This parable stumps most everybody. The “bad” guy is set up as an example for Christian behavior. How can the “dishonest manager” be the hero? What is Jesus trying to teach his disciples? Why are “children of light,” followers of Jesus, encouraged to be like this? It all does not seem to makes sense. The meaning of Jesus’ parables is not always readily apparent, but this one seems to be more veiled than most. More like Jesus covered the meaning in a thick blanket, shoved it in a disused room, in a basement where the lights had gone out and so had the stairs.
So let’s wade into this mess and work together to understand. It begins when a manager. Now a manager in the first century Roman world is a person who is paid to take care of a person’s finances. It is not just a job like any other job, it is the kind of job which comes with a house and some amount of provision from the master. The Manager lived on the master’s estate and took care of the master’s affairs and the master provided for him and his family from his great means.
In this parable the manager is accused of squandering the master’s property. On a side note these are the same exact words used in the parable which comes just before this one in Luke, in which the younger son is said to have squandered his father’s inheritance. We don’t know how or why. We actually don’t know if the charges are even valid. He is charged and that is enough for the master. The master fires the manager and requires him to give account of his management.
I have always assumed the manager was indeed in the wrong, but we don’t know. He is called the “dishonest manager.” But nothing we actually see him doing is dishonest, we don’t know if he was actually misusing his master’s property or not. We do know he is accused of doing so and loses his position due to these accusations. Everything the manager does following his dismissal is fully within his power as manager of his master’s estate.
So this manager is let go and but before he packs up his desk and gathers all his stuff in to a single file box and is escorted off the premises he has to get his accounts in order and give them to the master. As he does so he think over the quandary in which he finds himself. He will be without a job, without a home, without any means of taking care of himself or his family. He will be disgraced. It will be known that he was dismissed from his position for “squandering his master’s property.” Nobody will hire him. He knows a life of accounting has not prepared him for manual labor, so he will not be able to find work doing that and he has way too much pride to join the beggars on the street.
So he hatches a plan grounded in the rules of reciprocity of the greater Roman culture at the time. When someone does something for you, shows unusual kindness, shows you generosity or, say, forgives a part of a very large debt, they were then indebted to you and were expected to reciprocate the action by doing something for you in turn.
So this manager comes up with a plan to put several people in his debt, so that they will be inclined to help take care of him when he is down and out. Before he turns over his account to the master, he calls in several of people who are in major debt to his master and cuts their debts significantly, the largest one he cuts in half.
He does not do this for just anybody. He does cuts the debt of people who are greatly in debt to his master. These people have the kind of debt of those who themselves are masters of great estates and who do the kind of business which would require vast amounts of resources like 100 jugs of oil or 100 containers of wheat. These are not people who are in debt in an attempt to make it by or feed their families. These are people of means who are in debt as a part of the business of running their own estates.
The manager finds people of great means and cuts their debt significantly. He shows them extreme kindness and generosity. This way these well-to-do people are in his debt and culture dictated this debt forgiveness would be taken seriously and reciprocated. So when the manager and his family are without home, without work, and out of money there are people would be a little more than inclined to take him in and help him out, get him back on his feet.
Up until this point the parable is doing alright, it is making some kind of sense. But then things take their first turn and Jesus tells us the master commends the manager for what he has done. The master seems to be impressed with the man’s resourcefulness. He is probably pleased with the generous light the extravagant debt forgiveness of the manager, puts him in. By generously forgiving part of the debts so some of the wealthiest estates in town, the manager has made the master look good in the eyes of his colleagues or perhaps even his betters. Because the debts were so large and the amount forgiven is great, this not only does well for the manager but it makes the master look good as well. The master is seen as generous by some of his best clients and the manager is now in a much better position than he would have been otherwise. The master is pleased with the shrewdness of his soon to be ex-manager. Whether he is pleased enough to choose to not make him an ex-manager out or not, we do not know, because that is where the parable ends.
Ok the first oddity can be explained, but the master commending the manager is only the first odd thing in this passage. Upon finishing the parable, Jesus says, “The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the children of light.” Jesus says the “children of light,” that’s us, should be just as shrewd about our dealings with God as people of this world are about dealing with one another
The man did what ever was needed to assure the he had a place to go and people who would take care of him when, he would otherwise be homeless and jobless. The man did what he did to form good relationships with these people, so they would need to show him the same kind of generosity he had shown to them. He did what needed to be done to assure his future and give him and his family a worldly home.
Jesus says we need to be just as shrewd about Godly things as the manager is with his relationships in this parable. The man did everything within his power to build relationships with men of power and men of means to assure his future. He assured his own future while making his master look good. This is the way the people of this world work when it comes to the things that matter in this world. Most people are willing to do what needs to be done to get what they need, sometimes even what they just what they want. People will go deep in debt to get themselves the nice things. People will lie so they can get ahead. They will throw their friends and their colleagues under the bus if it will get them the promotion they want or the raise they feel they need. We know this is the way people in the world around us function on all the time.
As Christians we should be willing to do anything and everything within our power to assure our eternal future, to further the kingdom and to highlight the generous and forgiving nature of God. We should be willing to whatever it takes build own relationships with God. Read our Bibles daily, spending time each day in prayer talking to God and listening to God, making gathering with the community of faith, gathering for worship, and study a priority, and doing the things we need to do to live out God’s goodness and mercy in our daily lives. This is being just as shrewd when it comes to spiritual things and the things of the kingdom as this manager is in this parable.
Ok. We can handle this. Jesus wants us to be smart about our relationship with God and living in a Godly manner. Jesus is calling for us to be willing to do whatever it takes to further the Kingdom, build our relationship with God; whatever it takes to be people who live out God’s generosity, grace and forgiveness in this world. That makes sense.
But just when we think we can handle what is going on in this passage Jesus’ teaching takes another strange turn, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Make friends with “dishonest wealth.” So that people will welcome us into “eternal homes.” Surely there is something wrong with my version, let’s try the NIV. (Who has their pew Bible open in front of them? Can you read verse 9 for us?) “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” Any other versions out there this morning? NASB? “And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the [h]wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings.” How about the NLT? “Here’s the lesson: Use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends. Then, when your possessions are gone, they will welcome you to an eternal home.” That is a little better.
Use your resources to benefit others, like the manager used his power and authority in the parable to cut the business men’s debt, to make friends, we need to be wise about the relationships with the people around us. Do and say things and live our lives in such a manner that we cast a good light on God, just as the manager’s actions cast a good light on his master. Do what we can to build bridges, to be extravagantly generous, extraordinarily kind, and abundantly forgiving so that in us the people around us will see God’s extravagant, extraordinary, abundant generosity, kindness and forgiveness.
We do this so we can be welcomed into eternal homes, not “their” homes, for the people of this world do not have “eternal homes” but the eternal home or dwelling, that is the kingdom of God. God kingdom which we has come, is coming and will come, whose reign was begun with the life death and resurrection of Christ and is lived out in the lives of all those who are Christ’s disciples throughout all the ages until the time when the kingdom is finally and eternally established. God’s kingdom, is the eternal home in which we live now and is lived out in our lives day by day until Christ’s return.
By being shrewd about Godly things, shoring up our relationship with God, by living God’s kingdom come, by building relationship by living out God’s love, kindness, forgiveness and generosity before others, we are being faithful with the “little” we have when it comes to earthly things. This is the next thing Jesus is working to teach us in this passage, “Whoever is faithful in very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in very little is dishonest also in much.” In other words if we can be trusted to handle the things here and now, the little things of day by day living life faithfully, then we can be trusted with eternity and all that really matters, the things of infinite value.
That is all well and good but what does that really mean? What does it look like to be faithful in worldly matters? We have this parable which shows us what being shrewd in the first century Roman world looked like, what does it mean here and now, in America in the 21st century? We all know the “rules” of our society. We all know that you need to be respectful to our bosses or anyone who has the power to hire and fire in your place of employment. We all know that we are not to talk back to an officer when we are pulled us over. We are familiar with the things we need to do to get ahead, to come out on top. We know, in politics, if one candidate has a juicy piece of dirt that will cause the opponent to look bad, that they will not bring it to light until the most opportune time to have it revealed to the public. We all know that the price of a car, is not the price of a car, there is always a way to bring the price down by several thousand dollars, if you know the right way to haggle for it. There are lots of things we know to do, to help us stay ahead in this world. Knowing and doing these things is what it looks like to be shrewd about earthly things.
It takes a certain amount of shrewdness to know to do these things. When it comes to heavenly things, being kingdom people who live out Jesus’ peace and justice in this world, when it comes to our relationship with God, we need to be just as shrewd. That is, we should be willing to whatever it takes to be kingdom people, whatever it takes to be the kind of people God is calling us to be, to be people who live extravagantly generously, and forgiving lives. We should be willing to whatever it takes to build our relationship with God, go to extreme measures to sure it up and do what needs to be done so that we are able to listen to God’s voice and live out God’s calling in our lives; go to extreme measure to live lives the reflect who God is in all that we do, where ever we go, in whatever we say.
Just as the people in the world are willing to do whatever they need to do in order to stay ahead in this world, we should think, “How can I get ahead in my relationship with God,” “What can I do to give myself that extra edge when it comes to reflecting the image of God?” We are not so good at this. Often when it comes to God and our relationship with God, to matters of the Kingdom and Kingdom living, our attitude is that of a child doing chores. “How little can I get away with and still have mom and dad believe I did it.” We do the spiritual equivalent of throwing the blankets over an unmade bed or shoving all our dirty clothes behind the dresser. Instead we should be willing to do whatever needs to be done to make sure our relationship with God is solid. Do what whatever needs to be done to further the cause of the kingdom, to show the world the loving kindness, the faithfulness, forgiveness and generosity of God.
In this way we are proving our faithfulness in little and can be shown to be faithful in much. If we are striving in all the little aspects of our lives to be faithful, to keep our relationship strong, and be kingdom people who seek to bring God’s peace and God’s justice into this world with our lives, with our words and with our actions, thus being faithful in the little things, God will know we are faithful in all things both big and small. The day to day faithfulness and striving toward a closer and closer walk to with God and living rightly in this world will result in us being faithful in the big things – the big things grow out of small day to day faithful living.