The Parable of the Shrewd (Unrighteous) Manager (Luke 16:1-15)

The parable of the shrewd manager has been disconcerting to many of us since our first encounter with it—and it’s all because of a few misunderstandings.

Below is the passage. It’s followed by a bit of background and some insights for you to consider. Please read this with an inquiring mind and a prayerful heart, asking God to reveal His message to you so that you can know Him more dearly.

Now He was also saying to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and this manager was reported to him as squandering his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an accounting of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’”

“The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do, so that when I am removed from the management people will welcome me into their homes.’”

“And he summoned each one of his master’s debtors, and he began saying to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’”

“And his master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings.”

“He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you? And if you have not been faithful in the use of 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 else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things and were scoffing at Him. And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God.” (Luke 16:1-15)

The Background

Jesus’ disciples were intimately familiar with their Jewish traditions; they were annual reminders of God’s faithfulness to fulfill His promises to them.

One of the promises, given through Abraham, was that his children would be a blessing to all of the other nations. Unwittingly, that people would demonstrate God’s salvation to the world by predicting Jesus’ coming and purpose—especially His death and resurrection.

To that end, God set up the Levitical Priesthood to govern them using the Law, the tabernacle and the sacrifices. Aaron, Moses’ older brother, was chosen to be their first high priest (and the ancestor of all those priests). The person in that position was responsible for leading two sets of seasonal ceremonies that coincided with the early and late harvests.

The one in the springtime was the feast of Unleavened Bread; it began the day after Passover (as lambs were being born) and ended seven weeks later with Pentecost (as the wheat-crop was being collected). The theme was thanksgiving for God’s protection and provision. It was a reminder of when the Death Angel took the lives of all the first-born males in Egypt where there wasn’t lamb’s blood on the doorposts of the houses—and His giving them manna, the bread of life, while they were in the desert after leaving slavery.

The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) was in the autumn; it was an appeal for God’s mercy as they recognized their need for reconciliation with Him before the end of natural life. The visual prompts came from seeing the last crop was harvested and the plants began dying. At that time a goat was killed to graphically present the need for a sacrifice’s death for reconciling the people with God—receiving His forgiveness.

At those times, as well as on other specific occasions, the people were to bring some of the very best of what God had provided for the priests to put on the altar—in recognition of their dependence on Him. It was to predict the ultimate sacrifice: His own Son on the cross.

Insights to Consider

The Context: Luke stated in chapter one that he was writing a chronological account. Chapters thirteen through the end of his gospel letter relate Jesus’ teaching during His final Passover journey to Jerusalem. That’s when He told this parable to describe the results of His looming execution.

By the way, those last several verses aren’t instructing us to correct our misplaced values by comparing a cheating manager to our faith in God and our behaviors with money. Rather, they reveal the identities of those in His story.

The rich man, or master: He is the One from whom all good things come –including the people’s animals and crops. (His wealth is characterized by the familiar words of the fiftieth Psalm: “He owns all of the beasts of the forests, all of the creatures of the field and all of the cattle on a thousand hills. . .The world is His and all that is in it.”)

The manager: The manager supervised the rich man’s wealth—He personifies the Levitical Priesthood. It was responsible for reminding the people of what God had given them. So it determined which offerings were acceptable for giving back to God on the altar. About four hundred years before John the Baptist introduced Jesus in Jerusalem, the last prophet to speak to that people was Malachi. In his first chapter, he described the priesthood’s corruption: They didn’t offer what God asked for. In lieu of the best, they accepted blind, lame and diseased animals from the wealthy in exchange for friendship (and whatever favors that included).

The debtors: The Pharisees’ scoffing reaction at the end of the parable amidentifies those scoundrels as the unfaithful men who did not give God what He was due.

The sons: The “sons of light” were God’s priests to the world through the Old Covenant. 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 would be a light to the Gentiles. They, the light of the world, were told to not hide their light under a basket. They were the people from which Jesus, the True Light, would come.

The “sons of this age” were the Jews during Jesus’ time on earth. They valued money over their relationship with God.

A Change in Management: Jeremiah (in his chapter thirty-three) prophesied nearly three hundred years even before Malachi, saying that God would make a New Covenant with the people—it would replace the one that He made through Moses.

He was predicting the one in which Jesus would be the High Priest—the One who reconciled God and mankind by His death. That priesthood consists of Jews and non-Jews who have whole new laws that describe living by faith instead of behaviors. (That’s in Hebrews 7:12, 22.) Those priests tell about Him: He has granted everyone mercy so that anyone can join Him in His kingdom and live an eternal life of grace. The temple’s veil was ripped open to mark that transition.

Give an accounting: There wouldn’t be, and still aren’t any job openings in the Levitical Priesthood just as there is no temple nor altar for worldly offerings to pay for worldly sins. It’s finished and that’s what Jesus said before His death. Those priests had reason for worry: their only purpose in life, and their income was being taken away. Being friends with the rich Pharisees seemed to be their best option.

Annas and Caiaphas were the then-current and former governing high priests who would “decide” that Jesus was to be put on His “altar” –the cross. They, and their friends the Pharisees, were dedicated to wealth instead of God—just as Malachi described and Jesus predicted.

Worldly vs. Spiritual: Worldly people do whatever it takes for self-preservation. To ensure their security, they 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. However, that was not the case; those Jews were angry—foreseeing their positions of honor coming to an end.

Using Wealth: The economy of this world lures people to attain as much of its treasures as possible. 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. (It’s in Matthew 19, Mark 10 and Luke 18.)

Acting shrewdly: The word shrewd means “wise” or “calculating” –there’s no mention of selfish intent. This parable says to act shrewdly by using worldly wealth to gain friends. This phrase conveys two related meanings. The first is salvation. That’s giving up the natural friendship with the world and then become friends of God. The second describes using worldly wealth (friendships here on earth) 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 eternal 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?