Over the last five weeks, I’ve had the opportunity and pleasure to preach on the topic of the parables of Jesus. I struggled a lot with which ones to pick. With 30-40 parables (depending on how you define "parable") that are written down in the gospels, I had the sense that it would be better to study the parables that we often ignore or have trouble interpreting.
And that’s where my problems started. I knew there was one parable that I could never figure out. It was one that confused me more than any others. Sometimes, even when what Jesus is saying is clear, parables are difficult because it becomes hard to live out. But other times parables are difficult because we can’t quite figure out what Jesus is even trying to say. In this parable, it’s easy to assume that God is giving us mixed messages. Do you know it? It’s the parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-15).
Maybe you’ve heard it. And maybe you’ve been like me, trying to shove it under the rug and not deal with it. So I knew, as we were looking through Jesus' many parables, that I couldn’t let it go this time. I needed to preach on it, and because of that I needed to dig deep and study.
Let me give you a quick summary of the parable.
There was a boss who hired a manager to take care of his affairs. But the boss found out that there were some questionable dealings with his finances. So he called the manager in, told him to give an account for his actions, and then fired him. The manger thought about his options and quickly came up with a plan in order to not be left without a home when he became unemployed. He certainly didn't want to beg and he wasn't capable of hard labour. So he went to the people who owed his boss money (actually things like olive oil and wheat) and told them to cut their debts down, some even to 50% of what they owed. This way, he thought, they would welcome him into their homes when he was without a job. When his boss found out about this, he commended the manager for what he did.
I would recommend reading this parable directly in Luke, but maybe from this summary you can see my problem. What is Jesus talking about? Why is the manager commended by the boss who had just fired him for doing something unjust? How do we read this parable? Are we supposed to be like the manager?
There are many ways in which this parable is interpreted, and for the sake of not wanting to bore you with endless pages of study, I’ll share what I found to be the most convincing interpretation. Two key questions will help us in discovering what Jesus is talking about here.
1. What is the manager being commended for?
The boss didn’t commend his manager for swindling or cheating him. The boss commended the manager for “acting shrewdly.” Although we may sometimes think of being shrewd as being slimy and sneaky in dealing with people, the word actually means to be wise, perceptive and smart. The boss recognized the manager’s sharpness and patted him on the back for not putting his head down or giving up when times got hard.
2. Why is Jesus telling this parable?
Sometimes parables give us a picture of something bigger or answer complicated questions. Sometimes they tell us what to do and how to behave, or oppositely what not to do. In this case, it seems like Jesus is telling this parable to tell His listeners how to act in the Kingdom of God.
Jesus recognizes that in this world, people are smart. They watch their own backs. They think ahead. They are cunning and shrewd, but often for selfish reasons. The manager was very wise, but he was only trying to watch out for himself. Imagine if followers of Jesus were just as wise, but for the things of God, the things that really matter?
Jesus is not telling His followers to cheat or to be untrustworthy. He is telling us to be wise, clever, intelligent, and acute. But instead of being these things for our own selfish reasons, be this way for the things that God cares about. Be shrewd for justice, righteousness, faith, church, and witness. This is part of what it meant when Jesus sent out His disciples and told them to “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
After the sermon that Sunday, someone came up to me and asked what it would mean for the church to be shrewd. I paused and thought. And that’s when it hit me. I had been thinking about this parable in terms of our personal lives, but this may indeed be a parable that the church needs to hear today.
How often does the church get stuck in ways and traditions that keep us from moving forward or inviting new people into our midst? How often do we put our heads down and give up when things fail, calling ourselves ungifted or unqualified because the results weren’t what we expected?
It seems like the church has this idea that we need to let things stay the way they are. Change is bad. Innovation doesn’t belong. But we don’t see that in the world. If someone’s business is going under, they don’t put their head down and give up, seeing the inevitable end. They change, innovate, and advance, sometimes even at the expense of other people, so that they can succeed and make money. What if we, as the church, did the same thing? But instead of seeing people and creation as expendable and striving for fame and fortune, we change, innovate and advance for the sake of God’s kingdom and so that as many people as possible can experience it?
Perhaps what our church needs is a licence to dream. The church, especially in North America, is going through significant change. We are in the age of post-Christendom, and giving up or doing business as usual isn’t going to cut it anymore. Jesus wants us to be shrewd. He wants us to have foresight, and to act wisely. Not for ourselves, but for the sake of God and His kingdom.
If no one has ever given you permission to think outside the box, to change things in ways we have never seen before, let Jesus be the first. Take His message to heart and let Him guide you to dream things never before imagined. Take the risk. Be shrewd.