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 money...is 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 money...it 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!