Bible for Thinkers

Liberals love the Bible, too. We just look at it differently. This is a place to discuss the Bible where you don't have to check your brain at the door. There are many ways to see it, and many ways to have it come to life.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The Shrewd Manager in Luke 16

This passage in Luke 16:1-13 is a problem for a lot of folks because Jesus seems to be praising a crook. One of the Sunday School teachers in the congregation asked me about it recently, and here is my response:

I guess the first thing to note is that all of Luke 16 is about money in one way or another. There are two parables about money...this one and the closing one about the rich man and Lazarus with some money-grubbing Pharisees providing the filler between the two.

I find two keys to this particular parable. The first is in v. 9 where Jesus says, "Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth. The NIV translates it "worldly wealth." The point to me seems to be similar to Jesus pulling the coin out of the fish's mouth to pay his taxes...earthly money has no eternal value, so if you're going to have it, you should be using it for making life better for others. So the dishonest steward first just squandered the money. Then, after he was caught, he wised up and used it to make others happy....granted he did it for his own benefit, but even in his warped mind he could see that things would go better for him if he made it better for others.. The rich man in the parable at the end of the chapter never got even that much and never gave the poor man, Lazarus, any benefit at all...selfishly or otherwise.

It is in that light that I see the other key verse, which is the one before, verse 8: "For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light." In other words, if a crook can figure out that his own life is better when he gives away money to benefit others, then why can't the people of the light manage to get it right?
The point is not to be dishonest, but to say, "Look, how come you religious folks are so daft that you can't manage to figure out that using money to benefit others is simply the smart way to use earth's wealth? Even dishonest financial moguls know that you need to have some philanthropy in your portfolio!" I think it relates to the verse that says, "Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves."

There is also the point that earth's wealth is really a pittance. Having earthly money (dishonest wealth) is the "little" and heavenly treasure is the "much." I don't think verses 10-13 are meant as praise for the dishonesty. I think Jesus has moved on to more general talk of faithfulness in regard to money, rather than referring back in this section to the parable. I think the parable ends with verse 9 or even verse 8 and just serves as a springboard for what follows.

Let's say that a man is convicted of murdering his wife and is sentenced to prison. Further, let's say that on his way to begin serving his sentence he goes past a burning house with a child left inside. Figuring that misery awaits him anyway and figuring that saving a baby can't hurt his reputation, he dashes into the building and saves the child. A pastor is watching and goes home to write a sermon. "Why is it," he says the next Sunday "that this murderer can figure out that saving a child is a good thing and the 16 churchgoers who were there watching the fire burn, did nothing? This convict is smarter than all of them. Use the opportunities life presents to you to enhance God's reputation. The one who risks his own life to save another is living out the Gospel."

The pastor would not be condoning the wife's murder and is probably not ignorant of other motives on the man's part. He would also not be saying that Peterson enhanced God's reputation. But the point is in the contrast between what obvious sinners know about relating to the world and the way that religious folks think that they can live all for heaven without paying attention to life on earth. The encouragment to be faithful with "little"...dishonest wealth...earthly saying if you don't know how to use the pitiful excuse for riches that we have here on the earth, how will you possibly know how to use "much"....true treasure...God's real gifts. Earthly money is like Monopoly is how we practice being faithful. Even crooks understand how to use it for benefit, how much more should the righteous be able to do!


At 12:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had trouble with this passage as well. Although the shrewd manager did make life better for others, he did it at the expense of his boss. A biblical Robin Hood. This is what confounds me--the boss loses out financially, but still praises the manager for his shrewdness. This is akin to a burgler breaking into your house, you catching him in the act, and commending him on his lock cracking skills.

I appreciate your posting, as I agree fully that using your wealth to help others is commendable. However, contrary to what I believe, the passage seems to say that doing so at the expense of someone else is also commendable.


At 2:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like the observaton on the following website.


At 11:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

means could be justified by purpose? as long as you are doing good for others and yourself, it is ok to be dishonest?

but I like your posting, and i cant agree Ellie's website in which too much extra background is added to make the bible sounds reasonable to human reasoning.

At 1:28 PM, Blogger Anne Robertson said...

I don't think Jesus is saying that the ends justify the means. I think he is just trying to say, "Even the crooks of the world know that money is a tool and not an end in itself, why can't you people of faith understand that?"

The faithful, of course, use money differently than the corrupt, but the point is well taken that sometimes people of faith have trouble seeing the forest for the trees.

At 8:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it is important to note that although Jesus was speaking to his disciples, he was knew that the Pharisees were nearby. The passage says that the Pharisees loved their money. No, Jesus is not condoning the managers actions but points out that the guy was wise in trying to secure a place for himself because he knew that he would be fired. The fact that he uses his bosses' money to do this has nothing to do with it because it is already established that he is a thief. His main concern is to make sure that he will be taken care of when he will not have this man's money to use for personal gain anymore. What Jesus wants us to learn from this passage, is that just like the shrewd manager used the money to gain for himself a place among "friends", the people of the light (Christians) should not have the sole purpose and desire to use their money to gain worldly advancement. But use the worldly recources (which God provides) to benefit others. Give to the poor, help those who are less fortunate than you, support your church through your tithes and offerings etc. Jesus says if we do this, our generosity will store for us treasure or rewards in heaven.
Jesus said that you cannot serve two masters. Money should not dictate what we do in life. It is a resource that God gives to live and complete our purpose. We are to be trustworthy stewards and do what he has asked us to do with the money. Then when times are rough, you have the favor of God on your life. And He will make sure that you are taken care of and you needs are met. You can draw from your heavenly bank account, per say.
The selfish Pharisees could not accept this teaching because they tried to hord as much for themselves as they could. They loved money and could not give it away as Jesus taught.

At 8:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Anne for your thoughts on this passage, it has helped me to understand it more.


At 8:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Awesome! This makes complete sense to me. I read several other commentaries that said the focus was the forethought of the shrewd manager, but that didn't make sense. I agree that this is about money because that is the context and HIS summation statement. To use what we have to benefit others is certainly consistent with the rest of the Bible (give and it will be given to you). Thank YOU!

At 11:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm attending a Christian college and researching this passage (Luke 16:1-13) for an exegetical. Every commentary I've found admits this is a difficult passage to interpret. Here are a few theories as to why the master (in the parable-not Jesus) commended his actions:
1.)Some scholars believe the manager cut the interest according to the Mosaic laws.
2.)Others believe the manager eliminated his own commission. This would not have affected the master negatively.
3.)Another theory is that the master was affected finacially, but the incident improved his image as well as the manager's. Why else do business owners have sales?

At 10:03 AM, Blogger nadine said...

as to why the master praised the shrewd manager, i once heard someone explain this in terms of a game:
have you ever seen an opponent make a move so clever that, though he was your opponent, you still had to stand back and applaud?
i think this is how the master is reacting. he cares about making money. he is intent on firing the manager because the manager is inhibiting the master's ability to make money. then, at the very last moment, the manager takes the master by surprise.
i still totally agree that the point of this passage is a demonstration of how we should use our worldly wealth; i just wanted to offer a spin on the "praise" topic.

At 10:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

..sound exegesis, based on the immediate context.. and didnt include Matthean interpretations as compared to this one -

At 3:03 AM, Anonymous Peter said...

I think the hardest hitting point about this parable is that WE ALL are the dishonest manager. Everything we have is our masters and we are simply managers of it. So are we spending all of our masters wealth on ourselves and getting a bad reputation? Or on other people and gaining favour with men for both ourselves and our master.


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