The Shrewd Manager

Ordinary 25C

Luke 16: 1 13

Introduction

This week's reading begins a series of seven reflections on obstacles facing the disciples of Jesus. These reflections take us finally to Jerusalem, where, briefly, we observe Jesus teaching.

The first 13 verses of Luke 16 are usually looked upon as more than a little confusing. This is due to a number of factors which converge at this point. We offer a special section of preparatory notes to help readers and leaders prepare to meditate on this wonderful reading and suggest it is worth considering.

Preparatory Notes

Some Notes On Our Text

Verse 1 (a)

Our reading begins with the words literally translated: "He said also to the disciples…." These tell us that this particular lesson continued our Lord's teaching in the same location as the previous section (the prodigal son) but it was directed to the disciples of Jesus generally. We know that some wealthy Pharisees overheard him as is evidenced in verse 14: but more about that next week.

Verses 1 (b) 8 (a) This is the familiar parable of the "unjust steward", or shrewd manager. We offer commentary first, based on "The Gospel Story" by Ronald Cox (CYM Publications 1957). Then we follow it with some additional notes.

A wealthy landowner ('master') lived in comfort in the city.

His agent ('steward') attended to the rents paid in annually by the tenant-farmers ('debtors'); this was usually a third of the crop produced, and paid in kind; olive oil, wheat and wine were the principal produce.

Many a gospel-reader would have felt easier in mind, if our Lord had not made this steward quite so patently crooked. Some even try to explain his conduct as not at all dishonest; that is, he was out of pocket himself by his transactions with the debtors. But, since our Lord called him dishonest there is no point in white washing him. Jesus could have told a story of an honest but shrewd man, had he so desired; possibly he may have taken a topical incident in which the man concerned was a swindler and a forger. Actually he had a very definite purpose in making him dishonest; this was to point out the danger of riches; they stick to the fingers; they hold a man back from the kingdom. And that surely is the second lesson of the parable, beginning at "He who is trustworthy over a little…."

The diplomacy of the steward was to interview the tenants separately, and get them to falsify their own rents; by this means he was the only witness to the forgery; the threat of disclosure would give him a permanent hold on these men. Even though the master were to find out what had been done, he would have to stand by the contracted rent, since the document could not be proven a forgery except through this testimony of the steward.

It is vital to note that in verse 8 (a), it is the dishonest manager's master who praised him for his shrewd actions to get him out of trouble — not Jesus. Our Lord, in telling his parable, "tells it as it is", and has no hesitation calling him dishonest.

An observation of people who are dishonest in business is that they admire the deceitful artifices of others and often adopt them themselves. In our story, at no time does Jesus hold up the unjust steward/manager's behaviour for his disciples to follow or use as any kind of model. The landowner could be said to betray himself by praising the trickery of his employee. The words he used to describe his employee's behaviour were "acting shrewdly". In the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament the same base word is used to describe the serpent in Genesis 3: 1 i.e. cunning.

Our Lord closes his parable, therefore hinting that they both used their wits and cunning to get ahead, and it's not surprising they applied such attitudes to each other. That, he implies, is the way of the world, and it is as despicable as it is treacherous.

Verses 8 (b) and 9

Jesus then, in a breath, provides in a very condensed form, what he wants his followers to "take on board" from this unexpected story. He says:

"For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light."

It is critical that we understand this sentence or we will remain confused for a long time! In essence, Jesus might say something like this in our culture:

"People who are 'of this world' do not hesitate to take advantage of one another to get ahead." In my parable, the dishonest employee went:

from bad — he was a careless manager

to worse when confronted he chose a dishonest way out

and worst he defrauded his employer in a series of extremely serious crimes.

I expect 'people of the light' who claim to live honest lives of loving service to God, to pursue a course in the opposite direction with at least as much if not more vigor and determination.

  • They therefore should seek to live a good life which I have taught by word and example.
  • They should therefore be able to make better choices in using their worldly goods to help others.
  • If they continue to seek the Kingdom of God above all else, they will in fact receive the very best which God can provide them with, and enjoy it for all eternity.

Our Lord is reflecting the onset of a new world order which, in a sense, is the obverse of what we see in his parable. The above is not a forced or contrived model. Jesus is saying quite bluntly: if you want to be my disciple you have to make up your mind to use your worldly wealth in such a way that you build treasure in heaven: and you need to pursue that goal with all your might.

Verses 10 - 13

St Luke caps this lesson of Jesus with a small cluster of teachings which reinforce the main lesson. They embody the correct attitude for Christians towards ownership and stewardship. In particular they keep before us the fact that, really, all earthly wealth is only on loan to us and is never for our own exclusive benefit. Only by remembering this will we prevent selfish pursuits from becoming our main goal in life.

Conclusion

In plain language we could say that Jesus is very direct and leaves no room for confusion. The path taken by the shrewd manager can only lead in one direction, and it is not an option for the Christian.

The followers of Christ are required to use their talents and possessions in a way, which benefits others as well as themselves. This will lead them on the path to heaven, which is their destiny. You cannot tread both paths — they lead in opposite directions. "You cannot serve God and Mammon."

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