Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Parable of the Shrewd Manager

We discussed this parable during church this past Sunday. It’s a tough one to understand and we didn’t quite resolve it so we decided to give it another week and take a fresh look at it next Sunday. It seemed like a good way to get back to the blogging. I’ve gone around this parable a few times and looked at it from different angles but I think I figured out a very good interpretation (if I do say so myself).

Unfortunately I didn't have it figured out last Sunday and had made a number of wrong assumptions.  For the Hills gang I apologize.

If you want to look at a couple of other guys who took a stab at it you can check them out here or here or here - not that I necessarily agree with any of them.

The Passage

Luke 16:1-15
The Parable of the Shrewd Manager
1Jesus told his disciples: "There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions.  2So 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.'
3"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— 4I 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" 'Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,' he replied. 
 "The manager told him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.'
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.'
8"The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. 9I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
10"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. 11So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own?
13"No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money."
14The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15He said to them, "You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight.

The Characters

The Rich Man
– he is the householder, the landowner, the patriarch, the patron, the “paterfamilias”
The Steward
– the household manager (oikonomos), a slave elevated to a position of responsibility in the rich man’s household – in a less wealthy home the wife would normally have been the household (and therefore financial) manager
– this steward is called unjust ("dishonest" in the NIV but more properly translated "unrighteous")
- it was the job of the steward to make money for his master - so it was often the steward who determined rents, collected them, reinvested them, etc.
The Tenants/Debtors
- they owe oil and wheat (in the two examples given) to the householder which means that they could be paying back loans or actually paying rent - it was also likely that they were paying too much rent

The Story

Jesus tells a parable about a rich land-owner, his manager who had complete responsibility for the estate, and certain tenants who owed rent to the land-owner. The land-owner accuses his manager of dissipating or squandering his wealth, and tells him to give an account for his work as a steward in his household. The steward (whose position as a slave was precarious even at the best of times) realizes that he is about to become jobless and homeless, but he’s not prepared to do manual labour or beg, so he hatches a cunning plan. He calls in each of the tenants. (Although only two are specifically listed they are only representative of the many more he went to. The KJV says “every one of his lord’s debtors.”) He takes out each one’s contract, filled out in the tenant’s handwriting and signed by himself. The manager gets each tenant to reduce the amount owed, signs it himself, and feels thoroughly satisfied that although he may have lost his home and his job, he has made some new friends who now owe him substantial favours. He has also made life much easier for these lower income, lower class families. He may actually have extended to them justice.

The Problem

The Parable is difficult to understand.
On the surface it seems like the Rich Man commends his steward for cheating his master out of what he is owed to save his (the steward’s) own skin. And then Jesus commends him for using money (actually someone else’s money) to make friends. It seems that the dishonest (more properly “unrighteous”) steward is being commended for his dishonesty. It becomes even more difficult when Jesus instructs his hearers to use worldly money (actually it’s “unrighteous" mammon the same word "unrighteous" or "unjust" used to describe the steward) to make friends here on earth so that they will have eternal dwelling places. The problem is that it seems like Jesus is telling us to be dishonest and to use someone else’s money to buy our way into heaven. But that is only a problem when we make personal application too quickly without understanding the point of the story.

The Explanation

To make sense of this parable, we need to be able to understand a number of issues. We begin by trying to understand the context in which Jesus is speaking this parable. We have to transport ourselves out of our 21st Century understanding of stewardship and into the first century situation of Jesus hearers.

The main clue to understanding the parable is near the end of the section in verse 14 where it says “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.” Jesus is speaking the parable to the Pharisees and challenging their lifestyles of power, wealth and influence.

It is important to understand who the steward is and what his job is. The steward’s job was to manage the affairs of the household or the estate of the rich man. This estate included people who worked the land or operated a business under the patronage and protection of the householder (the rich man). Through the rich man’s benevolence (or patronage) the tenants were able to ply their trade and in return they paid him rent (in the form of oil and wheat and other things that they may have produced). The steward was the manager – like Joseph in the book of Genesis - second in command only to the householder himself.  He was the communication hub, the leadership conduit for the entire operation. He conveyed the wishes of the master to the tenants and implemented them. The steward was able to bring blessing and justice to the debtors – even though he was a lowly steward – essentially a slave with an office job – because he had the resources of the master under his control.   It was just as easy for him to direct the resources of the estate to his own selfish ends – which he was accused of doing.

The parable is a stinging indictment of the Pharisees, who could be seen as the rich man in this parable – the ones with power, wealth and influence. They had religious authority, political authority and financial authority. They were in effect the local government and had significant influence in all affairs concerning the Jewish people – and could enforce the law in every area including the death penalty (two examples: the woman caught in adultery and the stoning of Stephen). They loved money and placed heavy burdens on the Jewish people – not only with the keeping of the Law and the religious traditions but also in the area of taxation. The peasants (the tenants) were required to bring the firstfruits, their tithes and offerings, and were required to pay a temple tax. They also were required to bring proper offerings to the temple but since many came from great distances they purchased their offering animals in the temple courts. They were of course required to pay for those offerings with the official temple currency which was only available – for a small fee - through the temple moneychangers.

The Real Explanation

However, the real key to the parable is seeing the Pharisees as the steward – for they were actually God’s stewards (only using God's authority, privilege, influence and wealth). God is the landowner and the people of Israel are the tenants. God is the provider, the landowner, the patron and the Father of the children of Israel. The priests were the go-between, the brokers and stewards of God’s blessings and provisions. They were to exercise godly stewardship – to manage well the responsibilities of God’s household. However they were consistently found not to be faithfully exercising their stewardship.  They wasted the Lord's estate using it for their own selfish desires.  They placed unnecessary burdens on the tenants and had become "unrighteous" the very opposite of what they claimed to be.

Jesus is using this parable to contrast the unrighteous steward (who acts shrewdly or wisely) with the Pharisees (who do not). Their Master (kurios =Lord) has heard that they (the Pharisees) have been squandering His resources and so He calls them to give an account of their stewardship. The steward in the parable acts wisely (shrewdly) and blesses the tenants in order to find favour with them. He is commended by his Master. Jesus says that this unrighteous steward (a child of this age) is wiser than the “sons of light” (a term used to refer to the tribes of Levi, Judah and Benjamin and therefore referred to the priests and rulers). The Pharisees are condemned by Jesus for squandering God's "stuff" - the things that belonged to God - when they should have been good stewards bringing honour to their Master and managing the rest of the household (the tenants, relatives, livestock, land, etc.) well.

In that light the rest of the teaching of Jesus in this passage lines up and makes more sense. The steward is not commended for being dishonest. He is being commended for blessing the tenants and for wisely reducing the burden upon them. The key of the parable is in its comparison (don’t be like an unjust steward – be a good steward! But in comparison to the Pharisees even an unrighteous steward deserves more commendation than they do.)

The Rest of the Parable

The rest of the teaching in the parable works out like this:
Verse 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.
The Jewish priests and rulers (Sanhedrin) should be using their wealth and influence (even though it really belongs to God) to be blessing others (making friends) so that they are able to secure eternal blessings (literally an eternal dwelling place) not just to be comfortable here on earth. The wealth of God is to be used to lavishly bless people not to hoard it to yourselves or to be stored in barns – even if the barn is the temple.  The Jewish rulers needed to reduce the burden placed upon the people. Jesus says this about them in Matthew 23:4 They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

However, Jesus instructions to the people were:
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Matthew 11:28-30

Another interesting application might be that we need to be reducing the sin burden that other people carry by forgiving them.  This may be what it means when Jesus says to his disciples that as they forgive other's sins they will be forgiven, 21Again Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." 22And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." John 20:21-23

Verses 10-12: "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. 11So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own?
This is clear. Jesus is condemning the Pharisees for the fact that they have been unfaithful in their dealings with worldly wealth (the small things) so how can they be expected to administer the true riches of spiritual life and heavenly dwellings? The Pharisees have been unfaithful by demanding such a heavy burden from the people. They have squandered the tithes and offerings (worldly wealth) given by people in worship to God. They "dissipated it like the prodigal son did his inheritance. So how could they possibly effectively communicate the love and grace of the landowner or graciously minister that love to the people? The phrase "property of your own" seems to be a direct reference to the eternal dwellings mentioned in verse 9.

Verse 13: "No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money."
If they were truly serving God the Pharisee stewards would not have placed such a heavy burden upon the tenants (the Gospels call them “the multitude.”) It is impossible for your goal to be to gather up worldly wealth for yourself and to also serve God. The true calling must always take pre-eminence.

Verses 14-15: 14The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15He said to them, "You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight.
No matter how we might justify it to ourselves, bad stewardship is always seen in heaven. Selfishness and dissipation can not be hidden from God.

The Application

We have become God’s stewards in Jesus. The apostle Paul says that we are stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Corinthians 4:1). How are we exercising our stewardship? Are we using our worldly wealth (the wealth that comes from God for He supplies all our needs) to bless others? Or are we squandering it or merely storing it up for our own use? This wealth will not make any difference in heaven (we can’t take it with us and we can’t spend it there anyways). It only bears eternal fruit if we use it wisely here while on earth.

How are we stewarding the mysteries of God? Are we being faithful to reveal the Lord's desires and purposes with our stewardship - i.e. those around us - those "under our jurisdiction?" Are we faithfully sharing the abundance of spiritual wealth with those around us - with our family, our neighbours, our co-workers, our household?

We have to recognize the humility of our role as stewards. A steward is a slave with some extra responsibility. We must not think too highly of ourselves. We must remember that all the riches we manage are only in our hands because of the benevolence of the Master. They don't belong to us. We are not more exalted than the tenants - in some cases we may even be of much lower status. 1Corinthians 4:2 states: "Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful." Have we been faithful?

There are a number of other ways to make application but that can be up to you.
Let me know what you think.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your explanation, this is a great post.

Peter Nguyen said...

thanks for the post! i was quite confused myself when reading it in my daily devotion...so far this is the most confusing parable i've read...this make a lot more sense!

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much!

Sana said...

How amazing!!! i was looking for a study on this because i too was confused, but this is perfect! thank you!

Den said...

Great explaination! I was a little confused after reading this a few times. Once explained properly there are so many nuggets of truth that can be found here. Many of which I can take and directly apply to my life. Thank you so much for taking the time to explain!

Den said...

Excellent explanation! Had a difficult time understanding this after reading over it several times. Did a google search and came across your blog. After a proper explanation I see that there are so many nuggets of truth here that I can apply directly to my life. Didn't realize the eternal impact that our stewardship of money has. Thank for taking the time to explain!

Anonymous said...

Superb.. thanks for that

Nicole said...

This is a very good explanation, but I want to remind people that this is not the last word: look at others' interpretations of this parable (which is extremely confusing to me). Pastor, please don't think I'm trying to cut you down. Like I said, this is a great explanation, but it is only one of many. Maybe use it as a starting point and whichever one speaks to you the most...?
Thanks again

Nicole said...

I encourage all y'all to look at other interpretations of this parable: as there are many interpretations of God's Word, so also other explanations of this parable may or may not speak to you, to the God in you. Pastor, I think this is a great explanation, and I've really had difficulty understanding this parable. Thanks for offering your understanding of it.

Anonymous said...

I am a little bemused by the confusion. The answer is spelled out by the words attributed directly to Jesus. You cannot serve God and Money.

There are a string of quotes when Jesus decries the love of money, and interposes an alternative value system.

Anonymous said...

v1 says that Jesus is talking to His disciples (although it is true that the Pharisees were listening).

This interpretation is all about Jesus speaking to the Pharisees, which seems a bit strange?


Hannatu Essien said...

Thank you for taking your time to write this, i just finished reading the parable and like others was confused, because these were Jesus' direct words, but i appreciate the contextualization and the application to our lives today. I pray God will help me to apply the simple lesson that has been Jesus' simple message of loving others like ourselves.


Judith Tobias said...

I left a lengthy comment and it failed to transmit. Perhaps it was not meant to be read; yet like many this parable of the shrewd manager leaves a lot to consider. My best understanding came from reading Justin Ukpong, theologian Nigeria. In his inculturation exegesis I was able to see the Lukean perspective and the Godly conclusion. The master is not in my opinion God for God does not need to make excuses for dishonesty nor in effect reduce himself to being shrewd. This parable does though have a wider and deeper meaning of greed, social justice, forgiveness We have to take time to do this parable justice and dig out its altruistic meaning, for God's sake!

hillschurch said...

To Judith
Thanks for the post. Sorry your other one was lost. I'll have to look up Justin Ukpong.

In response to the Master not being God, I think you're being a little too literal in your interpretation - or making too much of the correlation in the parable. Parables use the known to explain the unknown.

Parables have a basic interpretation scheme consistent through the Gospels. They speak about things that Jesus' hearers can relate to. They have a surprise twist and they usually only have a single point. The point here is that God has given humanity a stewardship and the Pharisees misused it - therefore we need to be wise stewards not loving money but instead helping people.

Even though they describe unknown things (spiritual reality like the nature of God) with known things (like a manager or a rich man) the correlation is not always direct. For example in the parable of the unjust judge in Luke 18:1-8, the judge is being used to describe what God is like (and not like). Even an unjust judge shows justice at times but God always hears and always gives us an justice. So Jesus uses the known (an unjust judge) to describe the unknown (the kindness of God). God is not an uncaring, unjust judge but is exactly the opposite, a just judge who hears us. But he is a judge.

In our parable God (as the master) is neither dishonest nor shrewd and makes no excuses for it. The parable is merely pointing out that the master acknowledges that the unrighteous steward, although dishonest, used his stewardship (once confronted by the truth) better than the Pharisees have after Jesus confronted them with their poor stewardship.
Jesus had already confronted the Pharisees in Luke 5 (twice, vss 22 & 32), Luke 6 about the Sabbath, twice in chapter 7, and especially in chapter 11 where he declares all the woes on the Pharisees. My point is that challenging the Pharisees on their blindness and hardness of heart is a very common theme with Luke.