Luke 16:1-13 “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager”

23 Nov

The broad context of the passage

The gospel of Luke is a narrative about the life of Jesus. The primary objective of Luke is to reveal that Jesus is truly the Messiah, fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies of the bringer of the Kingdom of God.  This particular passage falls within the mid section of the book known as “The Jerusalem Journey” or the “travel narrative” (Luke 9:51-19: 28). It begins in Luke 9:51 “When the days were approaching for His ascension, He was determined to go to Jerusalem.” This passage is significant because it represents a strong pivot or turning point in the Jesus narrative as he sets his eye toward Jerusalem. So far, Jesus has been journeying with his disciples for about 3 years. Which means, he’s got about six months to live as he continues to get closer to Jerusalem. For Jesus, Jerusalem is a place of suffering and ultimately death. Therefore, the teachings and utterances that He bestows upon his disciples during this time are some of the most critical and challenging paradigms in Scripture. Jesus gets more direct, and the intensity of the content on discipleship gets raised to a new level. There is a simultaneous narrative going on in the background: one day the disciples will travel towards their own Jerusalem’s as they follow Jesus. He is preparing them for their own deaths, their own ascension. He’s laser focused on the demands of discipleship, hammering home the implications of association with the Kingdom. (Bock, pg 974) It will not mean power, but sharing in Jesus’ suffering and staying faithful to a narrow path. Any disciple who would follow Jesus needs to understand that this choice to ascension will require total commitment. As a result, Jesus gives strong warnings and teachings through parables concerning things that would lead them off the path of ascension. One of the repetitive topics Jesus addresses within this journey is the role and nature of money. It is of great importance to both Luke and Jesus.

Immediate Context

Jesus gives us a clue to the reason why he would teach on money in such a time as this. We find it immediately following the focused passage in Luke 16:14. It says, “Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things and were scoffing at Him.” “Scoffing” is one of the harshest responses to truth. It symbolizes total disgust and rebellion. The Pharisees disagree and are angered toward Jesus because they have their own prosperity gospel. As New Testament scholar Leon Morris puts it “the covetous like to disguise their sin, they see their money as evidence of the blessing of God on their activities and thus of their righteousness.” Jesus confronts the disconnect between outward justification before people and the state of the heart.  The idea that God knows your heart is a scary thought for lovers of money. Messiah Jesus is going to reveal the truth of their hearts and the profound eternal implications of our relationship with money. He inevitably redefines the nature and eternal purpose of money for his disciples in the midst of the Pharisees. A stunning and provocative stance Jesus will take as described in the remainder of the paper.

Within the passage

So we pick up this particular text in the context of Messiah Jesus journeying to his death in Jerusalem and intent on equipping the disciples with the most compelling and crucial lessons to stay on the eternal path of ascension. Now the genre of the text as a whole is a gospel narrative and in particular, vs 1-8  is a parable. More specifically the parable is a main point allegory. Money is a key topic to Jesus as it is the focus in numerous parables and verses within Luke (7:41-50, 12:13-21, 16:1-8 etc..) Here in chapter 16, Jesus gives an answer to the proper purpose and nature of money through the parable of the shrewd manager.

The authors main idea in this passage is to declare the purpose of money as a small trivial piece of stewardship that is rewarded with eternal gifts by using it shrewdly to gain relational equity with others and advancing the Kingdom by giving it away which ultimately becomes eternal riches in heaven. The skeleton for this generic conception is in the following outline.

  1. The parable (16:1-8)
    1. Setting and audience (16:1)
    2. The manager’s firing (16:2)
    3. The manager’s shrewd act: shaving other’s debts (16:3-7)
    4. The master’s recognition and Jesus’ focus (16:8)

b. Three implications of the parable: the nature and purpose of money (16:9-13)

           i. Shrewdly use it to invest eternally in relationships (16:9)

           ii. Be faithful in stewarding money because it’s ultimately an example of stewarding greater spiritual things (16:10-12)

           iii. Serve God, not mammon and you will advance the Kingdom (16:13)

Exposition + Issues

Luke launches the chapter with a shift in audience in vs 1.  In the previous chapter, he was directly speaking to the Pharisees and Scribes. Here, we find Jesus speaking directly with His disciples. This is significant because introductions reveal the purpose and reason for the parable being told. Jesus chooses to share an important lesson intentionally with his followers and emphasize key lessons while the Pharisees are still in the vicinity.  Again, the implications and the importance of this are found in vs 14.  

We see in verse 2 that the manager is going to be let go. This would imply that he was a free man because you couldn’t fire a slave. The following 4 verses (3-7) account for his response. First thing to recognize is the stewards failure to reply indicates that he knew he was guilty. The dishonest character of the man is evident.  Additionally, he foregoes other menial jobs because of the cultural reputation attached to certain occupations. Most likely, he was a well educated and skilled worker since he managed a wealthy estate owner’s books. In v. 4 it dawns on him: in his last moments of being under the authority of his master’s name he can capitalize and secure a future for himself. He’s securing a retirement fund by paying into relational equity through lowering the debts owed to his master. In the process, he will win the hearts of the debtors and will be welcomed into their homes in later times when he is hungry and jobless.

Now this is when it gets a little hairy in interpretation. Confusion comes in vs 8 and 9 when the owner himself commends the actions of the steward and Jesus uses him as an example.  Is Jesus recommending we model ourselves after a dishonest man? Why would the master praise the steward?? At first glance it can seem that the manager is stealing from his boss again by reducing the money that the debtors owed to him. If this interpretation is correct, and the manager is indirectly stealing from his master once again, then Jesus’ intention in using him as a model for his disciples is entirely perplexing to say the least. Is the conclusion that disciples too should find moments to steal when it is convenient and profitable to themselves? That hardly seems to align with the rest of Jesus’ teaching on loving one’s neighbor as oneself (Matthew 22:39), or giving one’s last penny away to God (Mark 12:41-44).

In order to understand more intimately the shrewdness of the manager and the commendations by the master it’s important to note the commercial practices of the day. Jews were forbidden in the Mosaic law to take interest from fellow-Jews when they lent them money. (Exod. 22:25, Dt. 23:19) Additionally, in the beginning of the Roman empire there was no inflation for many decades. Those who wished to make money from loans evaded the law by reasoning that it was concerned to prohibit the exploitation of the poor. A loop hole gets exposed in the process because most people own a little oil and a little bit of wheat. Whatever was borrowed then had a given value with the interest added on within the bond. This action was usurious but the bond didn’t reveal it.  (Fitzmeyer, pg 292) Most often, stewards carried out these actions unknown to the owner. With that understanding, the steward originally overcharged debtors for his personal monetary gain by adding interest to the amount owed and pocketing for his own gain. Then in the last few days at his current job he relinquished the interest, which shouldn’t have been there in the first place. The master wouldn’t have taken any hit because he wouldn’t have seen the interest collected by the steward and the payment he’d expected would still be coming to him. At the same time, the debtors are happy because their debt is significantly reduced and are grateful for the manager’s “generosity.” As a side note, the debt that was both owed and forgiven are enormous amounts. The average wage for a worker was 1 denarius a day. One hundred measures of oil equaled about 850 gallons which totals about 1,000 denari. This is over 3 years wage! (Bock, pg 275) Meanwhile, the manager’s action put his master in a tough position. The master would have difficulty claiming the original amount owed to him now that the original bonds were changed or perhaps destroyed.  Additionally, if he convicted the manager he would then indite himself of usury. And furthermore, what the master gained in light of the circumstances is extremely valuable. In lieu of the enormity of the debt forgiven, it would have not gone unnoticed by the community at large. I’d guess that most aristocrats had a fairly shady reputation but this pious act would have gained the master status and honor within the community. These are values money can’t purchase and if the master had a choice in the matter he’d choose status over more money in which he already possess’ an excess amount. In summary the manager has won the hearts of the debtors and done no harm to his master. In fact, he’s elevated his master to new and respectable places within society by shrewdly disregarding the personal and illegal monetary benefits he had been receiving for the sake of providing for himself in the future. Lastly, ancient stories often portray powerful person as appreciating and rewarding cunning, even if it had been used against them “wisely” or “shrewdly.” (Keener, pg. 234)

Thus, we can look at the commendation by the master in verse 8 with new eyes. “his master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly.” He’s not praising him for cheating him out of more money. But his smart strategy. I personally recognize when another person shares similar gifting as me and I find value through this connection. Most likely the master got rich by utilizing the same gift as his manager! The master see’s the brilliance of the manager’s decision. It’s a win – win. He can’t help but honor that move because he would have done the same thing.

The parable is over in verse 8 and the passage shifts with Jesus drawing his conclusions and direct implications of the parable. He makes a comparison of “the sons of this age” and “the sons of light.” It is a rebuke by Jesus. The “sons of this age” are non believers and servants of Satan. They are more shrewd and utilizing money to make friends then the sons and daughters of Jesus and His Kingdom!

The crux of the parable and it’s implications rest in verse 9. “make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings.” Jesus’ recognition is not on the man’s dishonest character, nor is he implying that we emulate him. He’s making a claim on how the manager used wealth to invest relationally in his future. The word for wealth here is “mammon” in the Greek. Mammon are riches that are not inherently unrighteous but they are instrumentally used for many unrighteous things. (Morris, pg. 395) Essentially, Jesus is challenging the disciples to learn from how this squandering shrewd manager used money to invest relationally. Just as the shrewd manager was hoping for some reciprocation in generosity when he’d soon find himself out of a job; we too need to invest in the eternal reward received when we utilize resources for eternal friendships. This sheds a whole new light on stewardship of money. We have the opportunity to invest with something that is temporal and will inevitably fail, in order to gain fruitful eternal rewards through an excess of relationship.  1 Tim. 6:7 says, “For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either.” Money will fail us and our stewardship is over with it when we die. So invest eternally!

Jesus continues teaching about the role of money in verses 10-13. First in vs. 10, “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much.” Money is trivial and little. How often do we see money as the most important thing we order our lives around? We invest in our careers, move our families to different cities and across the country for the sake of more green. There are millions of ads that try to convince us that we are defined by how much we own.  Jesus addresses head-on the smallness of money. He’s calling his disciples to refrain from trivializing their lives on such a little thing that will fail them. Secondly, in vs. 11, “the money you pile up here is not the true riches.” it will not transcend into the next age to come. Money doesn’t last. Jesus is reminding them that they came into the world naked and they will leave naked as well. Relationships however, will transcend time. Thirdly in vs. 12, “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?” All the stuff we have is really not our own. It’s an honor and privilege to manage the material possessions we do have but it doesn’t belong to us. He is the giver of all things and thus everything we own- from the clothes on our backs, to the food in our fridge, to the cars we drive – it is all the Lord’s. And finally in vs 13, “No servant can serve two masters; …you cannot serve God and wealth (mammon). Jesus distinguishes between God and mammon. Both require service and commitment. Both require attention and possessiveness. Jesus is giving us the antidote to money owning us. How do we take away its power?  By giving it more and more away. We release it by holding it lightly. In doing so, we advance the Kingdom of God by investing in eternal rewards. We define ourselves as shrewd stewards of money and participate in His Kingdom when we give our resources and invest in someone outside of ourselves. Jesus makes it abundantly clear to his disciples: how they steward their material possessions in this life echoes in eternity to the eternal riches they will possess in the next life. If you want to be a part of the Messiah King Jesus’ Kingdom, and stay faithful on the narrow path of ascension then this is how you steward money. It is a test. We have the opportunity of bringing heaven to earth by the choices we make with our finances.

Meditation and Application

I meditated for four hours, breaking it up into 3 sections. I’ve discovered that some of my best prayer times are when I combine stillness with light exercise that requires little focus. I prayed one day for an hour walking around my local park. The next day I prayed for 2 hours while riding my bike. The final day I sat and meditated silently for an hour.

Meditating on this passage unearthed the power of its message in a very acute way in my life. My relationship with money has always been a careful one. Learning from my father’s financial blunders and frivolousness, I’ve never considered myself careless with money. I make it a priority to stay out of debt and tithe our first fruits to the Lord. In fact, I’d error on the side of being frugal. My wife Holly and I’s vocation as full time missionaries doesn’t exactly position us for breaking the bank. Actually we find ourselves often on the receiving end of Jesus followers who have chosen to steward their resources towards eternal Kingdom purposes. It actually puts us in a unique place for how this text strikes me.

I’m finding I can never really ask for money well, if I don’t understand how I relate to money. That is, if I’m clutching my fists tightly on every penny we have because it becomes my security then Luke 16:9-13 doesn’t apply to me. In those moments, I’m banking on the fact that money won’t fail me. Additionally, fear can overcome me in the asking process because the topic of money is such a taboo conversation in our culture. I’m realizing that this selfish act is actually withholding the invitation of Jesus from people in this passage. I’m extending them an invitation to invest in eternal rewards and have a new relationship with their finances and with us. So fundraising actually becomes proclaiming what we believe in such a way that we offer other people the chance to participate in the advancement of God’s Kingdom and invest in an eternal relationship with us and others. This is an incredible paradigm shift.

Secondly, We are very mindful that the resources we have are not our own because we depend on people’s generosity for our livelihood. However, as I further examine my heart in light of this passage there is a scarcity mentality interwoven into my framework. Fundraising is one of the most challenging formational journeys I have ever undertaken.  Money has a funny way of finding that intimate place in my heart where I desire and need security. Jesus knows human beings inclination to find security in something other than God and is asking his disciples to make a choice. I cannot find security if my heart is divided. So Jesus says something very radical. He says I cannot put my security in God and also in mammon. Tough principle. How do I measure if my security is not in the temporal world? I give it more and more away. Which leads me to the direct and tangible implications of this passage today in my life.

Our trusty Honda finally breathed it’s last breathe by California standards two weeks ago. The diagnosis – can’t pass smog. We began scrambling for a plan to get another vehicle before our registration deadline was up at the end of October deeming the car legally un- drivable. We mustered up the courage to ask a few of our financial partners if they’d consider praying about chipping into the pot so we could get another vehicle. We prayed and asked God for a miracle – and He provided one. Some offered a “pay back at your own pace” type of loan, others gave generously. These generous and obedient supporters inspired us in how they lived the truths of Jesus’ words in this passage. And as for us, I have been painstakingly planning out a reimbursement process for the “pay at your own pace” loans. This includes but not limited to selling the car in Tijuana, Mexico because smog laws are irrelevant there, keeping the cars value.

Being in debt to another person is foreign to me and has been a humbling process. “I will be true to my word and get them their money as quickly as possible” I tell myself. I believe there is honor and good stewardship in that thought. And in my defense I have plans other than selling the car to make significant dents in my loans.  However, their is another thought that God has been implanting deep in my heart. It’s growing like a small mustard seed within me. And it’s this, “I have someone who needs that car and I want you to give it away.” All that’s within me wants to disqualify and disregard that notion. But I believe it’s the Spirit at work- giving me an opportunity to choose what Kingdom I serve, God or mammon? As we pray for God to reveal his purposes for the car I’m not sure what will come about. I’ve began partnering in prayer and discernment with a co worker of mine who’s a native of Tijuana and networked well across the border. We are keeping our ears and eyes open to a poor Mexican family that would be blessed by the vehicle.  Maybe we will gain new friends across the border through the gift of our car. Maybe not. What I do know is that I’m at peace and ready to profane the kingdom of money and declare my allegiance to God’s Kingdom by giving it away.

Works Cited

1. Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, III: InverVarsity Press. 1993.

2.  Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to St. Luke: An Introduction and Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974.

3.  Bock, Darrell L. Luke: Volume II 9:21: 24:53. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 1994.

4.  Fitzmyer, Joseph A. The Gospel According to Luke: Introduction, Translation, and Notes. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981.


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