Radical parables from Luke: 4. The shrewd manager
What would Jesus want done with what we have, and how can we channel the money in our hands that way? By Terry Young
You can read this parable here, or listen to it here.
I find this parable (Luke 16:1-15) very tricky. Luke’s mind is on money and reward throughout the chapter, but how does it all work?
Jesus has sketched something we recognise, but only just! Imagine showing one of the Wright Brothers a modern airliner (to get the idea, watch this travel advert): he might see it could fly but wonder what powered it or where he would sit. Maybe he would ask what happened to the brilliant way he and his brother twisted the wings to steer their flyer.
In the same way, this parable has things we recognise and things we don’t. The central character finds his way out of disaster to a bright future. Later, Jesus talks about spending other people’s money and we know that’s precisely a manager’s role. We buy that.
We expect to identify the most powerful person in a parable in some way with God, yet the master loses confidence in his manager and sacks him on a rumour. He was within his rights, of course, as was the manager later on, but it’s a bit abrupt. If we stretch the story to make the master look better, the manager looks even worse, and then, the master commends him!
What if this parable is somehow suspended at the threshold between the master deciding what to do and the manager’s life after being sacked? The clock is ticking slowly as the debtors assemble and their debts are rewritten before the bell tolls for the end of the manager’s career.
It seems easier as that kind of puzzle. Like a whodunnit, it may be less about how the predicament arose and more about the cleverness of the plot. The master certainly notices the cleverness. What is so clever that Jesus must tell such a stilted story to make it plain?
John Carroll’s presentation tells us how parables draw us in (The Parables of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke). So, what happens if we stand in the manager’s shoes? We have to think out of the box: that’s his redeeming feature!
Once you see life through his eyes, you sense how smart he is, dragging himself out of a predicament using the flimsiness of other people’s debt: Not their money but their debt! The gossamer of goodwill is all the cover he takes when he leaves, but it works!
How does Jesus want us to think out of the box? Most people who use this phrase just want us to find a bigger box, but Jesus really wants us to think the unthinkable. First, he tells us (Luke 16:9) to ‘use worldly wealth’ in order to be ‘welcomed into eternal dwellings.’
Humans have wanted to do this for millennia, putting an obol in the mouth of the dead to pay the ferryman, for instance. The Pharaohs filled their pyramids with possessions, and the idea of paying now to save later drove the perverse practice of selling indulgences that filled church coffers, started crusades, and drove Martin Luther wild.
Is that what Jesus is recommending? Of course not! Those ideas were hardly new, and even in the parable, the manager can’t take it with him when he goes. The magic of the parable is that he gets there on goodwill, not gold.
Next, Jesus blends two more unconventional ideas together. He notes how honesty and dishonesty are not about big issues or small, but about our character, every time. To this he adds the idea that if we can’t be trusted with what belongs to others, how will we get anything that is our own? It’s a surprising line of thinking for us, isn’t it? So, what sort of box does Jesus want us to think out of?
Before he is stripped of his authority and slung out on his ear, everything the manager has belongs to his master. Afterward, it’s his. That’s interesting, isn’t it? Being sacked opens the door to a life where he starts to have stuff of his own. Until the moment we die, everything we have comes from someone else. Even after discounting our heritage – genetic, social or financial – everything still comes from God. This parable is perched on the threshold of another world.
Is Jesus saying that our entire existence here is at someone else’s expense but that there is a world where we can own things for ourselves? Maybe!
We’re not out of the woods yet: there’s the clash between Jesus and the Pharisees with their love of money. There’s also the clash between two masters. But we’re starting to make progress and I believe in quitting while I’m ahead.
Let’s recap, Luke presents a wild set of ideas for us to get our heads around. They are so unexpected that Jesus has stretched a parable almost to breaking point to get them across. They are still fuzzy in my mind, but they go something like this:
Nothing we have now is truly ours;
How we treat what we have on trust will affect what comes later;
We can trade what isn’t ours for something that really can be.
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How might these ideas shape our lives? Let’s start with the first: could we start to behave in such a way that anyone watching would see that we were managing someone else’s wealth? It would not simply be about economising since the manager’s job was to manage. It would certainly be about avoiding waste, but what does that mean?
A friend once told me that his breakthrough as head of department was to realise that the budget wasn’t his. His job was not to say, no! His job was to spend wisely and allow others to do the same. Such people are rare and the golden ages over which they preside are often brief.
But I think there’s a clue in that outlook: what would Jesus want done with what we have, and how can we channel the money in our hands that way?
Radical parables from Luke:
Professor Terry Young is an author and member of a Baptist church. He set up Datchet Consulting which combines his experience in industry and academia. This is the third in a series on the parables in Luke.
1. The minas
2. The rich fool
3. The good Samaritan
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