Summary: In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the younger son squandered his inheritance. And yet, his father received him back. So, is what we do with our money not important?!’ The Parable of the Dishonest Manager is Jesus' answer.
"Not the prodigal son"
Today we’re looking at what is often called the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, or the Parable of the Shrewd Manager, or similar.
A rich man entrusts his manager with stewardship of his assets. The manager wastes his master’s wealth. The rich man demands an accounting. The manager then reflects. He needs to do something to get out of the pickle. His options are limited. He hits on a plan to use some of the rich man’s wealth to gain friends for himself. The manager now engages in a nice little bit of debt reduction. He calls in his master’s debtors. He reduces the first debtor’s debt by 50% and the second by 20%.
And now, the weirdest thing happens. The master COMMENDS his manager for his prudence! Has the manager actually done something good for his master, and we’ve missed it?
The traditional view is that the manager genuinely cheated his master. The only thing the master commended was the fact that the manager had acted prudently.
An alternative view since about the mid-20th century is that the manager actually benefited his master or did something that he was happy with. There are various creative proposals for how that could be true.
This is a famously difficult parable. I don’t think we should be too troubled if, after we’ve looked at it, everything is not clear. Commentators don’t all agree on what it means and there are certainly parts of it that aren’t clear to me. But we can do our best. Even if there are some parts we don’t understand, there will hopefully be some parts we do.
At the end of the parable, Jesus draws some lessons from it. The lessons he draws are presumably the lessons he’d like us to draw. We’ll take a look at those in due course.
But first we need to think about what the parable is about.
We can get a clue by looking at what's been happening. As always, we need to consider the context!
In Luke 15 Jesus has told three ‘lost and found’ parables. The third is the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
How does the Parable of the Dishonest Manager link with the ‘lost and found’ parables? It looks very much as though it’s a continuation from them. I don’t want to go into too much detail or we’ll get bogged down. But let me give you two reasons for thinking that the Parable of the Dishonest Manager continues on from the ‘lost and found’ parables in chapter 15.
First, at the start of the Parable of the Dishonest Manager Luke writes, ‘HE ALSO SAID to the disciples.’ ‘HE ALSO SAID’ strongly suggests that Jesus is continuing on the same subject.
Second, the subject matter of the Parable of the Dishonest Manager is very similar to the Parable of the Prodigal Son and to all three ‘lost and found’ parables.
Luke 15 starts off with the Pharisees and scribes grumbling, saying, “This man RECEIVES sinners and eats with them.” Jesus’ three ‘lost and found’ parables are Jesus’ answer. They are his explanation of WHY HE RECEIVES SINNERS. In the Parable of the Dishonest Manager Jesus looks at the other side of the coin: WHAT A SINNER NEEDS TO DO TO BE RECEIVED.
In the Parable of the Prodigal Son the youngest son left home, went to a far country and ‘SQUANDERED his property in reckless living.’ In the Parable of the Dishonest Manager the manager WASTED his master’s possessions. It’s the same Greek word in both cases.
So, it looks as though the Parable of the Dishonest Manager is a continuation of what Jesus has been talking about.
I don’t know what Jesus wanted to talk about after he reached the end of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. But if I was one of the disciples, I’d certainly have some questions in my mind. Here are two that I would have asked if I’d been one of Jesus disciples.
‘Hey Jesus ... in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the younger son squandered his inheritance. And yet, his father received him back. So, is what we do with our money not important?!’
‘Hey Jesus … in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the younger son only had to repent and return to his father. Don’t sinners have to do anything?!’
That’s the context. It gives us a clue as to why Jesus might have felt he needed to say a bit more, why he needed to tell the Parable of the Dishonest Manager.
The end of a passage also often gives us a good clue as to what the passage is about. Jesus' conclusion is in verses 10-13. If you glance at these verses you can see that their main theme is money. It's understandable that Jesus would want to say more about money. There was a danger that his disciples might conclude from the Parable of the Prodigal Son that it’s OK for us to squander resources.