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What does the parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16:1-9 mean?

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What does the parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16:1-9 mean? It sounds like the steward is being praised for his dishonesty.


Steve Answers:

I love parables, perhaps because I like stories. And parables are stories that add extra meaning because they carry an additional message that symbolizes something beyond the story.

When His disciples came to Him to get the deeper meaning of one of His parables, Christ explained that they were being given insights into God’s kingdom that other people simply wouldn’t understand. Others might hear the words, but they wouldn’t catch the meaning (see Luke 8:9, 10).

One general warning given about understanding parables is that “you can’t make them walk on all fours.” That’s another way of saying that some parts of the parable have symbolic meaning, but other parts are just elements to complete the story, not necessarily symbols.

For example, when Jesus told the parable of knocking at a friend’s house at midnight and being hungry for food (Luke 11:5-13), He prefaced His remarks by saying this story was about prayer. The parable is about being persistent in prayer (verse 9), not that God is asleep and needs to be awakened. Christ gave a human example to contrast what God is like—just think how much more responsive God will be in contrast to a sleepy human in the middle of the night.

You can find parables in all four of the Gospels, but Matthew and Luke are especially loaded with them. (For a complete list, go to  www.lifeofchrist.com/teachings/parables/default.asp.)

Some parables seemed pretty unmistakable, such as the stories of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and of the prodigal son and his elder brother (Luke 15:11-32). The prodigal son story comes just before the parable of the shrewd manager you mentioned.

Read (or reread) the parable now (Luke 16:1-9).

A simple glance could leave you with the impression that Jesus affirms dishonesty. That doesn’t sound like Jesus, which probably makes you take a closer look at the story. Here are a few things you’re apt to find when you do that.

Jesus told the parable to His disciples (verse 1). But the Pharisees, “who dearly loved their money” (verse 14)* and who often seemed to be listening, are the ones who responded to Jesus. If the series of parables that flow from Luke 15 to Luke 16 were told in one setting, then tax collectors (who also had issues with money and dishonesty) would also be listening (see Luke 15:1).

In the parable the manager received word from his boss, “What’s this I hear about you? Get your report in order, because you are going to be fired” (Luke 16:2). Indeed, he had been wasting his boss’s money (see verse 1).

It doesn’t sound as though the boss admired this guy enough to keep him employed.

This begs the question “What do lazy and dishonest managers do when the boss is ready to fire them and demands an account?” If the manager would have been diligent and honest, giving an account would vindicate him of the terrible rumors his boss had heard. But the parable shows a manager who senses that he will not be vindicated.

It seems strange to me that the manager asks others how much they owed his boss. Why doesn’t the manager know? Has he been so bad that he doesn’t even know how much each person owed his boss?

In verse 8 we see that it is the rich man (not Jesus) who admires the “dishonest rascal” for being so shrewd. Why is it that dishonest rascals can apply themselves so diligently, even when what they do is wrong and “rascal-like”?

Why don’t God’s people give it all they’ve got to live for God instead of just cruising along carelessly, figuring that God will make up any shortages from their laziness?

Jesus actually identifies the “lesson” of this parable: “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” (Luke 16:9).

The dishonest manager used his position at the moment to take care of himself for the future when he wouldn’t have his job any longer. The message to the disciples, the Pharisees, and the tax collectors was the same—use your present situation to take care of your future.

Did you notice the combination of “when your earthly possessions are gone” and “welcome you to an eternal home”? The Pharisees and tax collectors, both of whom were rich, would one day lose their earthly possessions. Who on earth would be able to welcome them to an eternal home? Only God, or in this case, Jesus!

Jesus further punctuated His point by asking, “If you are untrustworthy about worldly wealth, who will trust you with the true riches of heaven?” (verse 11).

And that paves the way for another parable that is often misunderstood. Check out Luke 16:19-31 to see how the lesson Jesus taught receives further amplification.

What you do right now does count. If all you have is this current world, then you will make selfish choices based on that short amount of time. If you have life on this earth and also life in heaven, you will use all you have right now to live by the principles of heaven. It all depends on where you see your home.

*Scripture quotations used in this article are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living translation, copyright  1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.



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