“There was a certain rich man who had a manager handling his affairs. One day a report came that the manager was wasting his employer’s money. So the employer called him in and said, ‘What’s this I hear about you? Get your report in order, because you are going to be fired.’”
I have to admit, this is the beginning of what I consider the strangest parable Jesus ever told. Why? Because the hero of the story—the hero of a parable being told by Jesus— is a corrupt manager who is about to lose his job.
Jesus isn’t commending the man’s boss for recognizing a bad employee and getting rid of him, nor is He condemning the manager for being dishonest, lazy, or unfaithful. In fact, Jesus actually praises this embezzling account executive by saying people like him were “more shrewd in dealing with the world around them than are the children of the light.”
What? The children of light would be wiser if they followed the example of a crook? Is that really what Jesus is saying here?
Well, frankly, yes—but it helps to have some context to get the whole picture.
I find it strange how everyone gets all excited about the parables of Jesus (which, of course, they should), but you never hear anyone talking about the sermons of Jesus (other than the Sermon on the Mount, of course). We will hear the parables—one at a time—shared by preachers from our pulpits, but we really never hear about the whole sermon in which that parable was shared.
The Parable of the Unfaithful Manager is a case in point (though I think it is usually avoided because it is so strange). So, to get a little better understanding of it, let’s take a step back and look at the entire sermon Jesus was preaching here. It actually begins in Luke 15:
Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them! So Jesus told them this story: . . .
This sets the context and focus of Jesus’s sermon: He was talking to the uptight religious leaders of the day to help them understand why He hung out with politicians (without discrimination as to their parties—yikes! Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Independent, Green Party, and probably even Communists!) and notorious sinners. To do this, He tells a series of five parables.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
A simple enough introduction to the subject. Leave the ninety-nine—who are doing fine on their own and don’t need help at the moment—to save the one who’s wondered away and gotten himself into trouble. That’s diligence. That’s compassion. It’s even good business sense. Those are all concepts the religious leaders can applaud.
“When he arrives, he will call together his friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!”
I think they were probably tracking with Him at this point.
The Parable of the Lost Coin
Good accounting practices stipulate that you record every penny of income and expense. If something doesn’t add up, you run the numbers again and again until they do. If something appears to be missing, like an invoice or receipt, you clean up your desk, search the trash cans, or ask around until you find it. If you are missing a silver coin, you would most certainly go through the same steps. Makes perfect sense.
“Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!”
I am sure the religious leaders were thinking something along the lines of, “Now Jesus is making sense. I taught something very similar at synagogue just a few weeks ago! This is wisdom Solomon himself would endorse!”
But then Jesus begins to turn the tables on them.
The Parable of the Prodigal (Lost) Son
“A man had two sons. The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.”
The next parable Jesus tells is usually called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” or in keeping with the flow of the previous two stories, what many call, “The Parable of the Lost Son.”
However, remember who Jesus was talking to here? He was talking to the religious leaders who had been criticizing who Jesus hung out with. If that is who He is really addressing, then the story isn’t really about the son who was lost and then was found again. In my mind, the story should really be called, “The Parable of the (Ungrateful) Older Brother.” Why? Because the religious leaders were playing the same part in accusing Jesus that the older brother did to his father in the story.
Think about that for a moment. Don’t only think about what this parable might have to say to the younger son—“that you are always welcome in your father’s house, no matter what mistakes you may have made”—but what is it saying to the older brother?
A Classic Case of the Wrong Paradigm
You see, the older brother really lost nothing from his younger bother’s mistakes. He still had his father’s love. The older brother had never been separated from his father—he had access to him any time he wanted. The older brother’s inheritance was intact—when his father died, the entire farm would be his (minus, I guess, if you want to get really picky, one fatted calf—but the farm would produce many more before he inherited it, so not really). In fact, even though the older brother accuses his father,
“All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!”
his father answers truthfully,
“Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!”
That must have stung the religious leaders a bit. And just in case they didn’t get it, Jesus takes His message up one more notch.
The Parable of the Corrupt Manager
So now we get to the part where Jesus tells them about the crooked account representative who is about to get fired. What must His audience have been thinking as the manager is called to give a justification for all he has done. When called on the carpet, the manager—who is too proud to beg and too lazy to do manual labor—decided to use his remaining time to swindle his employer even further. He went out and forgave debts owe his boss in the hope of winning friends who would give him a job when he lost the one he had. Crazy, right? Hoping to make up for what he embezzled, he embezzles even more!
The religious leaders must have been thinking, “Boy, is this guy going to get it!”
But instead, the manager’s employer admires the man’s shrewdness! Jesus echoes the business owner’s praise, saying, “And it is true that the children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with the world around them than are the children of the light.”
Then, just in case they still didn’t get it, Jesus made it really plain:
“Here’s the lesson: Use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends. Then, when your earthly possessions are gone, they will welcome you to an eternal home.”
In other words, money is not an end in itself. It’s only real value comes from how it is used to make friends and benefit those around us. Money is a tool, a means, not an end. It must serve a greater vision, and that vision is people.
Jesus chose a character for his parable whose corruption was obvious to the religious leaders so that He could get them to realize their corruption was even deeper than the hero of the parable. The corrupt manger did everything wrong except put friendship first; the pharisees did everything right except remember that ministry wasn’t about position and their traditions, it was about blessing people to make friends in the kingdom. Jesus was telling them that it is better to be a criminal who sincerely cares about people then a leader with authority and power who cares only about amassing more wealth and power rather than using those to touch people and making God friends.
Was the corrupt manager’s boss even shrewder than he was?
Did you notice that the manager’s boss didn’t really seem that upset about getting further swindled? Why? Well, for one thing, the corrupt manager’s “generosity” made his employer look generous as well. By contrast, how did the Sadducees’ and Pharisees’ stinginess make their “Employer” look?
Now, these may have been bad debts the borrowers were close to defaulting on, but now the accounts would be paid. These may have been decisions the employer would have made as well because of extenuating circumstances in each instance. Who knows. Certainly Jesus didn’t feel these details were the real key to what He wanted to teach the religious leaders, but the graciousness of the employer is worth noting. It does appear he wasn’t upset about the money lost for the sake of the goodwill gained.
Money as a test
Look at how Jesus went on. Following directly on the tail of this parable, He makes four very interesting statements that all have to do with managing money:
“If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities.”
The religious leaders had been entrusted with a great deal: authority, wealth, wisdom, and even access to the Father Himself if they wanted it. They were the keepers of the secrets of the Law of God as outlined by Moses and the prophets. What did they chose to do with all of that? Covet more authority and wealth. Despise those who didn’t do things the same way they did. Look down on others rather than find ways of lifting them up. They didn’t look for ways to benefit others from what they had, but to squeeze more out of others that they might be wealthier and more important. Jesus didn’t seem very impressed with that.
“And if you are untrustworthy about worldly wealth, who will trust you with the true riches of heaven?”
Are we faithful in what we do with the money God has give us? No, I don’t mean in tithes and offerings—the money we give to those isn’t really ours. After all, Levitcus 27:30 (esv) tells us, “Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the LORD’s; it is holy to the LORD.” Are we using them to take care of our families? Putting it to work for the dreams God has put into our hearts? Are are we mismanaging it?
“And if you are not faithful with other people’s things, why should you be trusted with things of your own?”
How do we manage the resources entrusted to us by our employers? By our church? By organizations we volunteer for? Surely Jesus wasn’t praising the corrupt account manager for being dishonest with his employer’s money, but He was praising him for putting people before wealth and recognizing the true purpose of money: to be used as a tool to create blessings.
“No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
With money, we have a choice: either we serve it, or it serves us; you either work for money, or money works for you. As the Roman Philosopher Seneca put it: “Wealth is the slave of a wise man. The master of a fool.” We mustn’t think that not having money of our own gets us a pass on these Scriptures—no matter who we are in the United States, we have more money pass through our hands everyday than most people in the world see in a month or more. Even if it is not our own money we are managing, we still have to choice of being wise or foolish in what we do with it.
But the Pharisees still didn’t get it
Luke goes on to tell us, “The Pharisees, who dearly loved their money, heard all this and scoffed at him.”
I don’t think it’s that they missed they point; I think it is more that their love of money blocked them from understanding the truths Jesus was trying to convey. The love of money is indeed the root of all kinds of evil—and, equally, all kinds of stupidity. It’s a blinder. It distorts how we see the world around us. It encourages us to put our priorities out of order.
Still trying to reach them, Jesus gives them one more clue that would become mind-numbingly obvious one day. He tells them the story of the rich man and the beggar, Lazarus. The message of the story is rather straightforward. If you want to, go take a look at in; it’s at the end of Luke 16. For now, I will just leave you with the punch line, which Abraham himself delivered to the suffering rich man:
“If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen even if someone rises from the dead.”
I think that was His way of saying, “Consider yourselves warned.”
(Quotations throughout this post are taken from Luke 15 & 16 nlt.)