TEXT: LUKE 16:1-13
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ (Luke 16:1-2)
“The Parable of the Dishonest Manager.” This story—which opens chapter 16 of Luke—poses quite a challenge to preachers. Here, we encounter a dishonest manager who, really, is a pretty shady character. This guy is so terrible at what he does that, eventually—when he is called to account by his master—he cooks the books.
The manager knows that he has done a lousy job. He knows he’s going to get canned. So what does he do? He changes the bottom line on all the debts that are owed to his master. Some he drops by twenty percent, some by as much as fifty percent.
Why? His idea is as simple as it is brilliant. He wants to ingratiate himself to his master’s debtors. He’s betting that—after he gives them these massive discounts—they will gladly welcome him into their homes after he gets fired. And probably, he’s right! Like I said, the manager’s scheme is both simple and brilliant. Of course, it’s also completely unethical, if not downright illegal!
What happens when the master finally hears the story and calls the manager before him? Well … Here’s where things get strange. The master pats the guy on the back! He commends the manager for his shrewdness. Even though he’s become the victim of an outrageous fraud, the master apparently cannot help but admire the guy’s craftiness.
As William Shatner might say: “Is that weird, or what?”
How am I supposed to preach on a text like this? What in the world is Jesus trying to tell us?
Well, first of all, let me tell you that I do not believe Jesus is commending the dishonesty of the manager. I don’t think he’s applauding the guy for being a bad manager, or for cheating his boss. No. I think Jesus is commending the shrewdness of the manager in looking after himself by doing good to those who in turn may be expected to do good to him.
If you think back to other parables that Jesus told, you’ll notice that he often uses the most unsavory characters to illustrate what God is like—and what we should be like. Think about it. Think about the judge who would only give a poor widow justice after she nagged him and pestered him continually.1 Think about the householder who would not budge from his bed to help out a neighbour until his door was practically broken down.2 Think about the man who found a treasure in someone else’s field and then went out and bought the field so that he could get the profit.3
Each of these examples tells us something important about how we should live our faith, and something important about God. But none of them tell us that God is unjust, or that he is annoyed when we call upon him late at night, or that we should cheat someone on a business deal. No. These stories are trying to tell us, in humorous and interesting ways, that if the reluctant judge can still give justice to the widow—or the grumpy householder can still get up and share his bread in the middle of the night—then how much more will God help us when we appeal to his mercy? And if a man will expend every effort—if he will even cheat—just to obtain a treasure which he has found in someone else’s field, then how much more ought we expend every effort to enter the Kingdom of God?
The point of today’s parable has nothing to do with the manager’s honesty or dishonesty. No. The issue here is: just how shrewd, clever, and committed are we when it comes to our faith? Do we really look after ourselves? Do we really use what we have at hand—in whatever proportion we have it—to the best advantage? Are we as anxious to ensure our future with God as the dishonest manager was to ensure his future in this world? Are we willing to change the bottom line so that, when the time of reckoning comes, there will be a place that welcomes us?
“You cannot serve [both] God and wealth,” Jesus tells us. Actually, I like the way the King James Version puts it: “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” You can’t serve two masters. You have to commit to one or the other.
The parable of the dishonest manager asks us this question: are we, as Christians—as people who profess belief in the living God—really committed to him and to his way? Are we? Are we really committed, really full of faith? Really committed to God, and to God’s purpose for our lives?
How can we tell? How can we know whether we are committed? What shows us whether we serve God or mammon?
One thing we can look at is how we feel about money—and what we do with it. You know, over one-third of Jesus’ parables and sayings concern the relationship between faithfulness and money. Jesus has quite a bit to say about money. Why? Because, when push comes to shove, our loyalties are revealed by what we do with our money and how we feel about it.
Remember the rich young ruler? He had to choose between following Jesus and keeping his money … and he chose his money.4 Remember Levi—who left everything and followed Jesus?5 Recall the Sermon on the Mount—and the lilies of the field which neither toil nor spin?6 Recall the camel and the eye of the needle?7 And remember the widow who put everything she had into the Temple treasury?8 All of these stories are about loyalty—about what is important to people, about choosing God or mammon.
Jesus ends the parable of the dishonest manager with these words: “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 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.”
Like the dishonest manager, the children of this world will do all that is required to look after themselves. They will use all their money and all their power to get more money and more power. Better yet, if they can, they will use other people’s money and other people’s power to get these things, to ensure their future, to change their own bottom lines.
Jesus is right. The children of this world demonstrate a shrewdness that the children of light often lack. And it seems to me that they have this shrewdness not because they are any smarter than you or I, but because they are more committed. They are only serving one master. Their efforts are not divided, or confused, or lost in the gap that always exists between two masters.
We often fail in our discipleship because we attempt to serve two masters: to serve both God and mammon—both God and wealth. I think this is one of the reasons why so many of us dislike hearing about the problems the church has in raising money, and getting volunteers, and doing work that—on the face of it—only benefits others. We hate to hear this stuff because it makes us feel guilty. It reminds us of our own divided loyalties, of our attempt to have our cake and eat it too.
You know, as Christians, we’re called to use the wealth we have been given for God’s purposes—not just monetary wealth, but our wealth of time and energy, also. We’re supposed to use our wealth to make friends with others, but often we’re stingy in how we use it. We hoard it and protect it for ourselves and our families rather than being generous with it and using it to serve our Lord and Saviour. The results are mediocrity and friendlessness—and empty churches. No matter how you interpret the message of God’s grace, one thing remains true: we reap what we sow—and if we sow sparingly, then the harvest is poor.
I’m sure you’ve all heard that expression that a person ought to “give until it hurts …” Well, it strikes me that if you’re supposed to give until it hurts, then the average Christian has a very low pain threshold! Low, because we regard the wealth we have as our own rather than as a trust from God. Yet, it is a trust from God—a trust given to us so that we might make friends for ourselves and for the Kingdom we’re supposed to be serving.
Look at the energy we devote to cheering for our favorite sports team. Or the passion we devote to the fine arts. Or our enthusiasm for our own personal recreation. Now, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying things like that. The question is: how do we balance these pursuits with our pursuit of God? With our practice of discipleship? Where do we put our efforts? What do we do with our time, our energy, and our money? Who or what are we really serving?
If so many churches today seem lacklustre in their work and witness, maybe it’s because they haven’t been making many friends lately. Maybe it’s because their members have been unwilling to use the resources that God has given them to make themselves more welcome guests in the world out there.
So I think we need to ask ourselves: are we serving God with all the shrewdness and effort and resources that we put into other things in our lives?
The manager who is finally approved by the master is the one who is prepared to invest time, energy, emotion, and money so that the work that he or she is entrusted with succeeds—the one who is willing to change the bottom line in the way that God wants us to change it.
God has already made us into “children of light.” May he also grant us—each one of us—the wisdom and the discernment and the shrewdness to know how to share our blessings for his glory.
1 Luke 18:1-8
2 Luke 11:5-13
3 Matthew 11:44
4 Matt. 19:16-22; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 18:18-23
5 Matt. 9:9; Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27-28
6 Matt. 6:28-29; Luke 12:27
7 Matt. 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25
8 Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4