The parable of the shrewd manager has been confusing to most of us since our first encounter with it. That's because of some faulty interpretations. One is that the "people of the light" are Christians. Another is that Jesus is commending dishonesty. Please read on. If you still have questions, send an email to me at doug@MyRedeemer.org (include "MR Website" in the subject).
The major points of the story are noted below with insights to explain the passage. Please read them with an inquiring mind and a prayerful heart, asking God to reveal His message to you so that you can know Him more dearly.
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.'
"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.
"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?
"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."
The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He 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. (Luke 16:1-15)
The Audience – Jesus was talking to His disciples. Who was nearby? They were none other than the money loving Pharisees –and they were sneering at Him. By seeing that reaction, the disciples were better able to comprehend His message and the deep truths that it conveys.
Wasting Possessions – To begin with, both the manager and his master were totally preoccupied with achieving a single goal: more wealth. The master was rich! And he had hired a manager to ensure that his riches grew while he took care of other affairs. We don't know what was involved in the "wasting"; maybe it was intentional fraud or maybe it was negligence. But either way, we do know that the manager caused the master to incur loss when he was supposed to bring profit.
Give an account – The master heard that there was something amiss and told the manager to give an account. This would be like demanding that he bring in the accounting record books so that an audit could be performed.
Self-Assessment – The manager knew that his career would be over when the results of the audit were known. Putting that into today's terms, he was going to lose his comfortable job along with everything he had prepared for his retirement. Furthermore, he wasn't about to do actual labor after having such an easy income for so long, nor was he going to demean himself by begging. And certainly, no one would hire him to manage their wealth after this episode.
His Scheme – The story makes it clear that the way of the world is based on being shrewd. The phrase that I have heard in business for so long is "If you don't look out for yourself, no one else will either." As far as this parable is concerned, the word "shrewd" carries two concepts. The first is to be wise –carefully thinking about the results of your actions. The second concept deals with self-centeredness. The rich man got rich by carefully considering his actions to maximize his profit –he was ensuring his own success.
Likewise, the manager was going to take care of his own security. He was already in trouble with his employer for the loss of possessions, he reasoned that a little more loss from him shouldn't make much difference. The rich man loaned his property to borrowers who recorded their debt –much like giving someone an IOU And as payments were made, the debt was reduced and entries were recorded to indicate the remaining loan balance. In this story, the manager had each of the borrowers record false payments.
Dishonesty Commended – Remember, both men were known for their affection of riches. Each one was whole-heartedly concerned with his own welfare. When the master found out what had been done, it's as though he told the manager "That's what I would have done if I were in your situation –doing whatever it takes to make sure that I have what I need." Then adding, "Even so, you're never going to work for me again –or anyone else that I know! You took what belonged to me and I can't stay rich with people taking advantage of me like that. You set a bad example that others might try to follow and cheat me more."
People of the Light – This phrase is almost always wrongly interpreted and that makes the whole parable nearly impossible to understand. The "people of the light" do not represent Christians! Rather, they were the Jews. For years that's what they were known for. They followed the light (the column of light and smoke in the desert). It was prophesied that they were to be a light to the Gentiles. They were told to not hide their light under a basket. They were the people from which the messiah (Jesus, the True Light) would come. This particular fact is essential to understanding the parable.
Worldly vs. Spiritual – Worldly people do whatever it takes for self-preservation. To ensure their earthly security, worldly people do what their master the Devil does, they steal, kill and destroy. It would seem that the "people of the light" would be even more concerned about their eternal destination than the people of the world. Sadly, that was not the case; the Jews remained indifferent to Jesus.
Use Wealth – The economy of this world lures us to attain as much of its treasures as we possibly can. Jesus told of a rich ruler who wanted to know how to gain eternal life. The ruler had always kept the law –so he asked, "What more must I to do?" Jesus said to him, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." Giving up his attachments to the world must have been too great of a price to merely have eternal life because the ruler left saddened.
This parable says to use worldly wealth to gain friends. This phrase conveys two related meanings. The first is salvation. That's when we give up our friendship with the world and we become friends of God. The second describes using our worldly wealth to tell as many people as possible about eternal life through Jesus –hoping that they become "friends" in the "here-after".
Property – In this parable, property is a metaphor for spiritual life. We have been given someone else's property as a test to determine what we will do with it. The "someone else's property" is Jesus' spiritual life.
By His spiritual life, I'm referring to the fact that while Jesus lived here, the Holy Spirit resided with Him. The Spirit was His connection to the Father; and that connection was what kept Him spiritually alive. When Jesus was crucified on the cross, the Spirit departed from Him and He died –physically, but more importantly He died spiritually. He lost His connection to the Father.
To be obtain eternal life, there first must be the sacrifice of a perfect, unblemished life. Jesus is the only One who had such a life to give. That is why God gave us "His property" to use wisely (shrewdly pursuing our eternal security). If we casually ignore what God has given us to pay for our debt, then we will not receive a spiritual life of our own –connecting us to the Father for eternity.
Serving – Dual citizenship is not an option. We are either citizens of heaven, living here as foreign ambassadors for Jesus –or we are securely attached as citizens of this world and all that it represents. God has trusted you with His Son –"His property"; have you used it wisely for your own eternal security?