Biblical Quotes Can Be Confusing: Luke 16:1-15 Jesus’ Parable of the Shrewd Manager

Here is One of the Biblical Quotes That Has Puzzled People for Centuries:  The Parable of the Shrewd Manager

1 Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 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.’
3 “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— 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’
5 “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
6 ” ‘Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied.
“The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.’
7″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.’
8″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. 9I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
10 “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. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?
13 “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.”
14 The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15 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. [New International Version]

Is Jesus Really Praising Devious Business Ethics?

This parable is sometimes called, “The Parable of the Unjust Steward.”  It’s not a helpful title because the devious business ethics of the manager is not what Jesus is highlighting.  Rather, he is highlighting the cleverness or shrewdness of the manager in using his access to Mammon to prepare for the Downsizing that was to come.

How to Interpret Parables as a Genre

After centuries of debate scholars, both liberal and conservative, agree that parables as a genre should not be read like allegories.   Instead, there is one central point to each and every parable of Jesus. Rarely, there are details in the parable that correspond to something specific in kingdom living such as the parable of the Sower.  Otherwise, the details are simply in the parable to make it a vivid image that makes the story more easily pictured in one’s mind.

Was Jesus Being Sarcastic?

In this parable, the shoddy morals of the manager are either incidental to the story OR it is used for a touch of sarcasm, which Jesus was fond of.  It may be that Jesus made the main character to have a shady character as if to say to the Pharisees, “Look at this crook!  Even he had the horse sense to assess what was coming (getting fired) and then to use Mammon to make a place for himself on the other side.

The Parable in Context and in a Nutshell

The parable should be read in context of Chapter 15, the whole of chapter 16, and the beginning of chapter 17.  Read in this way, it’s more clear that Jesus is saying something like this, “God the Father in Me is seeking out the lost and rejoices when He finds them (Chapter 15).  But there are stumbling blocks (Chapter 17).  These can prevent the lost from being found.  Chief among these stumbling blocks is the love of money (Chapter 16).  This was the elder brother’s problem in the preceding passage and it is labeled explicitly as the problem in 16:14.

The point is not that the lost who wish to be found must have a perfect attitude toward money.  The prodigal son did not.  He simply got tired of being poor and decided that his Father was the true source to run home to.  Likewise, the Shrewd manager did not have an admirable view of money.  But also like the prodigal son, he was pragmatic enough to know that money can run out and leave you in a pickle and so it’s best to use it wisely to make preparations for yourself when it runs out.  Jesus is telling us to use any money we have access to for good purposes, always keeping in mind that money is going to eventually perish and when it does, the only wealth that will matter are the true riches of Heaven and our readiness to have them.

The Key Verse that Summarizes and Interprets the Parable

If there is one verse that summarizes the main point of the parable it is 16: 9.   Making friends means using money now so that at death you are fit for the kingdom of God.

Afterthought About One of the More Famous Biblical Quotes

All this makes verse 10 to have a more specific and clear meaning.   One of the more famous biblical quotes in Luke 16 is verse 10.  I memorized it as a child, but I didn’t really understand it:

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.

This verse is an example of many famous biblical quotes that are often misunderstood, but which become clear when the literary context is understood.  He’s not uttering a general proverb that if you handle small things well you will handle big things well.  Rather, being faithful in a little thing = handling money in this life.  Being faithful in much =  being entrusted with true wealth in the next life.

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