And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of the unrighteous money so that when it fails, they may welcome you into eternal dwellings. (Luke 16:9)
The Parable of the Shrewd Manager
Many find the parable of the shrewd (and dishonest) manager (Luke 16:1-9) to be one of Jesus’ more difficult to understand. To approach this text, we need to remember that Jesus’ parables usually had one main point. Here, Jesus tells his disciples to be at least as concerned about their future as the ungodly are.
Jesus’ story is really simple. A manager of a large estate is about to lose his cushy job overseeing the owner’s holdings. He’s been incompetent – or a thief – and the owner won’t put up with it any more. Now what? He’s been an upper management kind of guy, and that’s the only life he knows. What shall he do? “I’m not strong enough to dig,” he says, and “I’m too proud to beg.” How will he maintain his posh, respectable life of leisure when he’s out on the street? But now he has an idea. He’ll use his managerial authority – while he still has it – to put the wealthy tenants in his debt. He adjusts the tenants’ accounts and saves them a ton of dough. In turn, he thinks he’ll be able to bum off them when his boss finally takes away the key to the corner office. He can live in their guest cottages and have their maids fix him breakfast. There’s a high thread count bathrobe and an expensive pair of sunglasses in his future as he lounges by their pools. Heck, this might be better than working.
The people of Jesus’ day liked stories about clever people, and the manager’s shrewdness surely brought much admiration from the audience. I can picture them all shaking their heads in amazement and chortling at the manager’s cleverness – and probably thinking, “Yep, those thieving, rich, sons-of-snakes will always find a way to stay on top.”
Make Friends with Filthy Money
Jesus concluded this parable, however, by saying, “the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” (Luke 16:9)
If people understand the urgency of preparing for their immediate financial future, why don’t they understand the urgency of preparing for their eternal future? Our actions have an impact on both. Of the two, however, eternal consequences would seem to outweigh short-term financial consequences.
Like the soon-to-be-unemployed manager of the parable, we all need to realize that this gig won’t last forever. Then what? The manager wanted to move in with his rich clients. Jesus said that there are eternal habitations available for the children of light.
Jesus clearly suggests that how we use “filthy money” has an impact on our future. This is where our Protestant “saved by grace” and “saved by faith” sensibilities may be shocked. Jesus suggests that we can use our wealth in such a manner that will facilitate our entry into the eternal kingdom. What does Jesus mean, “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth?” What kinds of friends are these and how can we use our “unrighteous wealth” in such a way we will be welcomed into “eternal habitations?”
Unrighteous wealth is simply ordinary money and economic resources. Few people in Jesus’ era had any. The economic system was dominated by Rome and its collaborators. The coins were even emblazoned with an emblem of Caesar and his blasphemous claims.
Our world may be different today, but mammon is still not a friend of God. Wealth often gets in the way of faith. The system itself tends to trap people in poverty and entice people to sin. The fall of humankind is evident everywhere you look in the world’s economy.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) which follows in this chapter gives us the key to understanding what Jesus meant: how we use our resources – to help or ignore the poor – affects our place of final residence. In this parable, the poor man Lazarus resides at Abraham’s bosom. The rich man burns in the grave. If he had treated Lazarus just a little better – used even a scrap of his “unrighteous wealth” on Lazarus’ behalf – maybe the poor man would have welcomed him into eternal habitations. (Remember, this story too is a parable, and not an allegory or a literal description of heaven and hell.) There is a clear connection between Jesus’ summary in Luke 16:9 and the parable of Dives and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31.
Is Jesus, then, teaching “works righteousness?” It’s not as if Jesus is suggesting that we earn eternal salvation by performing arbitrary good deeds. Luke 16:10-14 makes that clear. In the verses which follow the parable of the shrewd manager, Jesus says two things:
- The most important attribute of a manager is that he (or she) be trustworthy or faithful (Luke 16:10-12)
- You cannot be a slave to both God and money (Luke 16:13-14)
Other People’s Money
Luke 16:10-12 uses some the same language and imagery as the parable of Luke 16:1-9, but it makes a different point. A manager must use the the owner’s resources for the owner’s purposes. An owner will not put up with a manager that misuses his possessions. Our possessions, then, are not ours to use as we please. We have been entrusted with them by their owner for his purposes, not ours. Repeatedly throughout the scriptures, God reveals that he intends for us to use our wealth to care for the weak and needy. It’s that simple.
Certainly God has other purposes for our wealth as well. Ultimately, however, it all belongs to him.
In God We Trust
It’s easy to deceive ourselves about whom we are serving with our money. In Luke 16:13-14, Jesus reminds us that what we do with our money demonstrates what we really believe.
No servant can serve two masters, for 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 God and money. Luke 16:13
You can’t get much clearer than that.
Existentially, what we do demonstrates what we believe. The doctrine of salvation by grace through faith is not concerned solely with mental activities. Saving faith is one which trusts God.
Our money says, “In God we Trust.” What we do with our money reveals whether that boast is true.