Luke contains a puzzling parable. It has been called the “Parable of the Shrewd Manager.” In it Luke is concerned with people’s relationship to wealth and how that affects their relationships with other people. Luke provides two guidelines to help us. Chapter 16 illustrates Luke’s first guideline: The only proper use of money is some form of sharing it. Luke’s second guideline is drawn from the story of the steward: “No servant can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other or be attentive to the one and despise the other. You cannot give yourself to God and to money.”
The collect differentiates between earthly and heavenly things. The parable makes it clear that money is an earthly thing, but its proper use can become heavenly. Being shrewd, a quality the manager seems to have, requires knowing what rules your heart and knowing whom you serve. If you serve God and shrewdly use (here it means “wisely”) what you have for God's purposes, you will enjoy the blessings of life with God.
I find very word “shrewd” worrisome because it hints of mixed motives. The owner of the fields considered his manager to be smart, to be “shrewd” in a practical sort of way. The owner accused the manager of squandering money. In verse 8, Jesus labeled the manager as dishonest. Wealth can be used wisely -- to help other people, to do God’s will; but, on the other hand, it can become one's master – a breaking of the first commandment. The use of the name "MasterCard" is, perhaps, more prophetic than people intended. Use wealth, but do not place any trust in it. Trust only in God. Serve God and “shrewdly” use what you have for God’s purposes. The dishonest manager reduced other people’s debts so that he could gain these people as friends and assure himself a place at their tables. This type of social reciprocity was expected in. Jesus does not commend the manager’s practices, but rather commends his insight into the connection between resources and relationships.
After reading this story, we want to be included among those called “children of the light.” The parable may not seem fully congruent with other teachings of Jesus. There are many ways this parable has been explained and interpreted.
Here are three of the more common interpretations of the steward's actions:
• The manager is cheating the owner.
• The manager is simply deducting his own commission.
• Third, perhaps the rich man could be charging an interest rate of 20-50 percent on borrowed money––
One lessons that seems clear is the need to care for the poor. "No servant can serve two masters" (v. 13). "This is a simple statement of fact. It is as if Jesus had said, 'You cannot walk east and west at the same time'. A contemporary commentator adds “To serve one Master, to carry the cross, means to put down the iPad, and the remote. We need not throw them away. But we must understand that all the things the world values are potential distractions.” Often parables turn conventional wisdom on its head, leaving listeners scratching their heads. It’s one more reason to pray for guidance. One of the things this parable seems to be about is forgiveness. Jesus’ words seem to indicate that we can’t wait for perfect circumstances. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” That happens in this parable. The dishonest manager is forgiven even as he forgives others. If we waited to forgive each other until we had perfect charity in our hearts, we’d be here until the apocalypse – or later. One thing Jesus is saying is just do it. Forgive everyone. Forgive people even if you know they’re wrong. Forgive people when you know you’re wrong. Forgive people when you don’t feel like it, when, they aren’t talking to you, when you aren’t talking to them, when you don’t have time. Forgive people you’ve never met, forgive atrocities so big you are afraid to forgive them, forgive faults so small you are ashamed that they bother you.
There’s probably a bit of the Dishonest Manager in all of us, wheeling and dealing in front of God and trying to “manage” our lives to look good before the Divine. Jesus tells us that he sees right through us – and loves us dearly ANYWAY.
This is not advising us to be cynical or duplicitous in our dealings with this world. God, our Master, blesses us with uncountable riches. But, do we squander the opportunities to make friends for ourselves and our Master by not properly using what is given us? God gives us what we have so that we may share what we have. By doing so we earn friends and find our home with the children of light. Jesus lauds the manager for his cleverness, with an additional complement to "children of this age" (those who are not followers of Jesus), for their shrewdness. And then Jesus encourages people to be faithful to God with their possessions and wealth. We all know that Jesus said “Love your enemies.” It would be hard to imagine any way of doing this that didn’t involve trying to find some redeeming features in your enemies, in the “children of this age”. Remember how Jesus finds redeeming features in all of us. Luke’s Jesus has a great deal to say about the dangers associated with money if it competes with God for our affection. Wrong attitudes about money can bring about spiritual ruin.
It is possible to use money in Christ-like ways. Money is called “unrighteous mammon’ because it is too often acquired unjustly and used for unjust ends. In it’s self, it is ethically neutral. It is people’s attitude to it and ways of dealing with it that can be reprehensible. Being shrewd, in this case, means finding God’s purposes.
Last week-end we began the celebration of 150 years of doing this! We are here to help each other serve God’s purposes. We are advised to deal astutely with this world, as it is, on its own terms, but also knowing full well that it is temporary and failing. We are to reach through and beyond this passing world to embrace the “forever world” -- the world of God's kingdom.
Our Master knows our limitations. He knows our potential. He does not demand we produce perfect or finished results. He gives us no quotas for prayer or good works. Our Master loves us unconditionally. Luke reminds us of a different way of using wealth. Our wealth belongs to God and is to be used for the purposes of God’s reign among us. In spite of all the wisdom about priorities, we sometimes slip and put our energies and our attention into things that will never make us happy. Jesus says that we need to be shrewd for the things of God, seeking good relationships, justice in our dealings, and in our love for each other. Let us continue our 150+ years of prayer for help to make the right choices.