Summary: Jesus asks that we would be shrewd: shrewd in preparing for a future with God, and shrewd in helping our neighbor in need.
How many of you find this parable of the “shrewd manager” confusing? I know I do! I always have, really. This is the one parable Jesus tells that I have just never been able to figure out. Now certainly, many of Jesus’ parables require continual study; that we might grow by discovering the fuller and fuller meanings of Jesus’ words. But the thing about this parable we heard this morning is that it’s so confusing. For me at least, this parable seems so inconsistent with the rest of Jesus’ teachings, and it’s hard to understand why he lifted up this shrewd manager as an example to be followed! So, though I have long avoided this parable, writing it off as too complicated, I decided this morning to preach on it. I am hopeful that by facing this parable head on in search of its full meaning, we might all come to a greater understanding of its meaning, and of Jesus’ teachings for our lives!
Indeed, there are lots of ways this parable could be understood. And certainly, scholars and theologians still do not agree on the exact message Jesus was trying to convey here to the disciples and Pharisees. I read four different commentaries as I prepared this sermon, and each one had a different interpretation of the meaning of this parable about the shrewd manager. A cursory reading would make it seem as if Jesus was teaching that it’s okay, or maybe even wise, to cheat your boss. We might also get the idea from this parable that you can buy your way into heaven; using our worldly wealth for ourselves in order to prepare our eternal dwellings. That’s what Jesus seems to be telling us in verse 9 when he says, “9I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”
Certainly, it may all seem quite confusing, but we do well to remember that Jesus was consistent in his message. And one of Jesus’ very clear messages was that worldly wealth used selfishly does not get us anywhere in our journey with God. His message is no different here. Jesus is teaching us about how to prepare for the future, and to prepare for a future with God, we have to be generous and faithful now. Through this parable, Jesus emphasizes the importance of using our worldly assets to help our friends in need, and he challenges us to be as clever and prudent as the steward in ensuring our future.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this parable of the shrewd manager does not condone dishonest thievery. Rather, this parable turns on the steward’s shrewd response to the urgency of his situation. Jesus is trying to urge upon his listeners the fact that we too are in the midst of a crisis that demands an urgent decision if disaster is to be avoided. Faced with the loss of his position, the dishonest steward acted decisively to provide for his future. Likewise, one who hears the gospel knows that just such a decisive act is required of any who will stake their all on the coming kingdom of God. In essence, Jesus is saying, “Look at the shrewdness, the enthusiasm, with which the sleazy shysters and charlatans of this world acquire riches for themselves. If you, the children of light, could marshal just a fraction of that cleverness for God’s work, for serving others, what good could be accomplished!”
“The people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” That means that if only we Christians were as eager and ingenious in our attempts to attain goodness as the man of the world was in his attempt to attain money and comfort, we would be much better people; much better Christians. If only we would give as much attention to the things which concern our souls as we do the things which concern our business! Our Christianity will begin to be real and effective only when we spend as much time and effort on it as we do on our worldly activities.
So, what exactly is the shrewd behavior that Jesus seeks from his followers? Well, one clue is found in this parable itself, and it has to do with how we use our resources, and how we act as stewards. Do any of you know the origination of the word steward? The original meaning of the word steward is “a ward of the sty, or a keeper of pigs.” Sty-ward. It goes back to a simple way of life, but it still has force to us as Christians – we are God’s agent to rule a lower level of life. We are not to immerse ourselves in this lower world – our job is not hoarding of wealth or fencing it for our own pleasure, but the proper circulation and use of it in God’s sight.