrewd Manager
I think there are two categories of scriptures that I would call really difficult. The first category is where I think most of them fall. It isn’t so much that the text is hard to understand, but that I find it hard to put into practice. When Jesus talks about loving your enemies, I understand what he’s saying, but I find it difficult to do. When he talks about taking care that we don’t love our possessions and our money too much, I know exactly what he means, but I find that I have to remind myself of his teaching again and again. The other category of difficult texts is the group of passages where I honestly don’t understand what a passage is supposed to mean. Thankfully, even though I believe I can never fully understand a passage without a sit down with God explaining all the nuances to me, there aren’t many passages that seem totally confusing. Unfortunately, today’s text is one of them. And today, we’re diving right into the confusion of meaning. It’s my fault, of course. I chose which parables we would look at for this series. Amy-Jill Levine, whose book Short Stories by Jesus inspirited this series, doesn’t actually write about this parable, but I also have The Jewish Annotated New Testament, which she edited, and for which she worked on the gospel of Luke, so I figured I’d just use her thoughts from that resource instead. So, when I was getting ready to work on this week’s service, I looked up what she had to say about this crazy parable. She writes, “The parable defies any fully satisfactory explanation.”(1) Uh-oh. I started to panic a little. I’d preached on this text before, nearly a decade ago, but I read my old sermon, and it was nothing inspiring. It’s about this time in my sermon-writing process panic that my mother suggests I should see if we just want to have a hymn sing instead! Fortunately, Levine has a new book on the gospel of Luke, released literally just this week, that helped me wrestle through this passage. (2)
The parable we’re looking at today is called The Parable of the Shrewd Manager or The Parable of the Dishonest Manager. Again, how we name it shapes how we hear it: shrewd sounds better than dishonest, doesn’t it? Levine calls it “The Parable of the Dishonest Manager and the Trapped Master.” (3) In Luke’s gospel, this parable follows immediately after the parables of lost things that we talked about last week. Only, this parable, Luke tells us, Jesus directs to the disciples. He no longer seems to be speaking to the religious leaders. So these words are for the disciples, about discipleship, and for the crowds who have been following along with them.
There is a rich man, Jesus says, who had a manager. And the rich man has charges brought to him that the manager is squandering the rich man’s property. We don’t know the details. The rich man summons the manager and makes three statements in succession: What is this I hear about you? Give me an account. You’re fired. (4) Whatever he’s heard, he believes it, and even though he asks for an accounting, he’s really already decided to fire the manager. In response, we hear the internal monologue of the manager. It’s a pretty rare literary feature in the gospels, and Levine writes, “We don’t know whether to feel sorry for the manager, or condemn him, but the speaking “to oneself” trope in Bible usually indicates conniving, not thoughtful planning.” (5) In other words, the manager is scheming, strategizing. He reflects that he can’t do physical labor, and he won’t beg. So he decides to try to ingratiate himself with the folks who owe money to his master. He summons them one by one, and drastically reduces their bills. Various biblical scholars have suggested that the rich man was charging excessive interest, a sinful practice in Mosaic law, and that the manager was just getting rid of the unlawfully inflated price, or that the manager was forgiving whatever commission he was owed on the transactions. Or, perhaps the manager was reducing the payments to better encourage the debtors to pay his master. Those theories are possible, but the evidence is just not there in the text. (6) Even if it makes us uncomfortable, the reason the manager slashes the debt is directly stated, in his own words: He’s hoping to secure himself a place to work now that he’s been fired, a household he can serve, or maybe even a just a place to stay.
Self-centered though his actions may be, though, the results are good for everyone. We read, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” Levine writes, “The rich man appears … to be a dope but, eventually, a lucky one.” (7) The manager “engaged in dishonest business practices, and yet everyone benefits from his machinations. We are hard-pressed to determine whether we should celebrate his cleverness, laugh at his solution to his problem, or feel guilty for enjoying an account of cheating.” “The rich man finds his economic capital depleted, and his social capital intact given his generosity.” (8)
After Jesus tells the parable, he adds some reflections, which don’t immediately shed a lot of light for us on the text. He says, “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” He says we should make friends for ourselves from dishonest wealth. He says if we can’t even manage the dishonest wealth we have, how can we manage true riches with eternal value? We can’t, he concludes, serve both God and wealth. What a strange parable! How can we make sense of it?
A few facts can help us out: The word shrewd means prudent, wise, sensible, practical, pragmatic. The shrewd manager takes on a role that is fairly common in literature, and more common in the Bible than we might think at first. He’s a trickster. A trickster, who often seems to be at a disadvantage, uses savvy cleverness that proves to more valuable than other assets, helping them triumph over the person who seemed the sure-win. Think of David and Goliath. David beats giant Goliath because David cleverly figures out how to use his resources to his advantage. Esther is a trickster who uses her position as Queen to save her people. Jacob and Rebecca are tricksters who deceive Isaac and snag Esau’s birthright from him. Tamar uses a disguise to trick her father-in-law to giving her a child. Naomi cleverly helps Ruth position herself to get Boaz as a husband. In all of these stories, the hero is one who is clever, and uses that cleverness to grab ahold of blessings, ensure a good future, and wrest away some power from those who seem to be in charge. They aren’t all paragons of what we think of moral behavior. But clearly, the scriptures have a place for these figures, and Jesus says we have something to learn.
It also helps us if we remember that parables are not allegories. In an allegories, each part of the story represents something specific. This equals that. Parables aren’t like that. We get mixed up if we try to figure out which character in the parable is supposed to be God, and which is supposed to be us. It isn’t so straightforward. Jesus usually tells parables to tell us something about what God’s reign is like. Often he includes the very phrase, “The kingdom of heaven” or “The kingdom of God is like” when he starts a parable. They tell us something about how things are or will be when we do things on earth the way God means for us to.
So, even as we might understand what is happening in this parable more clearly, the real matter at hand is: what does this tell us about how we should live? First, it tells us that we need to be as wise, as shrewd in our discipleship as others with their money. “Children of light” is a term used in the New Testament that refers to disciples of Jesus. And Jesus says that we are good at handling business, the things of this world, but disciples aren’t good at handling what they have been given responsibility over. Think about it: there area a lot of tools that encourage us in managing our financial resources carefully so we can plan wisely for our futures. Some of us have more to manage than others, and some of us are better managers of our resources than others, but most of us would agree it is important to do our best with what we’ve been given. I don’t consider myself a skilled financial manager, but even I will periodically login to my pension plan account website and run the calculator they have to make sure I’m on track to be able to support myself in retirement, even though that still seems a long way away. Or there’s the finance chair at one of my former churches. He’s about a decade younger than me, and he’s a whiz with money. He’s constantly aware of which credit card he has that has the best rewards for that particular month, even putting little Post-it notes on his wife’s credit cards each month so she knows which ones she should use, and he figures it all out so those cards are earning money for him. He’s been a saver since he started working as a teen. He haggles with businesses for the best price. And he was able to put a significant down payment on a home when he was 21 or so because he’d been managing his money so carefully. Most of us think in some way about how to be careful and thoughtful with our money, in our present, 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, children of light, followers of Jesus, good stewards, good long-term investors, when it comes to discipleship? Disciples are managers – all that we have responsibility for is not our own, but is what is put into our care by God. Have we, like the manager, have been caught in the act of misusing, squandering what God has given to us. Now what will we do to rectify the situation? Can we act shrewdly? John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, 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]!” (9) Are we doing all the possible good we can with everything that God has put in our lives? Now is the time to take action to change things where we haven’t been as savvy as the shrewd manager.
This strange parable also tells us that we need to be smarter when it comes to confronting the powers that be. Jesus’ audience of mostly lower-class folks would have paid careful attention to parables that started with “There was a rich man…” Sometimes, when we feel that we’re without power to speak out against injustice in the world, we feel helpless, and helplessness can immobilize us. But Jesus’s parable, and indeed the whole witness of the scriptures with tricksters who shrewdly fine ways to turn the table even on those who seem to hold all the cards in a situation are models for us, reminders that if we are shrewd, if even children of the light can learn to be smart with the tools God gives us, there is no power greater than God, and no power that can keep us from seeking to love and serve God and neighbor. Luke’s gospel contains several parables where an individual has to confront a crisis of some kind, and in particularly, where a person of higher status has to resolve a crisis they face. In each of those parables, it is someone with a lower social status who helps, who provides a path forward. (10) In this case, the manager, in trouble because of the rich man, is helped by debtors. Another mark of the parables in Luke’s gospel is reversals. The shrewd manager doesn’t repent, and he’s not a virtuous character for us to model our behavior after. But he does do something the reverses the expected order of things. He takes some of the rich man’s wealth, and he relieves the debt of some of those who owe significant sums. Jesus frequently talks about reversals as signs of God’s reign, God’s kin-dom. What happens when God’s reign unfolds right here and right now? God’s reign interrupts the normal way of things. The first are last and the last are first. The humbled are exalted and the exalted are humbled. A manager who is shrewd might be commended instead of punished, and someone who is rich might be happy to have their wealth slashed to make it easier on those in debt. “Old hierarchies are overturned and new friendships are established.” We may find that it is those who we thought of as below us are the ones with power to welcome us into God’s home in this life and eternity.
This parable may never be one of your favorites. Levine noted in her book that there are no beautiful paintings of this parable like there are of the emotionally moving Prodigal Son. But we should pay more attention, I think, to the shrewd manager. How clever are we being when it comes to working for God’s reign in the world? How smart are we with all that God has given us? How often are we embracing the flipped-upside-down ways of God’s kin-dom that has us making friends in unexpected ways? As it turns out, if you’re a bit of trickster, you might be right at home in God’s reign on earth, where Jesus is always surprising and challenging us. Amen.
- Levine, Amy-Jill, and Mark Zvi Brettler, ed., The Jewish Annotated New Testament, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 134.
- Levine, Amy-Jill and Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
- Ibid., 435.
- Ibid., 437.
- Ibid., 438.
- Ibid., 440-441.
- Ibid., 438.
- Ibid., 442.
- Wesley, John, “The Use of Money,” https://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-50-The-Use-of-Money.
- Carey, Greg “Commentary on Luke 16:1-13, Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=675.
- Lois Malcolm, “Commentary on Luke 16:1-13,” Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1783.