The Parable of the Shrewd Manager … Part 1

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Shrewd Manager

A Bible Study by Jack Kelley

Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’

“The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg– I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’

“So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’

” ‘Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied.

“The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.’

“Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’

” ‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied.
“He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’

“The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. 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.

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?

“No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”

The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight. (Luke 16:1-15)

A Little Background, Please

A manager is being fired by his master. Told to bring the books into balance before turning them over for a final accounting, he faces a serious situation. He’s too old for manual labor and too proud for welfare, so he asks his master’s debtors to come in and review their accounts with him. In private meetings he has the debtors write down their accounts to a more favorable amount. In so doing he earns points with both the debtors and his master. How could this be?

It was against Mosaic Law for Israelites to charge one another interest on credit extended (Deut. 23:19), but many merchants got around this restriction by overcharging for goods and services, taking excess profits in lieu of interest. (You can see a current example in the auto business. That 0% financing you got is really a loan whose interest is paid by the manufacturer out of excess profits added to the price of vehicles specifically for the purpose of funding such incentives.)

The manager had apparently dealt unfairly with the master’s debtors, tacking on excess profits in lieu of interest. From the story, there’s no indication the master either instigated or condoned any over charging. Its discovery may even be one of the reasons for the manager’s sudden loss of position. Perhaps he was using these add-ons to compensate for the losses of which he was being accused.

Pretty Shrewd, Isn’t He?

Since the master commended the manager’s shrewdness in writing down the accounts, it’s hard to imagine he was being cheated in these dealings even though the Lord calls the manager dishonest. More likely, in settling with the debtors the manager was deducting the excess profits he himself had tacked onto their accounts, earning the gratitude of the debtors and the admiration of the master.

If so, his efforts resemble those of today’s Orthodox Jews during the 10 Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, frantically going around to right all the wrongs they’ve committed against others in the preceding 12 months. They’re working to retain their place in the Book of Life before it’s closed for another year, simultaneously reconciling themselves to their friends and neighbors while getting back into God’s Good Graces.

Christians don’t need to work to get back into God’s Good Graces. Our names cannot be blotted out of the Lamb’s Book of Life. But our willingness to ask forgiveness of someone we’ve wronged is more than an attempt at reconciliation. It’s an indication of the contrition in our hearts, a measure of our repentance for the sins we’ve committed.

Remember the Context

Don’t forget, this parable was given right on the heels of the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Prodigal (Lost) Son. In each one the point is the rejoicing that occurs when a sinner repents and asks forgiveness. It pleases the Lord and earns us the Master’s commendation.

And the Lord’s commentary following this parable sheds even more light. Non-believers are more shrewd in dealing with each other than believers are, He said. They know how to use their position and authority to gain influence so they’ll have something to fall back on if they get into a jam. If they do this to help themselves in a worldly context, how much more should we work to gain influence in an eternal one?

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not talking about trying to influence the Lord concerning our salvation. That’s a gift, free for the asking, and we’ve already received it. But just as the shrewd manager worked to gain favor with his master’s debtors so they would be more likely to help him out later, there are things we can do to gain influence with other believers, who may then intercede for us in difficult times. Asking their forgiveness is one.

Of course the Lord Jesus is our ultimate intercessor, (Romans 8:34) but it’s comforting to know that friends on Earth would plead our case in Heaven if it ever came to that.

Let’s Talk Money

And speaking of pleading our case in Heaven, He also recommends that we use whatever worldly wealth we’re given to gain favorable attention there by how we use it here. As one friend of mine has said, “You can’t take it with you, but you can send it up ahead.”

He was talking about using our wealth in a way that impresses the Lord. Wealth is a gift from God, we’re told (Deut. 8:18). Lots of people are smart, well educated and work hard, but the Lord blesses relatively few with wealth. If you’re one of them, are you properly thankful? Are you using your wealth to earn honorable mention in the one place where it really counts, Heaven? Remember, He says, if you can’t be trusted with a little (earthly riches) how will you ever be trusted with a lot (eternal riches)? You can’t serve two masters, after all. The money will take you in one direction, but God may have another direction in mind. Which will you follow?

The fact that He was looking right at the Pharisees when He said that shows they hadn’t gotten it right where money’s concerned. Next time we’ll look at the differences between man’s typical use of wealth and the Lord’s desire for its use, so you can see if you have. Stay tuned. Selah 3-05-04