The Shrewd Manager
Jesus used parables to illustrate the principles of the Kingdom of God. I was asked a few days ago why Jesus would not have been critical of the shrewd steward in the parable recorded in Luke 16:1-13. That's a good question.
By way of background, Jesus directed this parable to His disciples (v1) but there were 'lawyers and Pharisees' present because He was in the house of one of the 'rulers of the Pharisees to eat bread on the Sabbath' (Luke 14:1). The house was probably one of the larger structures, built around a colonnaded courtyard with a large reception room and dining area to accommodate large gatherings. Jesus had probably taught in the local synagogue and had been invited to a meal by the high-ranking Pharisee.
At the meal Jesus healed a man of dropsy (edema) and made a point about the Law. He spoke about true hospitality (the parable of the lowly place, 14:1-11), responding to the invitation to follow Him (the parable of the great supper, 14:12-14), counting the cost of becoming a disciple (the parable of the tower, 14:25-30; the parable of the king going to war, 14:31-32), God's concern for the lost (the parables of the lost sheep, lost silver coin and lost son, ch. 15), the imperative that disciples use their temporal wealth for eternal purposes (the parable of the shrewd steward, 16:1-13; the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, 16:19-31), and faith (the parable of the mustard seed and unprofitable servants, 17:5-10).
In the parable in question Jesus used the commonplace arrangement of a wealthy man employing a manager to look after his affairs. It had been reported that the manager was either incompetent or dishonest. The wealthy man determined to dismiss his manager and directed him to prepare records of account for his time of stewardship. Knowing that he was ill-equipped for other work, the manager decided to set up his own welfare system by writing off some of what was owed by debtors. The two examples in the parable amounted to around 500 denarii (about one-and-a-half year's wages). When the manager said, 'Take your bill and write...' he meant literally 'Receive welcomingly your bill..'. Of course, the debtors would have received the bill welcomingly because they were to write a lesser amount than owed, undoubtedly believing that this was a generous act of the wealth man (a reasonably common practice at the time). The manager expected that he would be 'received welcomingly' by the debtors after his employment was terminated (see v 9).
In the parable the wealthy man commended the manager. Jesus used this to illustrate that disciples ought to use the wealth of the Father, of which they are managers or stewards, to win 'friends' in the Kingdom and to ensure that they will be 'received welcomingly' for eternity. He went on to say that disciples who could be trusted with little would be trusted with much with the warning that no disciple can serve two masters. 'You cannot serve God and mammon' (Luke 16:13).
The point of the parable was wisdom, not the ethical behaviour of the shrewd manager. It was his shrewdness, not his management that was the issue. Jesus said we should be shrewd in the way in which we use what God has entrusted to us. Our shrewdness is to be directed toward Kingdom purposes. It is doubtful that there is any other meaning of the parable than this.
Questions for discussion
1. Why might the Pharisees have been upset at the parable of the shrewd manager? (See Luke 16:14.)
2. Should the use of this parable by Jesus be interpreted as works-based faith?
3. What might be the 'true riches' mentioned by Jesus in v. 11?