Luke 16:1–13 (ESV): The Parable of the Shrewd Manager
This passage contains a perfect example of a parable relayed by Jesus that we should not read too much into. There is a danger of getting a very different message out of it from what Jesus had intended to relay.
In this parable there is a manager who has been managing the money of a rich man. The rich man gets wind of the fact that the manager has been wasting his possessions, so he informs the manager that he’s going to be fired. This throws the manager into a bit of a panic so he decides to create a safety net for himself: he calls in everyone who owes the rich man money, and alters their accounts to reduce their debts. This obviously makes things even worse for the rich man, but the manager is hoping that the people who’ve had their debts reduced will be so thankful to him that they’ll welcome him into their houses (verse 4 (ESV)).
But when the rich man finds out what the manager has done, rather than punishing him further he commends the manager for acting shrewdly! Jesus gives the point of this:
"For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
“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. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?"
Jesus follows this with a very famous quote:
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (verse 13 (ESV))
I don’t usually start off a post with a warning, but in this case I felt it was worth it. Jesus told his listeners this parable for a particular reason, and if we stray too far beyond that reason, and the point Jesus was trying to make, we’re in danger of taking away a non-biblical message. He’s making the point mentioned above: The people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than people of the light are (verse 8 (ESV)). He’s not giving the manager’s actions as something we should emulate, he’s clearly corrupt.
So what points are Jesus making? The language Jesus is using here here makes it difficult for me to be overly confident on some of these points, but here goes…
“The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” (verse 8 (ESV))
I don’t see this as an instructional point, I think he’s just stating a fact. It might lay the foundation for some of the upcoming points, however.
“And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” (verse 9 (ESV))
Here, when Jesus says “unrighteous wealth,” I think he’s just using a figure of speech. I think we can be confident that Jesus is not telling his disciples to purposely gain “unrighteous” wealth, or go out and get wealth by “unrighteous” means so that they can start making friends. So, given that caveat—which I feel safe in making, we know the Lord isn’t going to command us to sin!—I think Jesus is just using a figure of speech when he refers to “unrighteous wealth,” just meaning “wealth” in general.
Jesus is saying that one proper way we should use our money—our “wealth”—is to spend it on the people around us, rather than just hoarding it or spending it on ourselves. Especially since our wealth will eventually fail; notice in the verse above he doesn’t say “on the off chance that it fails,” but “when it fails.” Again, we don’t want to read this too literally; there are people who are very, very rich, and will always be rich until they day they die. Wealth “failing” doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t have it anymore (though that sometimes happens), it can mean that it fails to continue bringing you happiness.
But then Jesus says that you should do this so that they (the friends) “may receive you into the eternal dwellings,” and I find this phrase very confusing. (Somewhere on this blog there is a disclaimer that I’m not a pastor, not a biblical scholar, and I haven’t had schooling on the Bible, that this is just my personal blog of my personal readings, because typing things out like this helps me to think things through clearly. A passage like this makes those shortcomings quite clear!) I will admit to not knowing what Jesus means by “receiving us into the eternal dwellings,” since only God can do that, not the friends we spend our money on. Perhaps Jesus is making a similar point to the point he made in Matthew 25:31–46 (ESV); that whatever we do “for the least of these my brothers” we do for Jesus? So by using our wealth to make friends instead of hoarding it or spending it on ourselves we’re building up treasures in heaven? That reading feels like a stretch to me, since using my money to make friends still feels somewhat self-serving—I still get the friendship!—as opposed to feeding the poor or whatever, but I’m not sure how else to read this.
“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters, for 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 God and money.” (verses 10–13 (ESV))
Part of this is just being practical. Again, Jesus is not holding up the manager as an example of what it means to be faithful—he’s quite the opposite—he’s showing that the manager’s dealings in both small and large ways show exactly who he is. There is, however, a lesson specifically for us: If we’re not faithful with our “unrighteous wealth,” why should God or anyone else expect us to be faithful in how we deal with true riches? The last part, about not being able to serve both God and money, sounds disconnected, but it’s not, it’s the very point Jesus is making: Look at how you use the resources you currently have, and then extrapolate on that to determine how you’ll handle “true riches” from God, because if you’re not properly administering what you currently have it’s because you’re not serving God in the first place, you’re serving the god of money instead.
It is possible to serve God and to make good money; to serve God and be rich. But it is not possible to serve God and serve money; one or the other will always be the one that “owns” your heart. You can make God your God, and have money in the background, or you can make money your god and have God in the background—which means that you don’t really have Him at all.
One way to think of it would be to imagine that you had to lose one or the other, God or your money. Which would you choose? The answer to that question will show where your heart really is.