Jesus’ Parable of the Shrewd Manager
Jesus’ parable of the shrewd manager is a great story with an important lesson. But it’s a difficult one for many people, as Jesus used a dishonest and conniving character to illustrate an important spiritual principle. Why would he do that? And what is the principle he was teaching?
The parable of the shrewd manager
Let’s read the parable in Luke 16:1-7:
Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So 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.’
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—I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’
So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ “Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.’ 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.’
Let’s summarize the storyline. The manager:
- was losing his job for incompetence.
- was facing poverty because probably no one else would hire him.
- had no other skills to fall back on.
- made hasty preparations for his future so he would have friends that would take care of him.
A parable is a story that illustrates a spiritual lesson. Usually there is only one lesson and not three or four. So, we’re not allowed to take every part of the story and extrapolate all sorts of side lessons and spiritual principles. If taken too far, the application becomes absurd. This is especially true with the parable of the shrewd manager. And we should also be careful about identifying who the fictional characters represent. They may not represent anyone in real life at all but may just be part of the story.
To determine the intended meaning of any parable, the context is the first thing we look at. If we read the passages that follow the parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16:10-15, we see that Jesus was discussing money and wealth. So, we can assume that this parable is related in some way to this topic.
Another important principle for parables is that not all details are important or have a spiritual meaning. Details only provide the setting for the story. In this parable the 800 gallons of olive oil and the 1000 bushels of wheat—these numbers themselves don’t have any spiritual significance. But the large amounts convey that the stakes for the people in this story were high.
Many people have a hard time with this parable because the main character was dishonest. Sometimes this parable is called the parable of the dishonest manager. But dishonesty is not the main theme of the parable. Jesus was not giving a lesson on the evils of dishonesty. And clearly, he didn’t tell the story to encourage us to imitate the manager’s dishonesty.
Commended for shrewdness
But there’s a good reason this parable shouldn’t be difficult. This is fortunately one of the parables for which Jesus gives the meaning. This story teaches one main principle and it’s found in how the master responded to the manager. So, what is the intended meaning of this story? Jesus tells us:
“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. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” (Luke 16:8-9)
Even though Jesus’ explanation is a little cryptic, it does explain everything. If he hadn’t included this piece, there would be much more speculation and confusion over this parable than there already is.
Jesus’ conclusion was that we should emulate the ungodly manager for only one quality: shrewdness. But of course, we should not desire his other qualities of dishonesty and deception. Jesus used the same method in his teaching about children (Luke 18:16) — we should emulate children in certain qualities such as trust, dependence, and innocence. But obviously we should not desire all their other qualities such as rudeness and selfishness.
What is shrewdness?
So, what is shrewdness? One English dictionary definition of shrewdness defines it as the quality of being astute or sharp in practical matters, or the ability to find and pursue the most advantageous course of action¹. A shrewd person is astute, perceptive, practical, and strategic. They are able to perceive situations and respond with effective strategies.
In the English language, shrewdness has a slightly negative connotation. When people are acting shrewdly, they’re mostly acting in their own interest or perhaps their own company or business. They aren’t necessarily thinking of others and may even make ethical compromises in the process. But in a worldly sense it’s still thought of as an admirable quality, especially when making investments.
The Greek word translated shrewd in Luke 16:8 is phronimos which means prudently wise. This word is also used in the following Bible passages:
- The man who built his house on the rock in Matthew 7:24 is described as phronimos.
- In Matthew 10:16 Jesus commands us to be wise (phronimos) as serpents but innocent as doves.
- In the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25: 1-13, the virgins who were prepared were said to be phronimos.
Preparing for the future
So why is shrewdness held up as a positive quality in this parable? Because it’s acting decisively to prepare for the future. The manager’s goal was to provide for his own future, and he accomplished that, however dishonestly. He was preparing for the time when a paying job for him would be a thing of the past.
Jesus was also saying that the people of this world know how to get what they need. They know what they want and how to act decisively to accomplish their earthly goals. They know how to prepare for their future. And they will go to great lengths to preserve their financial security using their time, resources, and energy.
In contrast, Jesus was saying that the people of the light sometimes have a hard time preparing for their future. Many believers find it difficult to act decisively to accumulate eternal wealth, even when it brings infinite spiritual value. They’re frequently slothful when it comes to God’s work. Many times, they are timid and don’t believe they have anything to give. Their affections are partly on eternal things, but also partly on worldly things. So, their goals are mixed, and their direction is sometimes uncertain.
Irony and contrast in Jesus’ teaching
This parable is a classic example of how Jesus used irony and contrast in his teaching. He made the dishonest man the main character for a reason: to contrast the worldly with the godly. His point was that the worldly are motivated in reaching their goals, but many times the godly are not. And he used irony to highlight this lesson.
Some of Jesus’ most famous statements use irony and contrast:
If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? (Matthew 6:30)
If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:11)
Jesus uses “how much more” contrasts in these passages (and also in Matthew 10:25 and 12:12).
So, what is the main point of this parable? It’s this: If the shrewd and dishonest manager prepared this much for his future, how much more should God’s people prepare for their future with God?
Immediately after the parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16, Jesus then focuses our attention on another contrast: earthly and heavenly riches:
“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? (Luke 16:10-11)
So, according to this teaching, God intends to entrust true eternal wealth to those who are responsible with earthly wealth. How do we obtain eternal wealth? In Jesus’ many teachings, he lays out how. The following is just one passage.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Luke 12:32-34)
The Lord says that if we invest our earthly wealth for God’s kingdom, then we’ll have riches in heaven. It’s quite simple, and he states this a number of times in other teachings.
So, it makes sense that we should use our earthly wealth and all other resources now to invest in God’s kingdom. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom that will never end, so the rewards we gain will also last forever. The true riches gained from a life of love and service to God are worth far more than any earthly wealth, and we should value those riches above all else.
A reward for our investment
In many of his teachings, Jesus states that he will reward us for our investment of time, talents, and resources for his kingdom. He never elaborates on what it is, but we know it’s of great value, and actually of much greater value than our initial investment. These are not salvation and forgiveness which are given as free gifts to any who accept them by faith. Our rewards are for service—what we did for God (or rather what God did through us). But salvation is given freely out of God’s grace, because of what he did for us.
Paul’s admonition to Timothy sums up Jesus’ teaching well:
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Timothy 6:17-19)
In our eternal home, money will no longer exist. Even if it did exist there, it wouldn’t have any value. But true and eternal value will result from our obedience to Christ in being generous with our time, skills, resources, and earthly riches while we live on this earth.
Is accumulating spiritual riches selfish?
Some people wrongly think that accumulating riches in heaven is a selfish endeavor. But the greatest irony of the parable of the shrewd manager is that acting shrewdly with God involves acting selflessly towards others. This means being generous: giving to those who have little, blessing others with our abundance, and investing in the advance of God’s kingdom.
So no, having riches in heaven is not selfish, since it only multiplies and spreads God’s grace and blessings. Others will benefit and be blessed by our investments. The more we invest, the more spiritual riches we will have, but the more others will have also. Like the loaves and fishes that Jesus multiplied, God makes our investments grow.
Being shrewd with God
This may be hard for some Christians to accept, but Jesus is encouraging us to be shrewd in our dealings with God. This doesn’t mean acting deviously, since God obviously can’t be fooled. But it means acting boldly and intentionally.
So, if the shrewd manager prepared this much for his entrance into poverty, how much more should God’s people prepare for their entrance into eternal glory? And to prepare, we should take full advantage of all God’s promises and invest all we can in God’s kingdom while we still have opportunity. This will not only maximize the eternal blessings for others, but heavenly rewards for us.
We should take Jesus at his word and fully take all he offers. Someday, money, possessions, bank accounts, and talents will all be things of the past. Why not expend them now—invest all we can—so that we’ll accrue the maximum eternal value both for ourselves and others, value that will last forever?
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