The Parable of the Shrewd Manager is difficult to understand. Those who preach from this struggle to find a way to make the actions of the manager honorable and when Jesus commends the actions of the incompetent, deceitful manager, it is not only a surprise – it is a shock.
An employee is accused of incompetence and is fired. But before he leaves he meets with all the people who owe his boss money and reduces the amount they owe so they will help him when he needs a job in the future. (This parable should be a lesson for all employers: When you fire someone, do it immediately and do not give them time to work against you.)
The amazing thing is that, as Jesus told the story, the boss congratulated the man he was dismissing for having been shrewd by using money to prepare for his future.
So, is Jesus telling us that we can rob a bank and give the money to the church and the poor as a way of preparing to have a better welcome in heaven?
Barbara Tuchman is one of my favorite historians and her first book I read was A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century. She writes about two contradictory images of the 14th century: “a glittering time of crusades and castles, cathedrals and chivalry, and a dark time of ferocity and spiritual agony, a world plunged into a chaos of war, fear and the Plague.”
One of the things I remember about this book was the repeated experience of some wealthy nobleman who lived a decadent life, gained wealth at the expense of others, had mistresses, used and abused others, and then upon his death he would leave a castle to the Catholic church for a monastery or nunnery so he would be treated well when he came to his judgment before God. The teaching of the church supported and encouraged these grand gifts of estates.
Does the parable of the Shrewd Manager support this practice? Let’s take a look at the story.
There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 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.’
At the end of the parable the manager is called dishonest. Maybe it was reported that he had been taking bribes. Maybe he had been mismanaging his master’s resources. Maybe he sold to a friend at a lower price than he could have received elsewhere. Maybe he did not sell wheat when he should have and it spoiled. Whatever the action, whether incompetence or dishonesty, he was not doing what he should have been doing.
“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
The manager received the news with shock and dismay. What was he going to do? He was not used to physical labor. He was probably too old for this. The change from being manager of the rich man’s estate to begging on the street would be too much to bear. So he devised a plan.
I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’
5 “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
6 “ ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied.
“The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’
7 “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.’
He called in the men who owed his master money and settled their debts at a fraction of what they owed. The first debt was 900 gallons of oil, about 3,300 liters, which was the yield from 150 olive trees. This was not an insignificant debt. It was worth about 1,000 denarii which was the equivalent of three years salary for the daily worker.
The second debt was 100 bushels of wheat which was the yield from about 100 acres of grain. This was a larger debt, about 3,000 denarii, eight to ten years of salary for the daily worker.
The manager settled the first debt for half of what was owed and gave a 20% reduction on the second debt. This was unexpected good news for them and the manager hoped that they would view him kindly and perhaps offer him employment when he lost his job.
Now we come to the surprise and shock of this parable:
“The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.
Why would the master commend the dishonest manager for taking his money?
What is the action of the manager that made him dishonest?
There are three possibilities: The first is that the manager stole from his master by settling the debts at a fraction of what was owed.
The second is that the manager removed interest charges from the bills in accordance with Mosaic law (Exodus 22:25) bringing his master into compliance with the law.
The third possibility is that the manager removed from the debts his own commission, sacrificing his own money, not his master’s.
Because I want to make this parable appealing, I like this third possibility. In a business, collecting debts is difficult and when people stretch out the payment of what is owed to three months, half a year, a year, it puts a lot of strain on the financial stability of the business. The money that is owed is needed to purchase what has to be bought to sustain the business. So when the manager collected the debts, the master benefitted by having cash brought into his business.
In this third possibility the master did not sacrifice anything, the sacrifice was made by the manager who gave up his commission. And perhaps the manager might have lost this anyway if he was dismissed. So he gave up what he might have lost anyway to gain a future hope of employment.
Another reason I like this third possibility is that the action of the manager makes no sense if he was defrauding his master. The men whose debt was settled at a reduced price would not want to hire a man to manage their accounts if he had demonstrated that he was willing to steal from his master. But if they saw that he had made a personal sacrifice, they would see this as a positive quality and be more interested in him as a manger for their estates.
On the other hand, the parable starts out saying that the manager was wasting his master’s possessions. He was failing at his job.
We can speculate about what made the master dismiss his manager but why he did this is really not very important. These details only lead up to the point Jesus wanted to make.
This parable is a great example of how we are not supposed to focus on the details of the parable. It is the point that is being made, the surprise at the end of the parable, that is supposed to be the focus.
So it could be that this manager was incompetent and deserved to be fired. It could be that the manager was a deceitful crook, a businessman who cheated, who took advantage of others, who did whatever he could to make himself more wealthy. People like this think they can do whatever they want and never be held accountable. Unfortunately, there are far too many people in the world like this.
What is the moral lesson Jesus drew from this parable?
For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
Jesus observed that people who think only of how much money they can make in this world use their money to take risks with the hope of making more money. They use their money for a future reward. This is what the shrewd manager did. He took a risk that he hoped would pay off and the master commended him for taking that risk. From this Jesus drew a spiritual analogy. Those who seek God should use their worldly resources in a way that will please God so that when the end comes and all the wealth of the world has slipped away, they will be received in heaven.
There are people in this world who never do anything unless it will make themselves more wealthy. I know a wealthy man who suddenly decided to get married at the end of December because he would save a lot of money on his taxes if he was married before the end of the year. He is a wealthy man because he focused his time and energy on how to become rich.
There are thousands of books written about how to make money. There are many seminars you can go to for help in becoming rich. But what is it Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount? (Matthew 6:24)
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
Wealth is not evil. Barnabas, in the book of Acts, was a wealthy man. Mark, who wrote the gospel, came from a wealthy family. Lydia in Philippi was a wealthy woman.
It does not matter whether you have a lot of money or only a little money. What matters is how you use what you have.
So let’s talk about the proper use of wealth.
If you have been here the past few Sundays, you will remember that I talked about wealth on March 10 when I preached from the parable of the Rich Fool. Why am I talking about wealth again?
The simple answer is that I am talking again about wealth because Jesus talked a lot about wealth. Sixteen of the thirty-eight parables, 42%, are concerned with how to handle money and possessions. In the Gospels, an amazing one out of ten verses deal directly with the subject of money. The Christian New Testament offers 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 verses on faith, but more than 2,000 verses on money and possessions.
Why did Jesus spend so much of his teaching talking about money and possessions?
Godfrey Davis wrote a biography about the Duke of Wellington, the hero of the Battle of Waterloo. In talking about why he had been able to write such an insightful biography, Davis said, “I had an advantage over earlier biographers. I found an old account ledger that showed how the duke spent his money. It was a far better clue to what he thought was really important than the reading of his letters or speeches.”
It is easy to talk about what we believe, but more difficult to use our money to support what we believe. We can be faithful in attending church and we can talk about how wonderful it is to be a follower of Jesus, but when it comes time to spend our money, then we find out what we really believe. You tell me you are a follower of Jesus. I challenge you to look at how you spend your money and see where you find evidence to prove you are a follower of Jesus. Look at all the ways you spend your money and see how much of what you spend is supporting the work of Jesus in the world. What do your financial records tell you about what you believe?
Martin Luther observed: “There are three conversions necessary: the conversion of the heart, the mind, and the purse.”
Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount: (Luke 12:34)
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
If the purse has not been converted, than the heart and mind are not really serious. Has your purse been converted?
Let me mention what Jesus is not teaching in this parable and then talk about how to use our money wisely.
First, Jesus is not teaching that you can buy your way into heaven.
Some people might use this parable to support that understanding, but scripture has to be read as a whole and one teaching of Jesus cannot contradict his other teachings. When Peter and John went to Samaria, a local magician, Simon Magus, was impressed with their gifts of the Spirit and offered them money so they would give him this ability. Peter rebuked him.(Acts 8:20)
“May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!”
God is not impressed with the amount of money that is given. Jesus observed people in the Temple, putting their gifts in the treasury containers. (Luke 21:1–4)
As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. 2 He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. 3 “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. 4 All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
We are not saved by our actions and we are not saved by how we use our money. But if we have faith, our lives will increasingly be more like Jesus. Our deeds will show that we have faith. The fruit of the Spirit will be evidenced in us. And if we grow in faith, money’s hold on us will lessen and we will become more generous.
So if we are not using our money to please God, it shows that money still has too much power over us and our hearts are not completely given to God. Jesus said we cannot serve God and money. You will serve a master – make sure that master is God.
A second lesson is that God does not want us to tithe, he wants us to be generous with our money.
I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
Jesus taught that we should use money in a way that pleases God. So how much are we required to give to the church? 10%?
The concept of tithing is well developed in the Old Testament and there are actually three tithes mentioned in the Old Testament. 10% was used to go to the Temple and make the annual sacrifices. A second 10% was given to the priests and Levites and every three years an additional 10% was given to the widows and the poor. This works out to 23.3% per year, not just 10%. To meet one’s obligations to God, tithing was necessary.
So in Malachi 3 we read that God’s blessing was withheld because the tithe was not given.
Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty.
“But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’
8 “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.
“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’
“In tithes and offerings. 9 You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.
God’s blessing was withheld because Israel did not pay the tithe it was required to pay. This was the law of God. To be a follower of God, you had to pay the tithe. God gave you all you had and you were required to give back your tithe.
Now we move to the New Testament and I have some good news for you. You are no longer under the law. In Christ, you have been set free from the law. In the New Testament, the concept of tithing 10% is abolished.
What are you required to put in the collection plate to fulfill your obligation to God? Nothing! You no longer have an obligation to God. God has given you a gift you cannot repay and your response needs to come from the heart, not from an obligation. You are not required to give anything.
But remember what James wrote in his letter: (James 2:14 – The Message)
Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it?
Someone who says they are a follower of Jesus but holds on tightly to their purse has really not yet been converted. Generosity will be the result of a living relationship with Jesus. If you are open to the work of the Holy Spirit in you, it is impossible that you will not become more generous, taking on the heart of Jesus for those in the world. The New Testament asks us to do more, not less, than the Old Testament. So if you are not giving 10% or more of all you receive, you need to examine yourself to see why it is your purse is not more open.
The solution is not to give more money our of a sense of duty or obligation. What you need is a heart more in love with Jesus and when that is the case, your purse will open up naturally.
In the Old Testament, giving the tithe was a religious obligation. In the New Testament giving is an expression of the joy of our Christian experience. Paul said in II Corinthians 9:7 that God loves a cheerful giver. Let me present four reasons for being a cheerful giver to God’s work.
The first is rather simple. We give to show gratitude. We can never repay what God has done for us but we can show our gratitude.
In Luke 17 there is an encounter Jesus had that came to my mind. (Luke 17:11–19) Jesus was walking to Jerusalem, traveling along the border between Samaria and Galilee. Ten lepers called out to Jesus to have pity on them and he told them to go show themselves to the priests. As they made their way they were cleansed from leprosy.
15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
Ten lepers were healed but only one of them came back to thank Jesus and praise God. Ten lepers received a free gift – healing from a disease that made them social outcasts from their families and communities. How much would they be willing to pay for healing from this disease? Everything they had. What could they offer to Jesus except their gratitude? Nothing.
And yet only one out of the ten came back to thank Jesus and praise God.
Why did that leper return? Was he obligated to do so? No. Was his healing dependent on his coming back to give thanks? No. The other nine did not return to give thanks but were still healed. But the leper who returned came back out of gratitude and received in the process what the other nine never learned, that it was faith in God that brought healing.
Why should we give to the work of God in the world? Because we are grateful for what God has done for us and because when we give, we grow in our understanding of faith and the ways of God working in the world. We give out of gratitude.
How grateful are you for what God has done for you? Let that be your guide as you give.
A second reason for giving to the work of God in the world is that in doing so we are acting wisely, preparing for the future.
This is the teaching from the parable of the Shrewd Manager. Jesus taught with this parable that we are to use our resources in our present situation to prepare for our future situation.
Picture yourself on the Titanic. The ship has struck an iceberg and is sinking. People are struggling to get into the lifeboats. The ship has begun to tilt as the stern of the ship takes in water so walking along the corridors and the deck of the ship is difficult. It won’t be long before the ship goes under and if you are not in a lifeboat by that time, you will most likely drown in the frigid Atlantic waters.
Being a conscientious person, you race through the hallway to see if there is someone you can save and bring to the lifeboats. As you race down the hall, you see a man ransacking the rooms, filling his pockets with gold and silver and jewelry he has found in the cabins. He is dragging a suitcase loaded with money and watches and other valuables. He is delighted at this treasure he has discovered. “I’m a rich man! Look at all I have!” he shouts at you and then races on to the next cabin to get some more. You try to persuade him that he should abandon all that and try to save himself but to no avail. His heart is so set on this treasure he has found he is incapable of thinking of the future.
This is the flip side of the parable Jesus taught. What good does it do you to accumulate money and wealth in this life when death is approaching that will take all you have accumulated away from you? The wise person uses what he or she has accumulated to prepare for the future, life after death. Jesus said (Luke 16:9)
I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
Where are you accumulating treasure? It doesn’t matter whether you have it or are lusting for it. It doesn’t matter whether you have a lot or a little. Where are you accumulating treasure? If your treasure is in this world, then you are a fool, like the man on the Titanic gathering up treasure while the ship is sinking.
Don’t end up being bankrupt when your life in this world is over. Build up treasure now in heaven by using what God has given you here in ways that are pleasing to him.
A third reason to give generously is because when we give wisely, we have the privilege of supporting the work of Jesus.
Luke tells us about the women whose financial gifts supported Jesus and his disciples. (Luke 8:1–3)
Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3 Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.
The church in Philippi sent financial gifts to Paul that allowed him to spend more time teaching and less time making tents.
If there was some time machine that allowed you to send a financial gift to support the work of Jesus, his disciples, and Paul, wouldn’t you jump at the chance?
There are many, many people who come at us asking for financial gifts to support their ministry. Some are a good investment in the kingdom of God and others are wasted gifts that go to support selfish lifestyles. We need to be wise in our giving. Sometimes, because God wants to build our faith, having someone give us the money we need is not wise. Sometimes it is good for us to wait. It is not easy to be wise in giving to the kingdom of Jesus.
But when we are led by God and make wise gifts, it is a great privilege to support the work of Jesus in the world. Two people paid for someone who could not afford the cost of the Lenten Desert Retreat to come. Another person gave a donation that allowed 21 from the student ministry to come to the retreat. These gifts allowed people to step aside and take time to listen to God. Some day we will know more fully how wonderful these gifts helped, but they were a good investment in the kingdom of God.
Annie and I have loved having the privilege of supporting people in ministry around the world. Our gifts helped build the kingdom of God. We continue to do this and it is a great blessing. We know a little of how our gifts were used. Someday we will see this more clearly.
Why give to the work of God in the world? Because we ought to be grateful to God for what he has done for us. Because it is a wise person who uses what he or she has in this world to prepare for the future. Because when we give wisely, we have the privilege of supporting Jesus. And fourth, we give to the work of God in the world because we receive from God blessing when we use our money and possessions in ways that please him.
I read earlier a passage from Malachi 3 in which Israel was cursed because they did not bring a tithe as they were instructed to do. But I left off the last verse of that section. After the Lord says he is being robbed because people are not bringing him their tithe, he says: (Malachi 3:10)
Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.
There is a theme in Scripture that God’s blessing of us is in some measure dependent on how we use the money and possessions he has entrusted us with. We see this in the last verse of the passage from Malachi 3. We see this also in the teaching Jesus gave after his telling of the parable of the shrewd manager.
“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. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?
What is Jesus talking about here when he refers to “little” and “much”? That becomes apparent when you read verse 11. So verse ten can be read, Whoever can be trusted with worldly wealth can also be trusted with true riches, spiritual blessing, and whoever is dishonest with worldly wealth will also be dishonest with spiritual truths.
If you are not using the money and possessions God has given you in a way that pleases him, you are depriving yourself of the spiritual blessing God wants to give you.
Do you want to be blessed by God? Do you want to receive in your life God’s blessing? Then use your money and possessions in a way that pleases God.
I have talked before about the power money and possessions have over us. When we share our money and possessions, when we give them away, we shatter the power they have over us and make room for the joy of Christian life. Our giving becomes a joyous act, not a religious obligation.
This is why I focus in my preaching on growing in our understanding of the love of God for us and not on trying to convince people to give more money to the church. Money follows our heart and when our heart is given to God, our money will follow.
Be a cheerful giver. I remember a conversation I had with my father and the accountant for our company some years ago. We were having lunch and discussing this subject of giving to the church. Annie and I have given at least 10% ever since we were married and so the accountant began to ask me if a 10% tithe should be taken out before or after taxes. He asked what I would do if I had a tax-deferred investment? Would I tithe from that? He went on and on and finally I said to him, “You’re missing the point. It is not a matter of how much I need to give to fulfill my religious duty. It is a question of how much I can give because of the joy of participating in what God is doing in the world.”
This is what will happen if you are not generous with what God has given you. You will miss out on the blessing of God he has in mind for you, the joy of participating with him in his work in the world. You are the one who will suffer, not God.
John Wesley preached a famous sermon in which he called on Christians to earn all you can. Make as much money as possible. Second, save all you can. How little of the money you earned do you need to live on. And third, he challenged Christians to give all you can.
10% is a guideline, not a limit or a goal. “How much can I give?” is the question, not, “What do I have to give?”
I challenge you to open your heart to God and let go of the treasures of this world to which we all cling so tightly.
And God challenges you as well.
Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.